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On July 29, the CFPB and DOJ issued a joint letter reminding auto finance companies of legal protections for military families under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Among other things, the letter outlines several SCRA provisions that apply to vehicle financing, including: (i) prohibiting vehicle repossession without a court order during the borrower’s military service if a borrower financed or leased the vehicle prior to entering military service; (ii) permitting servicemembers and joint lessee dependents to terminate motor vehicle leases early, and without penalty, after entering military service or receiving qualifying military orders during active duty; and (iii) capping the amount of interest on loans incurred prior to military service to 6 percent per year.
On June 23, the FTC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to ban “junk fees” and “bait-and-switch” advertising tactics related to the sale, financing, and leasing of motor vehicles by dealers. Specifically, the NPRM would prohibit dealers from making deceptive advertising claims to entice prospective car buyers. According to the FTC’s announcement, deceptive claims could “include the cost of a vehicle or the terms of financing, the cost of any add-on products or services, whether financing terms are for a lease, the availability of any discounts or rebates, the actual availability of the vehicles being advertised, and whether a financing deal has been finalized, among other areas.” The NPRM would also (i) prohibit dealers from charging junk fees for “fraudulent add-on products” and services that—according to the FTC—do not benefit the consumer; (ii) require clear, written, and informed consent (including the price of the car without any optional add-ons); and (iii) require dealers to provide full, upfront disclosure of costs and conditions, including the true “offering price” (the full price for a vehicle minus only taxes and government fees), as well as any optional add-on fees and key financing terms. Dealers would also be required to maintain records of advertisements and customer transactions. Comments on the NPRM are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
The FTC noted that in the past 10 years, the Commission has brought more than 50 auto-related enforcement actions and helped lead two nationwide law enforcement sweeps including 181 state-level enforcement actions in this space. Despite these efforts, the FTC reported that automobile-related consumer complaints are among the top ten complaint types submitted to the Commission.
On May 2, the CFPB published a blog post examining how servicers handle overcharging for add-on products on auto loans. The post describes, among other things, that auto dealers and financial companies “often charge consumers all payments for any add-on products as a lump sum at origination of the auto loan, and they generally include the lump sum cost as part of the total vehicle financing agreement.” Bureau examiners have focused on how servicers manage these add-on product charges when the loan ends prior to when the add-on product’s potential benefits end. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau published a Supervisory Report, finding that servicers engaged in unfair practices by failing to request refunds from the third-party administrators for “unearned” fees associated with the add-on product guaranteed asset protection, among other things. As a response to these findings, the servicers remediated impacted consumers and implemented more controls, which are intended to ensure that add-on product refunds are processed after repossession, according to the post. The Bureau also cited servicers for engaging in unfair acts or practices for miscalculating ancillary auto product refunds after repossession and attempting to collect miscalculated deficiency balances (covered by InfoBytes here). The miscalculated refunds have decreased the refunds available to certain borrowers and led to deficiency balances that were higher by hundreds of dollars. The servicers attempted to collect the deficiency balances. In response to these findings, the servicers conducted reviews to identify and remediate affected borrowers. According to the post, the Bureau “will continue to scrutinize servicer practices to make sure that borrowers aren’t overcharged when their loans end early.”
On April 1, the FTC and the Illinois Attorney General announced a proposed settlement with an Illinois-based multistate auto dealer group for allegedly adding junk fees for unwanted “add-on” products to consumers’ bills and discriminating against Black consumers. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants are ordered to pay a $10 million penalty, of which $9.95 million will be used to provide monetary relief to consumers. According to the FTC, this is the highest penalty ever obtained against an auto dealer. The remaining balance of the penalty will be paid to the Illinois Attorney General Court Ordered and Voluntary Compliance Payment Projects Fund.
According to the complaint, which brings claims under the FTC Act, TILA, ECOA, and comparable Illinois laws, eight of the defendant’s dealerships, along with the general manager of two of the Illinois dealerships, allegedly tacked on junk fees for unwanted “add-on” products such as service contracts, GAP insurance, and paint protection to consumers’ purchase contracts at the end of the negotiation process, often without consumers’ consent. In other instances, consumers were told that the add-ons were free or were required to purchase or finance their vehicle. The complaint further alleges that defendants discriminated against Black consumers by charging them higher interest rates or more for add-on products than similarly situated non-Latino white consumers. As result, Black consumers allegedly paid, on average, $190 more in interest and $99 more for add-on products.
FTC Chair Lina M. Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issued a joint statement noting that they “would have also supported a count alleging a violation of the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair acts or practices.” Khan and Slaughter elaborated on reasons why the FTC “should evaluate under its unfairness authority any discrimination that is found to be based on disparate treatment or have a disparate impact,” pointing out that (i) discrimination based on protected status can cause substantial injury to consumers; (ii) “injuries stemming from disparate treatment or impact are unavoidable because affected consumers cannot change their status or otherwise influence the unfair practices”; and (iii) “injuries stemming from disparate treatment or impact are not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.”
On March 11, the DOJ announced a settlement with a credit union resolving allegations that the credit union violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by charging excessive interest on servicemembers’ loans and repossessing servicemembers’ cars without first obtaining a court order. According to the DOJ’s complaint, which was filed concurrently with the proposed settlement, the credit union allegedly charged interest exceeding 6 percent to 21 servicemembers who qualified for SCRA interest rate benefits. Under the SCRA, creditors are required to reduce the interest rate on retail installment sales contracts to 6 percent in certain circumstances. However, the DOJ asserted that in at least one instance, a servicemember was told that “reducing the interest rate would increase her monthly payment.” The DOJ also alleged that the credit union repossessed three servicemembers’ vehicles without court orders, including one instance where the vehicle was repossessed from a military base.
The consent order, which is pending court approval, requires the credit union to pay nearly $70,000 to the affected servicemembers, along with a $40,000 civil penalty. The credit union is also, among other things, prohibited from (i) charging interest rate exceeding 6 percent during a period of military service; (ii) reamortizing any retail installment sales contracts connected to a request for SCRA interest rate benefits; (iii) “failing or refusing to credit early alert periods of military service when applying such benefits”; and (iv) repossessing SCRA-protected servicemembers’ vehicles without first obtaining a court order or valid SCRA waiver. The settlement also requires the credit union to review and update its SCRA policies and procedures to prevent future violations and to provide SCRA compliance training to its employees.
On February 28, the CFPB released Bulletin 2022-4 regarding the repossession of vehicles and the potential for violations of Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices (collectively, “UDAAPs”) when repossessing vehicles. According to the Bulletin, “[t]he Bureau intends to hold loan holders and servicers accountable for UDAAPs related to the repossession of consumers’ vehicles.” To prevent UDAAPs, the Bureau noted that entities should, among other things: (i) review their policies and procedures regarding repossession and cancellation of repossession; (ii) ensure prompt communications between servicers and repossession service providers when a repossession is canceled and monitor compliance with cancellations; (iii) utilize monitoring of wrongful repossessions through routine oversight and audits of customer communications; and (iv) ensure corrective action programs are in place to address any violations and reimburse consumers for costs incurred as a result of unlawful repossessions. Additionally, the Bulletin suggests that entities should monitor service providers and any force-placed collateral protection insurance programs to verify that consumers are not charged for unnecessary force-placed insurance. According to the CFPB’s blog post released the same day, “the Bureau is closely watching the auto lending market. Auto loans are already the third largest consumer credit market in the United States at over $1.46 trillion outstanding, double the amount from ten years ago.”
On February 24, the CFPB published a blog post regarding the auto lending market. In the post, the Bureau noted that the consumer price index for new and used cars increased by nearly 40 percent over the last year, and that it anticipated “that both the total amount of debt and the average loan size will continue to increase and that larger car loans will put increased pressure on some consumers’ budgets for much of the next decade.” Among other things, the Bureau highlighted it is monitoring the loan-to-value ratios in the auto lending market, auto loan servicing and collections practices, and the subprime auto lending market, stating that with respect to the subprime auto lending market, it is “looking to better understand potential barriers to competition in the subprime auto lending market that may drive” variation among subprime interest rates for auto loans. The post pointed to research that found “that typical ‘shallow subprime’ small BHPH ('buy-here-pay-here') borrowers would save around $894 over the life of a loan if they could reduce the interest rate from 13 percent, which is typical for such BHPH borrowers, to 9 percent, which is typical for bank borrowers with similar default rates.” The Bureau also noted that it “will continue to research auto lending policies and practices that may hinder a fair, transparent, and competitive market" and will work with its counterparts at the FTC and the Federal Reserve to use the agencies' collective authorities to address issues in the market.
On February 18, the Massachusetts attorney general announced that a national auto lender entered into a settlement with the Commonwealth resolving allegations that the lender did not provide sufficient disclosures to consumers related to its debt collection practices, with over 1,000 borrowers expected to be eligible for relief. According to the Assurance of Discontinuance (AOD), the lender allegedly failed to provide certain consumers with sufficient information about the calculation methods for any deficiencies remaining on their auto loans after their cars were repossessed. The AOD requires the auto lender to pay $5.6 million in restitution to eligible borrowers, and cover administration and investigation costs associated with the matter. According to Massachusetts Attorney General Laura Healey, the “settlement, which combines cash payments with debt relief and credit repair, will help many subprime borrowers in need.”
On February 10, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra answered questions during a Washington Post Live session on several consumer protection topics. Citing auto lending as a top concern for the Bureau, Chopra noted that it is important for consumers to be able to shop around, refinance loans, and navigate a competitive market. He also discussed recent Bureau initiatives related to junk fees and overdraft/insufficient funds fees, and said the Bureau intends to sharpen its supervisory scrutiny in these spaces. Chopra stated that, as part of a fair and competitive market consumers want to know when they are being charged these fees, noting that financial institutions have started to transition away from dependency on these types of fees and instead implement programs that will allow a bank to determine what shortfall they will allow on an individual consumer basis. He added that the Bureau may eventually see if rulemaking will increase competition and upfront pricing.
Chopra also discussed the role agencies play in the future regulation of cryptocurrency. He noted that while most of the cryptocurrency market is currently related to speculative trading, this could change if one of the big tech payment platforms decides to expand its services to cryptocurrency. Chopra highlighted several concerns, including how payment data from these systems will be used, how money will be transacted, and how consumers will report fraud. He stated that the Bureau is closely monitoring this space and any regulation will be an interagency effort. While Chopra also discussed the need for transparency with respect to how big tech companies are tracking, monetizing, and harvesting consumer data, he stated it is too early to tell whether there is a need for rulemaking in this area. Chopra also discussed topics related to the buy-now-pay-later industry and student lending, and stated that the Bureau is monitoring both areas carefully.
3rd Circuit: Applying Pennsylvania usury laws to out-of-state lender does not violate “Commerce Clause”
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that applying Pennsylvania usury laws to an out-of-state lender is not a violation of the “dormant Commerce Clause” of the Constitution. According to the opinion, the lender provides motor vehicle loans with interest rates allegedly “as high as 180%” to consumers, including residents of Pennsylvania. The opinion noted that the “entire loan process—from the application to the disbursement of funds—takes place . . . at one of [the lender’s] brick-and-mortar locations” outside of Pennsylvania, and that under the lender’s motor vehicle loan terms, the borrower receives the applicable loan proceeds “in the form of ‘a check drawn on a bank outside of Pennsylvania.’” Pursuant to its enforcement authority under Pennsylvania’s Consumer Discount Company Act (CDCA) and the Loan Interest and Protection Law (LIPL), the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (Department) issued a subpoena asking the lender to provide documents related to its interactions with Pennsylvania residents. The lender stopped making loans to Pennsylvania residents after receiving the subpoena, and later filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware against the Department claiming it “lost revenue as a result” of the Department’s actions. The suit sought “injunctive and declaratory relief for, among other things, violations of the Commerce Clause.” The Department separately filed a petition in state court to enforce the subpoena.
While the lender did not dispute that before 2017, it engaged in loan servicing activities and vehicle repossessions in Pennsylvania, the lender maintained that it “does not have any offices, employees, agents, or brick-and-mortar stores in Pennsylvania and is not licensed as a lender in the Commonwealth.” Additionally, the lender claimed that while “it has never used employees or agents to solicit Pennsylvania business, and  does not run television ads within Pennsylvania,” advertisements may still reach Pennsylvania residents. The district court eventually determined that because the lender’s “loans are ‘completely made and executed outside Pennsylvania and inside. . .[brick-and-mortar] locations in Delaware, Ohio, or Virginia,’ the Department’s subpoena’s effect is to apply Pennsylvania’s usury laws extraterritorially in violation of the Commerce Clause.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit examined the “territorial scope” of the transactions the Department “has attempted to regulate” and considered whether these transactions occur “wholly outside” of Pennsylvania. The appellate court concluded that the lender’s “conduct does not occur wholly outside of Pennsylvania,” and that the transactions are “more than a simple conveyance of money,” but rather "create a creditor-debtor relationship that imposes obligations on both the borrower and lender until the debt is fully paid.” Moreover, even if the appellate court considered the local benefits with respect to interstate commerce, it “would conclude that they weigh in favor of applying Pennsylvania laws to [the lender].” The CDCA and LIPL “protect Pennsylvania consumers from usurious lending rates,” the 3rd Circuit wrote, adding that applying Pennsylvania’s usury laws to the lender’s loans furthers the state’s local interest in prohibiting usurious lending. “Pennsylvania may therefore investigate and apply its usury laws to [the lender] without violating the Commerce Clause,” the appellate court explained. “[A]ny burden on interstate commerce from doing so is, at most, incidental.”
- Kathryn L. Ryan and Jedd R. Bellman to discuss “Risk and compliance management: Are you covered?” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- John R. Coleman to participate in a roundtable on current topics in administrative law at the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University
- Melissa Klimkiewicz and Daniel A. Bellovin to discuss “Things to know about flood insurance” at a NAFCU webinar
- Hank Asbill to discuss “Ethical issues at sentencing” at the 31st Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing
- Max Bonici will moderate a panel on “Enforcement risk and other regulatory and compliance issues related to crypto and digital assets” at the American Bar Association’s 2022 Annual Meeting
- John R. Coleman to provide a “CFPB Update” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “The shifting data privacy and data protection landscape” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide an “Update on key fair lending cases and the CRA and UDAAP rules” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar
- James C. Chou to discuss ransomware at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA seminar
- Elizabeth E. McGinn, Benjamin W. Hutten, and James C. Chou to discuss “The Evolving Regulatory Landscape: Third-party and cyber risk management” at the 2022 mWISE Conference
- James T. Parkinson to present a “Global anti-corruption update” at IBA’s annual conference