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On November 19, the FTC entered into a settlement with defendants accused of engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling student loan debt relief services. As part of its enforcement initiative, Operation Game of Loans (covered by InfoBytes here), the FTC alleged that the defendants violated the FTC Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by, among other things, charging illegal up-front fees to enroll consumers in debt relief programs, accepting monthly payments that were not applied towards student loans, and collecting monthly fees that consumers believed were being applied to their loans but instead were going towards unrelated “financial education” programs (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). Under the terms of the order, the defendants are permanently banned from providing secured and unsecured debt relief products and services, and are prohibited from (i) engaging in unlawful telemarketing practices and violating the TSR; (ii) misrepresenting financial products and services; (iii) making unsubstantiated claims; and (iii) collecting, or assigning any right to collect, payments from consumers for products sold by the defendants. The defendants are also ordered to pay $62 million in monetary relief.
On November 16, the Maryland attorney general announced that it obtained over $2.6 million in debt relief from a third-party debt buyer for approximately 1,200 former students of a defunct Maryland-based for-profit college. In its press release, the AG alleged that the for-profit college offered “low-quality programs at a price significantly higher than comparable programs at Maryland’s public institutions.” According to the AG, due to the college’s high tuition, students had little choice but to take out loans issued by the college itself. After the college permanently closed, a court-appointed receiver sold the rights to collect the loans to a third-party debt buyer. The AG took the position that, because the college abruptly closed and failed to provide its students with the services promised, the loans should have been canceled rather than sold. To resolve the dispute, the AG and the third-party debt buyer entered into a settlement. Under the terms of the settlement, the third-party debt buyer agreed to cease collection on any of the outstanding loans and to refund approximately 75 percent of the payments collected from the students after it bought the loan portfolio. Furthermore, the debt buyer agreed to remove trade lines relating to the loans from the student’s credit reports.
On October 28, the CFPB Private Education Loan Ombudsman published its annual report on consumer complaints submitted between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020. The report is based on approximately 7,000 complaints received by the Bureau relating to federal and private student loans. Of these complaints, roughly 1,700 were related to debt collection, while approximately 500 mentioned Covid-19. The Bureau’s press release notes that the continued decrease in both federal and private student loan complaints may be attributed to factors such as “borrower education and outreach by federal and state agencies and regulators; borrower education and outreach by consumer advocates; and continued maturation of some industry participants’ compliance management systems, complaint monitoring systems, and their internal consumer advocate and ombudsman offices.” Topics discussed within the report include (i) an analysis of socio-economic and racial gaps in the student loan market; (ii) supervisory examinations and prioritized assessments of federal student loan servicers; (iii) enforcement actions taken against student loan debt relief companies and a student loan trust; (iv) borrower education and outreach; and (v) the impact of Covid-19 on student loan borrowers, including CARES Act relief for federally held federal student loans. The report also discusses a Memorandum of Understanding reached with the Department of Education at the beginning of the year, which clarifies the roles and responsibilities for each agency and permits the sharing of student loan complaint data and other information and recommendations (covered by InfoBytes here).
The report provides several recommendations, including that policymakers—when addressing near-term and long-term repayment issues—“may wish to consider simplifying the various loan repayment plans and the various forgiveness, discharge, and cancellation programs,” as well as examine ways to (i) enhance data sharing between federal agencies; (ii) enroll debtors who file for bankruptcy in income driven repayment plans; (iii) revisit the undue hardship bankruptcy test; (iv) assess socio-economic and racial gaps in student loan debt load and degree attainment; and (v) pursue student loan debt relief scams.
On October 20, the New Jersey Attorney General and the Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs filed a complaint alleging a student loan servicer engaged in unlawful practices when collecting on loans owned by borrowers residing in the state. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the servicer (i) steered borrowers into forbearance programs instead of income-driven repayment (IDR) plans; (ii) failed to inform borrowers about IDR recertification deadlines and the effects of not timely submitting a recertification application; (iii) encouraged borrowers to obtain a cosigner for their student loans and then misrepresented the requirements for obtaining a cosigner release; and (iv) misled delinquent borrowers about the amount of their delinquency, by including the next month’s payment in the “present amount due.” The complaint alleges two violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and seeks equitable injunctive relief, borrower restitution, disgorgement, statutory penalties, and costs and fees.
On October 9, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation adopted regulations implementing provisions of the Student Loan Servicing Right Act related to licensing fees, operations, and supervision. Among other things, the provisions (i) establish license, examination, and hearing fees, as well as assessment costs; (ii) require servicers to file notice within 10 business days of any application changes; (iii) require servicers to maintain websites and toll-free telephone services for borrowers and cosigners to access information on existing loans; (iv) require servicers to provide borrowers with information on alternative repayment and loan forgiveness options; (v) outline requirements related to the maintenance of account information, payment processing, cosigner payments, and books and records; (vi) provide record retention requirements; and (vii) address the preparation of independent audit reports and examination ratings. The regulations are effective immediately.
On September 15, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance (Department) began accepting applications for the NJ Student Loan Servicer license through the NMLS. The license is governed by the Student Loan Servicing Act, which was enacted in July 2019, and establishes the Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman within the Department and provides licensing requirements for student loan servicers (covered by InfoBytes here). A recently released bulletin by the Department describes the process for licensing and details persons exempt from the licensing requirements, including federal or state chartered banks, savings banks, savings and loan associations, and credit unions, as well as their wholly owned subsidiaries. The Bulletin notes that all non-exempt student loan servicers must submit all requirements for a license by December 31 and may continue to operate in New Jersey while their applications are pending.
On September 25, the California governor signed AB 376, which provides new requirements for student loan servicers. Among other things, these requirements require servicers to (i) timely post, process, and credit payments within certain timeframes; (ii) apply overpayments “consistent with the best financial interest of a student loan borrower,” and apply partial payments so that late fees and negative credit reporting are minimized; (iii) diligently oversee service providers; and (iv) provide specialized training for personnel responsible for offering advice to “military borrowers, borrowers in public service, borrowers with disabilities, and older borrowers.” The bill also prohibits student loan servicers from, among other things, engaging in unfair or deceptive practices or abusive acts and practices. Additionally, the bill will allow a borrower “who suffers damages as a result of a person’s failure to comply with these provisions as well as all applicable federal laws relating to student loan servicing to bring an action for actual damages, injunctive relief, restitution, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and other relief, including treble damages in certain circumstances.” The bill also provides for an opportunity to cure alleged violations. The bill further stipulates that, starting July 1, 2021, the Commission of Business Oversight will be authorized to compile information on student loan servicers’ business conduct and various activities in order to monitor and assess consumer risk.
On September 15, the CFPB filed a complaint and proposed stipulated judgment against a trust, along with three banks acting in their capacity as trustees to the trust, for allegedly providing substantial assistance to a now defunct for-profit educational institution in engaging in unfair acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. The Bureau asserted that the trust owned and managed private loans for students attending the defunct institution, even though the trust “allegedly knew or was reckless in not knowing that many student borrowers did not understand the terms and conditions of those loans, could not afford them, or in some cases did not even know they had them.” The Bureau alleged that the defunct institution induced students to take out loans through several unfair practices, including “using aggressive tactics, and in some cases, gaining unauthorized access to student accounts to sign students up for loans without permission.” These loans, the Bureau contended, carried default rates well above what was expected for student loans. According to the Bureau, the trust was allegedly actively involved in the servicing, managing, and collection of these student loans.
If approved by the court, the Bureau’s proposed settlement would require the trust to (i) cease collection efforts on all outstanding loans owned and managed by the trust; (ii) discharge all outstanding loans owned and managed by the trust; (iii) ask all consumer reporting agencies to delete information related to the trust’s loans; and (iv) notify all affected consumers of these actions. The Bureau estimated that the total amount of loan forgiveness is roughly $330 million.
This settlement is the third reached by the Bureau in relation to the defunct institution’s private loan programs. In 2019, the defunct institution reached a settlement with the Bureau (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of a $60 million judgment. Additionally, the Bureau entered into another settlement in 2019 with a different company that managed student loans for the defunct institution’s students, which required the loan management company to comply with similar requirements as the trust (covered by InfoBytes here).
On September 11, the New York attorney general announced one of the nation’s largest debt collectors will pay $600,000 in restitution to student loan borrowers and will make significant changes to its debt collection practices in order to resolve allegations that it made false, misleading, and deceptive statements in lawsuits and in communications with borrowers. According to the AG, the debt collector, among other things, (i) filed complaints that falsely identified trusts, which hold the defaulted loans, as the borrower’s “original creditor,” when in fact, the trusts are the assignees of the original financial institutions that originated the loans; (ii) filed various misleading sworn affidavits; (iii) filed complaints that represented borrowers applied for loans from a “servicing agent” when, in fact, borrowers never dealt with the entity; (iv) filed lawsuits beyond the applicable three-year statute of limitations; and (v) threatened legal action against borrowers even though the trusts “could not or would not sue because the statute of limitations for suing on the debt had expired.”
The assurance of discontinuance requires the debt collector to stop identifying the trusts as the original creditor and to cease using misleading language in communications with borrowers. In addition, the debt collector must (i) provide enhanced staff training; (ii) stop filing lawsuits beyond the statute of limitations, and voluntarily dismiss all wrongfully-filed lawsuits; (iii) voluntarily release “all pending garnishments, levies, liens, restraining notices, attachments, or any other judgment enforcement mechanism” obtained as a result of judgments obtained in wrongfully-filed lawsuits where the statute of limitations has expired; (v) take steps to vacate any judgment obtained in any of these wrongfully-filed lawsuits; and (vi) pay restitution to certain borrowers or to the state to be disbursed as appropriate.
On September 8, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment against two additional defendants in an action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney alleging a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint alleged that the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. Four defendants settled in August, with a total suspended judgment of over $95 million due to the defendants’ inability to pay and total payments of $90,000 to Minnesota, North Carolina, and California, and $1 each to the CFPB, in civil money penalties.
The new final judgment holds the two relief defendants liable for nearly $7 million in redress; however, the judgment is suspended based on an inability to pay. The defendants are not subject to any civil money penalties, but are required to relinquish certain assets and submit to certain reporting requirements.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association webinar
- Buckley Webcast: From there to here – Anticipating comparative redlining claims
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference
- Buckley Webcast: New sheriff in town – AML and sanctions under the new administration
- Tim Lange to discuss "Impact of Covid-19 on your business" at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues & Regulatory Compliance Conference