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FTC, Florida AG sue “chargeback mitigation” company
On April 12, the FTC and the Florida attorney general filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida alleging a “chargeback mitigation” company and its owners (collectively, “defendants”) used numerous unfair tactics to thwart consumers trying to dispute credit card charges through the chargeback process. The chargeback process allows consumers to contest unwanted, fraudulent, or incorrect credit card charges with their credit card companies. According to the complaint, the defendants regularly sent screenshots and statements on behalf of company clients to credit card companies allegedly showing that consumers had agreed to the disputed charges. However, the FTC claimed that in many instances, the misleading screenshots did not come from the merchant’s website where the consumer made the disputed purchase. The complaint further alleged that the defendants used a system that allowed company clients to run numerous small-value transactions via prepaid debit cards in order to raise the number of transactions, thus lowering the percentage of charges that were disputed by consumers. The service, the FTC maintained, “enabled fraudulent merchants to evade or delay chargeback monitoring programs, fines, and account terminations designed to protect consumers from fraud.”
The FTC noted that three of the defendants’ major clients (for which the defendants disputed tens of thousands of chargebacks on behalf of each of the companies) were previously sued by the FTC for engaging in deceptive negative-option marketing practices. The complaint accused the defendants of ignoring clear warning signs that the screenshots were misleading, including instances where the name of the product referenced in the screenshot did not match the product in the disputed purchase. The defendants also allegedly often overlooked company clients that opened and used a large number of different merchant accounts to process charges. Asserting violations of the FTC Act and the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
CFPB sues co-trustees for concealing assets to avoid fine
On April 5, the CFPB filed a complaint against two individuals, both individually and in their roles as co-trustees of two trusts, accusing them of concealing assets to avoid paying a fine owed to the Bureau. In 2015 the Bureau filed an administrative action alleging one of the co-trustees—the former president of a Delaware-based online payday lender (the “individual defendant”)—and the lender violated TILA and EFTA and engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The Bureau’s administrative order required the payment of more than $38 million in both legal and equitable restitution, along with $7.5 million in civil penalties for the company and $5 million in civil penalties for the individual defendant.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, two different administrative law judges (ALJs) decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and the individual defendant to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which was appealed on the grounds that the enforcement action violated their due process rights by denying the individual defendant additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The lender and the individual defendant recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of the CFPB administrative ruling, and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB ALJ could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony,” or whether the Court intended for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing.
The Bureau claimed in its announcement that to date, the defendants have not complied with the agency’s order, nor have they obtained a stay while their appeal was pending. The defendants have also made no payments to satisfy the judgment, the Bureau said. The complaint alleges that the co-trustee defendants transferred funds to hinder, delay, or defraud the Bureau, in violation of the FDCPA, in order to avoid paying the owed restitution and penalties. Specifically, the complaint alleges that between 2013 and 2015, after becoming aware of the Bureau’s investigation, the individual defendant transferred $12.3 million to his wife through their revocable trusts, for which his wife is the beneficiary. The complaint requests a declaration that the transactions were fraudulent, seeks to recover the value of the transferred assets via liens on the property in partial satisfaction of the Bureau’s judgment against the individual defendant, and seeks a monetary judgment against the wife and her trust for the value of the respective property and/or funds received as a transferee of fraudulent conveyances of the property belonging to the individual defendant.
National bank fined $98 million by OFAC, Fed for sanctions violations
On March 30, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) announced a $30 million settlement with a national bank to resolve potential civil liabilities stemming from trade insourcing software that the bank and its predecessor bank provided to a foreign European bank between 2008 and 2015. According to OFAC’s web notice, at the direction of a mid-level manager, the predecessor bank customized the software for general use by the European bank, which the predecessor bank “knew or should have known would involve engaging in trade-finance transactions with sanctioned jurisdictions and persons.” The European bank used the software to manage 124 non-OFAC compliant transactions totaling approximately $532 million involving parties in jurisdictions subject at the time of the transactions to sanctions regulations.
OFAC noted that the national bank inherited the trade insourcing relationships when it acquired the predecessor bank, claiming that the national bank “did not identify or stop the European bank’s use of the software platform for trade-finance transactions involving sanctioned jurisdictions and persons for seven years despite potential concerns raised internally” following the acquisition. OFAC also noted, however, that the national bank’s alleged failure to stop the violations “was not a result of a systemic compliance breakdown within the broader  organization,” which OFAC acknowledged has “a historically strong overall sanctions-compliance program.”
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered various mitigating factors, including that (i) the majority of the 124 apparent violations related to agriculture, medicine, and telecommunications and therefore may have been eligible for a general or specific license, thus mitigating the harm to sanctions policy objectives; (ii) the legacy business unit at the predecessor bank was relatively small and that there was no indication that senior management either directed or had actual knowledge that the predecessor bank provided the software to the European bank for such purpose; and (iii) upon identifying the alleged violations, the bank promptly terminated the European bank’s access, voluntarily disclosed the matter to OFAC, conducted an extensive internal investigation, produced the results to OFAC, cooperated with OFAC throughout the investigation, agreed to toll the statute of limitations, and took remedial measures.
Concurrently, the Federal Reserve Board issued an order fining the bank holding company in the amount of $67.8 million for allegedly engaging in unsafe or unsound practices related to its oversight of sanctions compliance risks at the national bank. The Fed noted that the national bank “no longer offers the trading platform to foreign banks” and has “strengthened firmwide compliance with OFAC regulations.”
CFPB, New York AG ask court to lift stay after 2nd Circuit decision
On March 31, plaintiffs CFPB and the New York Attorney General moved the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to lift its stay order in their litigation against a remittance provider in response to a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decision upholding the CFPB’s funding structure under the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs argued that the 2nd Circuit’s binding opinion has now “answer[ed] the question at the heart of this Court’s stay order: whether the Bureau’s statutory funding mechanism violates the Constitution.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court had originally paused the proceedings at the defendant’s request when the Supreme Court was considering whether to hear an appeal in a different matter relating to the Bureau’s funding structure. The district court continued the stay after the Supreme Court agreed to review the 5th Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where it found that the CFPB’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. The Supreme Court is scheduled to review the 5th Circuit’s decision next term (covered by InfoBytes here).
The agencies argued primarily that (i) the 2nd Circuit “expressly considered and rejected the Fifth Circuit’s contrary view in CFSA;” (ii) it “did so notwithstanding that the Supreme Court will consider the same issue next Term”; and (iii) “[g]rants of certiorari do not change the law, and a district court remains bound by circuit precedent until the Supreme Court or the court of appeals changes that precedent.”
On April 7, the court issued an order denying the Bureau's request and electing to keep the stay in place while the Supreme Court resolves the circuit split on this issue.
FDIC releases February enforcement actions
On March 31, the FDIC released a list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in February. The FDIC made public five orders and one notice, including “three orders of prohibition from further participation, one order to pay civil money penalty, one Section 19 order, and one Notice of Charges.”
The actions include a civil money penalties order against a Wisconsin-based bank related to alleged violations of the Flood Disaster Protection Act (FDPA). The FDIC determined that the bank had engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the FDPA by failing to (i) obtain flood insurance on a building securing a designated loan at the time of origination of two loans; (ii) obtain adequate flood insurance at the time of origination of seven loans; (iii) follow lender-placed flood insurance procedures for one loan; (iv) provide borrowers with a Notice of Special Flood Hazard and Availability of Federal Disaster Relief Assistance when making, increasing, extending, or renewing a loan on four occasions; and (v) provide borrowers with a Notice of Special Flood Hazard and Availability of Federal Disaster Relief Assistance within a reasonable time prior to the completion of the transaction on one loan.
OFAC settles with digital platform on sanctioned transactions
On March 31, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $72,230 settlement with a global digital trading platform to resolve allegations that it processed transactions for customers who self-identified as being located in Iran or Cuba, or were employees of the Government of Venezuela (GoV). OFAC’s web notice stated that between March 2017 and May 2022, the company, or certain of its non-U.S. affiliates, allegedly maintained accounts for customers who submitted information showing their locations were in a sanctioned jurisdiction. OFAC further maintained that the company violated the Venezuela Sanctions Regulations by processing transactions on behalf of two customers who self-identified as employees of the GoV. OFAC claimed, among other things, that the company implemented inadequate compliance processes to identify, analyze, and address risks.
In its web notice, OFAC stated that it determined that “the violations were voluntarily self-disclosed and were non-egregious.” OFAC also considered various mitigating factors, including that the company has not received a penalty notice from OFAC in the preceding five years. Additionally, the company undertook numerous remedial measures upon learning of the alleged violations, cooperated with OFAC throughout the investigation, and agreed to toll the statute of limitations, the notice said.
The company issued the following response: “We appreciate that OFAC recognized our full cooperation and remediation of the issues involved in this matter. These were self-identified and self-reported matters that reflect the rigor of our compliance review processes.”
Orrick represented the company in this matter.
SEC awards whistleblowers more than $12 million
On March 31, the SEC announced awards totaling more than $12 million to two whistleblowers whose information and assistance led to a successful SEC enforcement action. According to the redacted order, the first whistleblower prompted the opening of the investigation and provided information on violations that would otherwise have been difficult to detect, including by identifying key witnesses and helping enforcement staff understand complex fact patterns and issues concerning the matters under investigation. This information was also used to create an investigative plan and craft initial document requests. Citing the first whistleblower’s persistent efforts to remedy the issues, and the fact that the information was received several years before the second whistleblower’s information, the SEC said the first whistleblower will receive more than $9 million. The second whistleblower will receive $3 million for submitting important information “as a percipient witness” during the course of the investigation on topics that went beyond what the first whistleblower had been able to provide.
SEC charges companies and executives for operating an unregistered exchange
On March 29, the SEC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against a cryptocurrency trading platform and its executives for allegedly failing to register as a national securities exchange, broker, and clearing agency. The SEC also claimed the founder of the platform used it to raise $8 million in an unregistered token offering and misappropriated at least $900,000 for personal use. Additionally, the SEC charged certain defendant “market makers” operating on the platform as unregistered dealers. The complaint flagged certain defendants as being responsible for maintaining and providing the platform that facilitated the crypto assets that were offered and sold as securities and cited other defendants for operating as an unregistered exchange, broker, and clearing agency or as unregistered dealers.
According to the SEC’s announcement, some of the defendants—without admitting or denying the allegations—“have agreed to perform certain undertakings, including ceasing all activities as an unregistered exchange, clearing agency, broker, and dealer; shutting down the [platform]; providing an accounting of assets and funds for the benefit of customers; transferring all customer assets and funds to each respective customer; and destroying any and all [tokens] in [one of the defendant company’s] possession.” These defendants have agreed to permanent injunctions prohibiting them from engaging in future securities law violations and will pay civil penalties collectively totaling $165,800. Two of these defendants have also agreed to pay a combined amount of $62,779 in disgorgement and prejudgment interest. The SEC said it is continuing to litigate its charges against other defendants for securities fraud and for offering unregistered tokens.
FTC to ban auto warranty operation
On March 24, the FTC announced that a Florida-based group of operators (defendants) faces a permanent ban from the extended automobile warranty industry and will be barred from any further involvement in outbound telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the defendants allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling automobile warranties. According to the FTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) misrepresented their affiliation with consumers’ car dealers or manufacturers; (ii) misrepresented warranty coverage; (iii) falsely promised consumers they could obtain a full refund if they cancelled within 30 days; (iv) used remotely created checks, which are illegal in telemarketing transactions; and (v) placed unsolicited calls to numbers on the do not call registry. The proposed stipulated order for permanent injunction, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, would require the defendants to pay a $6.6 million monetary judgment and would impose a permanent industry ban. However, the monetary judgment is largely suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay.
OCC reaches $17 million settlement with former executive over account openings
On March 15, the OCC announced a $17 million civil money penalty and prohibition order against a former senior executive who served as head of a national bank’s community banking division for her role in the bank’s incentive compensation sales practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in January 2020, the OCC announced charges against the former general counsel and other executives, seeking a lifetime prohibition from participating in the banking industry, a personal cease and desist order, and/or civil money penalties. The 2020 announcement included settlements with three of the executives. The OCC settled with three others in September 2020, as well as with the bank’s former general counsel in January 2021 (covered by InfoBytes here and here). In addition to the $17 million penalty, the former senior executive entered a plea agreement admitting to one count of obstructing a bank examination.