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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 November 5, the CFPB announced an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a student loan debt-relief company, a debt-settlement company, and the owner of both companies (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by charging illegal advance fees and using deceptive tactics to induce consumers to sign up for services. According to the complaint, from 2015 to the present, the defendants allegedly charged consumers upfront fees between $1,000 and $1,450 for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the U.S. Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. According to the complaint, some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. Additionally, the CFPB alleges that the defendants required some consumers to pay the fee in installments into a trust plan, which carried a $6 monthly banking fee paid to the administrator of the trust accounts. The Bureau alleges that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserts that from 2019 to the present, the defendants violated the CFPA by representing to consumers that they were turned down for a loan in order to pitch the company’s settlement services.
The complaint seeks consumer redress, injunctive relief, and civil money penalties.
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.
On September 9, the FTC announced an $835,000 settlement with the operators of a student loan debt relief operation, resolving allegations against five individuals (collectively, “defendants”) whom the FTC claims engaged in deceptive marketing and charged illegal upfront fees. According to the November 2019 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the defendants and several others, the defendants allegedly used telemarketing calls, as well as media advertisements, to enroll consumers in student debt relief services in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The defendants allegedly misrepresented that they were affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education and misrepresented “material aspects of their debt relief services,” including by promising to enroll consumers in repayment programs to reduce or eliminate payments and balances. Additionally, the defendants charged illegal upfront fees, and often placed the consumers’ loans into temporary forbearance or deferments with their student loan servicers, without the consumer’s authorization.
The settlement order includes a monetary judgment of over $43 million, which is partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay. The defendants “will be required to surrender at least $835,000 and additional assets, which will be used for consumer redress.” Additionally, the defendants are prohibited from providing student debt relief services in the future and they must cooperate in the FTC’s pursuit of the case against the remaining defendants.
On August 26 and 28, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered two final judgments (see here and here) against four of the 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. In addition, the complaint asserts the defendants engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments.
The finalized settlements suspend a total judgment of over $95 million due to the defendants’ inability to pay, and requires the two defendants who settled on August 26, to pay a total of $75,000 to Minnesota, North Carolina, and California, and $1 each to the CFPB, in civil money penalties, and the two defendants who settled on August 28, to pay a total of $15,000 to the respective states and $1 to the CFPB in civil money penalties. In addition to the monetary penalties, the defendants are required to relinquish certain assets and submit to certain reporting and recordkeeping requirements. All four defendants neither admit nor deny the allegations, as part of the settlements.
On July 27, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida entered a nearly $13.9 million partially suspended judgment against six corporate and three individual defendants (collectively, “defendants”) allegedly operating an illegal robocall scheme offering consumers credit card interest rate reduction services in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The action is part of a 2019 FTC crackdown on illegal robocalls named “Operation Call it Quits,” which included 94 enforcement actions from around the country brought by the FTC and 25 other federal, state, and local agencies (covered by InfoBytes here). According to the complaint, the defendants made deceptive guarantees to consumers that, for a fee, they could lower their credit card interest rates to zero percent permanently for the life of the credit card debt. However, the FTC alleged that not only do consumers not see a permanent reduction on their credit card interest rates, in some instances, the defendants obtained new credit cards with promotional “teaser” zero percent interest rates that only lasted a limited time, after which the interest rates increased significantly. Moreover, the defendants allegedly failed to tell consumers that they would have to pay additional bank or transaction fees. In addition, the complaint contended that the defendants also (i) initiated illegal telemarketing calls to consumers, including many whose phone numbers appear in the National Do Not Call Registry; (ii) tricked consumers into providing personal financial information, including social security numbers and credit card numbers; and (iii) in many instances, applied for credit cards on behalf of consumers who did not agree to use the service without their knowledge, authorization, or express informed consent.
The court’s order enters a nearly $13.9 million judgment, which will be partially suspended due to inability to pay. The defendants are also prohibited from collecting or assigning any right to collect payments from consumers who purchased the service, and are permanently banned from, among other things, engaging in the illegal behaviors involved in the action and from using the information obtained from consumers during the robocall operation.
On July 20, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a final judgment permanently banning defendants in a student loan debt relief operation from telemarketing or providing debt relief services. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019 the FTC charged the defendants with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for allegedly, among other things, (i) charging borrowers illegal advance fees; (ii) falsely claiming they would service and pay down borrowers’ student loans; and (iii) obtaining borrowers’ credentials in order to change consumers’ contact information and prevent communications from loan servicers.
The court’s order granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendants received revenues of at least $31.1 million derived unlawfully from payments received from borrowers due to the defendants’ violations of the FTC Act and TSR. Of these revenues, only about $3.1 million had been paid by the defendants to borrowers’ federal student loan servicers, the order stated, although the court noted that the defendants allegedly refunded about $408,089 to consumers. The court imposed a roughly $27.6 million judgment against the defendants as equitable monetary relief, and permanently banned the defendants from offering similar services in the future, including misrepresenting, or assisting others in misrepresenting, any facts materials to a consumer’s decision to purchase financial products or services.
On July 13, the CFPB filed a complaint in federal district court against a nationwide student loan debt-relief business—consisting of two companies, their owners, and four attorneys—for allegedly charging thousands of customers approximately $11.8 million in upfront fees in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the companies would market its debt-relief services to customers over the phone, encouraging those with private loans to sign up with an attorney to reduce or eliminate their student debt. The attorney agreement typically provided for “a fee, typically 40 [percent] of the outstanding debt, to be paid by monthly installments, along with a processing fee that costs an additional $10 per month.” The business allegedly charged the fees before the consumer had made at least one payment on the altered debts, in violation of the TSR’s prohibition on requesting or receiving advance fees for debt-relief service or, for certain defendants, the TSR’s prohibition on providing substantial assistance to someone charging the illegal fees.
On August 17, the court approved stipulated final judgments with four of the defendants (one company owner and three of the attorneys, here, here, and here). The company owner is permanently banned from providing debt-relief services or engaging in telemarketing of any consumer financial product or service, and is required to pay $25,000 in partial satisfaction of a suspended $11.8 million in redress. Similarly, the three attorneys are each banned from providing debt-relief services and required to pay $5,000, $21,567, and $30,000 each in partial satisfaction of various redress amounts. Additionally, the judgments impose a civil money penalty of $1 against each defendant.
On July 8, the CFPB announced a proposed settlement with a Florida-based student debt-relief company and three of its owners and officers (collectively, “defendants”), which would resolve allegations that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by charging advance fees for services to renegotiate, settle, reduce, or alter the terms of federal student loans. According to the complaint, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on the same day as the proposed order, the Bureau alleges that from 2016 through October 2019, the defendants used telemarketing campaigns to solicit over 7,300 consumers to pay up to $699 in fees to have their federal student loan monthly payments reduced or eliminated through government-offered programs. The Bureau alleges that—not only are government programs (such as loan consolidation, income-based repayment, or certain loan-forgiveness options) available without charge—the defendants violated the TSR by charging and receiving upfront fees from consumers for their services before the terms of the student debt had been altered or settled.
On August 12, the court entered a stipulated final judgment and order, which permanently bans the defendants from providing debt-relief services and imposes a suspended $3.8 million in consumer redress, upon the owners and officers each paying between $5,000 and $10,000 individually. Additionally, each defendant is required to pay $1 in civil money penalties.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Getting your company ready: Managing fair lending for IMBs” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Be Your Compliance Best in 2022” at the California Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Lauren R. Randell to discuss “Significant legal developments in the Northeast” at the 37th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where it is heading?” at the Consumer Bankers Association Live program
- Jonice Gray Tucker and Kari Hall to discuss “Equity, equality, regulation and enforcement – The evolving regulatory landscape of fair lending, redlining, and UDAAP” at the ABA Business Law Committee Hybrid Spring Meeting