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On November 16, the New York attorney general announced a settlement with an illegal debt collection scheme operation and its operator (collectively, “respondents”) to resolve allegations that the respondents used illegal tactics to collect consumer debt, which included false threats of criminal action, wage garnishment, driver’s license suspension, and lawsuits. According to the AG, the operator started his debt collection career collecting debts with a network of New York-based debt collectors that settled with the CFPB and New York AG in 2019 to resolve allegations that the defendants engaged in improper debt collection tactics in violation of the CFPA, the FDCPA, and various New York laws. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Using different names, the operator allegedly continued to use deceptive and illegal threats to collect on consumer debts. In addition, the AG claimed the operator was a debt broker, “selling debts to and placing debts for collection with other collectors that engaged in egregious violations of the law.”
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the respondents, among other things, must pay $1.2 million to the office of the AG in restitution and penalties and must dissolve all of the associated debt collection companies. The respondents are also permanently banned from engaging in consumer debt collection, consumer debt brokering, consumer lending, debt settlement, credit repair services, and payment processing.
On November 18, the CFPB issued a reminder that “debt collectors who adopt and follow certain procedures can obtain a bona fide error defense from civil liability for unintentional violations of the prohibition against third-party communications when communicating by email or text message,” as determined by the Bureau’s debt collection rule. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2020 the CFPB issued its final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, addressing debt collection communications and prohibitions on harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices. The reminder emphasizes that for text message communications, a provision in the rule includes utilizing a “complete and accurate database” to ensure that a consumer’s telephone number has not been re-assigned. Additionally, the reminder notes that the rule’s commentary identifies the FCC’s Reassigned Numbers Database as a “complete and accurate database,” which the FCC has published.
On November 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated an opinion in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, ordering an en banc rehearing of the case. The order vacates an 11th Circuit decision to revive claims that the defendant’s use of a third-party mail vendor to write, print, and send requests for medical debt repayment violated privacy rights established in the FDCPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in April, the 11th Circuit held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” According to the order issued sua sponte by the 11th Circuit, an en banc panel of appellate judges will convene at a later date to rehear the case.
On November 10, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granted a defendant debt agency’s motion for judgment resolving FCRA and FDCPA allegations. A father allegedly co-signed an apartment lease for his daughter (collectively, “plaintiffs”), which included a provision that allowed the plaintiffs to terminate the lease if another individual took over the lease. The plaintiffs allegedly did not move in but identified two replacement tenants to take over the lease. The owner of the apartment allegedly signed separate leases with the identified replacement tenants and “thwarted [plaintiffs’] efforts to have someone take over [the] [l]ease.” The owner placed the debt with the defendant for collection, who reported the debt to three credit reporting agencies. The plaintiffs disputed the debt, but the defendant confirmed the accuracy of the information. The plaintiffs sued, alleging the defendant violated the FCRA for not conducting a proper investigation of the dispute, and the FDCPA for attempting to collect the allegedly invalid debt, which allegedly negatively impacted the plaintiffs’ credit scores, their ability to obtain a car loan, and efforts to apply for an apartment.
With respect to the FCRA claim, the district court found that the plaintiffs’ allegation regarding an inaccurate debt “turns on an unresolved legal question, a section 1681s-2(b) claim that a furnisher failed to conduct a reasonable investigation of disputed credit information cannot stand.” Additionally, since the claim was “tethered to a legal dispute,” the district court found that it cannot form the basis of an FCRA claim. With respect to the FDCPA allegations, the district court dismissed the claim finding that the plaintiffs did not adequately state a claim because the plaintiffs’ claim was based on “nothing more than their conclusory and self-serving allegations that they do not owe the [d]ebt.”
On November 15, a statewide team of California district attorneys announced a $3.5 million settlement to resolve allegations concerning a Utah-based bank’s debt collection activities. The California Debt Collection Task Force handled the investigation and charged the bank and its agents with allegedly placing harassing and unreasonably excessive collection calls, sometimes even after consumers informed the bank they no longer wished to receive the calls. While the bank did not admit to wrongdoing, it agreed to pay $3.5 million, including $2 million in civil penalties and $975,000 in investigation costs. The bank will also pay $525,000 to a charitable trust fund to go towards additional consumer protection efforts. Additionally, the judgment requires the bank to “implement and maintain policies and procedures to prevent unreasonable and harassing debt collection calls to California consumers, including limiting the total number of calls to each debtor and honoring consumer requests for calls to stop.”
On November 15, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) issued a second draft of proposed regulations under the Debt Collection Licensing Act (the Act). As previously covered by InfoBytes, California enacted the Act in 2020 to require a person engaging in the business of debt collecting in the state, as defined by the Act, to be licensed. The Act also provides for the regulation and oversight of debt collectors by DFPI. In April 2021, DFPI issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and proposed regulations to adopt new requirements for debt collectors seeking to obtain a license to operate in the state, and issued a notice of modifications to the NPRM in June to incorporate changes to its debt collection license requirements and application. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.) Among other things, the proposed modifications:
- Amend the definition of “branch office” to include any location other than an applicant’s or licensee’s principal place of business “if activity related to debt collection occurs at the location and the location is held out to the public as a business location or money is received at the location or held at the location.” The definition of “holding a location out to the public” includes receiving postal correspondence, meeting with the public, including the location on correspondence, letterhead, or business cards, and including signage at the location, or making any other representation that the location is a business location.
- Amend the definition of “debt collector” to align with the Act, which defines “debt collector” as “any person who, in the ordinary course of business, regularly, on the person’s own behalf or on behalf of others, engages in debt collection. The term includes any person who composes and sells, or offers to compose and sell, forms, letters and other collection media used or intended to be used for debt collection. The term ‘debt collector’ includes ‘debt buyer’ as defined in Section 1788.50 of the Civil Code.”
Comments on the second draft of modifications must be received by December 2.
On November 8, the New York governor signed several pieces of legislation relating to consumer protection. Among those, S.153 enacts The Consumer Credit Fairness Act, which expands consumer protections against abusive debt collection by, as explained by NYDFS acting Superintendent Adrienne A. Harris, “address[ing] known predatory debt collection practices, barring an abusive common tactic engaged by predatory debt collectors which is to sue on time-barred consumer debts for which they lack even the most basic of documentation.” Certain parts of the Consumer Credit Fairness Act are effective immediately. S.4823, effective 30 days after being signed into law, prohibits utility companies from engaging in harassment, oppression, or abuse when coordinating with a residential customer. According to the press release, this legislation responds “to various unscrupulous practices that utility corporations engage in, such as creating a ‘payment agreement’ with customers that encourage customers to take large down payments in exchange for utilities such as energy not being shut down.” S.1199 requires the Public Service Commission to have at least one member who is an expert in consumer advocacy. It will also go into effect 30 days after being signed into law.
On October 27, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York denied a motion to dismiss an action brought by the CFPB and the New York attorney general against the operators of a debt-collection scheme, rejecting the defendants’ argument that they did not have fraudulent intent and their actions were taken for legitimate reasons. As previously covered by InfoBytes in April, the CFPB and the AG filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly transferring ownership of his $1.6 million home to his wife and daughter for $1 shortly after he received a civil investigative demand and learned that the Bureau and the AG were investigating his debt-collection activities. The complaint further alleged that the transfer of the property was a fraudulent transfer under the FDCPA and made with the intent to defraud (a violation of the New York Debtor and Creditor Law), and that the owner-defendant “removed and concealed assets in an effort to render the Judgment obtained by the Government Plaintiffs uncollectable.” In 2019 the Bureau and the AG settled with the debt collection operation to resolve allegations that the defendants established and operated a network of companies that harassed and/or deceived consumers into paying inflated debts or amounts they may not have owed (covered by InfoBytes here).
The court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that the CFPB and AG raised sufficient allegations that the debtor’s transfers and mortgage on his property were knowingly fraudulent. The court determined that fraudulent intent under the FDCPA may be determined by several factors, sometimes called “badges of fraud,” including whether “‘the transfer or obligation was to an insider,’ ‘the debtor retained possession or control of the property transferred after the transfer,’ ‘before the transfer was made or obligation was incurred, the debtor had been sued or threatened with suit,’ ‘the value of the consideration received by the debtor was reasonably equivalent to the value of the asset transferred or the amount of the obligation incurred,’ and ‘the transfer occurred shortly before or shortly after a substantial debt was incurred.’” The court held it was reasonable to infer that the defendant was aware “that he would likely face civil prosecution” and judgments “would be beyond his ability to pay.” The court noted that the defendant engaged in transferring a personally significant asset—his $1.6 million residence—to two insiders for nominal consideration, which was considered to be “highly unusual.” Additionally, the defendant alleged that he continued to “’reside at and exercise control over’ the property and is now unwilling or unable to pay off the judgment,” which indicated the conveyance was also part of a sham divorce. Further, the court noted that “the complaint plausibly alleges that the mortgage ‘was not granted in good faith’ and was ‘made with the intent to make it appear that the Property was encumbered.’”
On October 28, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) issued a reminder to individuals and businesses operating in the mortgage, money transmission, debt collection and consumer financial services industry that they should begin renewing their licenses in the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System (NMLS) on November 1 to avoid licensing delays. According to CSBS, early renewal is critical due to an increase in the number of licensees eligible for renewal. Renewal periods in most states run from November 1 to December 31, and licensees are encouraged to review state-specific renewal requirements early. State regulators may employ operational efficiencies to streamline the renewal process, CSBS stated, adding that it also plans to implement an online request process on November 1 for licensees to resolve and check in on NMLS access issues, including password reset/unlocking, changes in email addresses, and confirming renewal status. The online request process is available on the NMLS Call Center Information webpage, available here. As a reminder federally-registered mortgage loan originators and institutions are also required to renew their registrations through NMLS by December 31.
On October 29, NYDFS issued draft proposed amendments to 23 NYCRR 1, which regulates third-party debt collectors and debt buyers. Among on things, the proposed amendments:
- Define “communication” as “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.”
- Amend the definition of a “debt collector” to include “as any creditor that, in collecting its own debts, uses any name other than its own that would suggest or indicate that someone other than such creditor is collecting or attempting to collect such debts.”
- Require collectors to clearly and conspicuously send written notification within five days after an initial communication with a consumer letting the consumer know specific information about the debt, including (i) the name of the creditor to which the debt was originally owed or alleged to be owed; (ii) account information associated with the debt; (iii) merchant/affinity/facility brand association; (iv) the name of the creditor to which the debt is currently owed; (v) the date of alleged default; (vi) the date the last payment (including any partial payment) was made; (vii) the statute of limitations, if applicable; (viii) an itemized accounting of the debt, including the amount currently due; and (ix) notice that the consumer “has the right to dispute the validity of the debt, in part or in whole, including instructions for how to dispute the validity of the debt.”
- State that disclosures may not be sent exclusively through an electronic communication, and that a formal pleading in a civil action shall not be treated as an initial communication.
- Prohibit collectors from communicating by telephone or other means of oral communication when attempting to collect on debts for which the statute of limitations has expired.
- Require collectors to provide consumer written substantiation of a debt within 30 days of receiving a written request via mail (consumers who consent to receiving electronic communications must still receive substantiation via mail).
- Limit collectors to three contact attempts via telephone in a seven-day period. Only one conversation with a consumer is permitted unless a consumer requests to be contacted.
- Permit collectors to communicate with consumers through electronic channels only if the consumer has voluntarily provided consent directly to the debt collector.
Comments on the proposal are due November 8.
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss “Hot topics outside of CA” at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss “LIBOR Transition: How will the pieces come together in time?” at the American Bar Association In the Know-Live webinar
- Dissecting the annual federal agency fair lending summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek