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FTC announces settlements with website operators over the sale of fake documents allegedly used for fraud and identity theft
On September 18, the FTC announced three proposed settlements with the operators of websites who allegedly violated the FTC Act’s prohibition against unfair practices by selling fake financial documents used to facilitate identity theft and other frauds, including loan and tax fraud. As previously covered in InfoBytes, identity theft was the second largest category of consumer complaints reported in 2017 according to the FTC. The FTC brought charges against the first defendant, alleging the defendant engaged in the sale of fake pay stubs, bank statements, and profit-and-loss statements, as well as providing a product that allowed customers to edit existing (and authentic) bank statements. The second defendant’s charges include the alleged sale of fake pay stubs, auto insurance cards, and utility and cable bills, while the allegations against the third defendant also include the sale of fake tax forms, bank statements, and verifications of employment. While the defendants’ websites claimed that the fake documents were sold for “‘novelty’ and ‘entertainment’ purposes,” the FTC asserts that the defendants “failed to clearly and prominently mark such documents as being for such purposes and did not state on the documents themselves that they were fake.”
Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreements (see here, here, and here), monetary judgments are imposed against the defendants, who also are permanently prohibited from advertising, marketing, or selling similar fake documents.
FTC settles with debt collection operators for alleged fraudulent collections
On September 7, the FTC announced a series of settlements with the operators of a Georgia-based debt collection business for allegedly violating the FTC Act by making false, or misleading claims and threats during debt collection. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in November 2017, the FTC filed a complaint alleging that the defendants threatened legal action, garnishment, and imprisonment if purported debts were not paid, and in other instances, attempted to collect debts after consumers provided proof that the debt was paid off. Each settlement order (available here, here, and here) imposes a $3.4 million penalty against the defendants, which, after surrendering certain assets, will be partially suspended due to the inability to pay. The settlement orders ban the defendants from the business of debt collection, and prohibit the defendants from (i) misrepresenting information related to financial products and services, and (ii) disclosing, using, or benefitting from the consumer information obtained through the course of the debt collection activities.
FTC seeks comments on possible adjustments to privacy and data security rulemaking authority
On August 6, the FTC published a request for comments in the Federal Register—in advance of a series of 15 to 20 public hearings scheduled to start this September—on whether the agency should make adjustments to competition and consumer protection law, enforcement priorities, and policy in light of evolving technologies and market developments. The hearings will cover a range of consumer-related issues, including the agency’s “remedial authority to deter unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters” and the “interpretation and harmonization of state and federal statutes and regulations that prohibit [such conduct].” According to testimony presented by FTC Chairman Joseph Simons at a July 18 House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection hearing, there exists a need for expanded rulemaking and civil penalty authority. Specifically, Simons discussed Section 5 of the FTC Act, which he stated is too limited to address all of the privacy and security concerns in the marketplace and does not provide for civil penalties. Comments on the hearing topics must be received by August 20.
FTC announces charges against auto dealerships for falsifying consumer information on auto financing documents
On August 1, the FTC announced charges against a group of four auto dealers (defendants) with locations in Arizona and New Mexico near the Navajo Nation’s border alleging, among other things, that the defendants advertised misleading discounts and incentives through their vehicle advertisements, and falsely inflated consumers’ income and down payment information on certain financing applications. The charges brought against the defendants allege violations of the FTC Act, the Truth in Lending Act, and the Consumer Leasing Act. According to the complaint, by allegedly falsifying the customers’ income and down payments, the defendants “inaccurately made consumers appear more creditworthy” on the false financing applications. Moreover, the FTC claims the defendants often prevented consumers from reviewing the falsified information provide in the financing applications prior to signing. As a result, credit was extended to consumers—many of whom are members of the Navajo Nation—who then subsequently “defaulted at a higher rate than properly qualified buyers.” Furthermore, the complaint asserts that the defendants’ deceptive advertising practices concealed the true nature and terms of the financing or leasing offers, and were in violation of federal law for failing to disclose the required terms. The complaint seeks, among other remedies, a permanent injunction to prevent future violations, restitution, and disgorgement.
FTC testifies before House subcommittees about combating consumer fraud
On July 26, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Andrew Smith, testified before subcommittees of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the FTC’s program to combat consumer fraud. The prepared testimony discusses the FTC’s anti-fraud program and highlights the agency’s enforcement actions against illicit companies that pose as government agents, such as the IRS, to convince consumers and small businesses to send them money. The FTC touts the steps taken to spur development of technological solutions to unlawful robocalls, including call-blocking and call-filtering products. The testimony also focuses on the FTC’s efforts to curb payment processors from assisting fraudulent actors in violation of the FTC Act. The FTC notes that the Commission has brought 25 actions against payment processors that failed to comply with requirements to ensure their systems were not being used to process fraudulent merchant transactions. The FTC emphasized that while the “overwhelming majority” of payment processors abide by the law, when certain processors do not, they cause “significant economic harm to consumers and legitimate businesses.”
FTC and New York Attorney General reach deal with debt collection firm
On July 20, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York issued a judgment to resolve a suit brought by the FTC and the New York Attorney General against a debt collection firm and an affiliated officer (defendants) accused of allegedly engaging in deceptive and abusive practices, including unlawfully threatening to arrest consumers if debts were not paid. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Under the stipulated final order for permanent injunction and settlement of claims pursuant to the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the defendants—who have not admitted to the allegations—are held jointly and severally liable for paying the more than $22.5 million under a suspended judgment should it ever be determined that the financial disclosures provided to the state and the FTC were not completely truthful, accurate, or complete. The defendants are also banned from the debt collection industry and required to file compliance reports with the FTC. The judgment further authorizes the receiver to liquidate the debt collection firm’s assets.
District Court agrees with FTC, enters $5 million judgment against credit monitoring scheme
On June 26, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that no reasonable jury would find that the defendants’ scheme of using false rental property ads to solicit consumer enrollment in credit monitoring services without their knowledge did not involve unfair or deceptive practices. The FTC argued that the defendants’ scheme, which used the promise of a free credit report to enroll the consumers into a monthly credit monitoring program, violated the FTC Act’s ban on deceptive practices. The court agreed, holding that the ad campaign was “rife with material misrepresentations that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.” Additionally the court agreed with the FTC that the defendants’ website was materially misrepresentative because it did not give “the net impression that consumers were enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service” for $29.94 a month, as opposed to defendants’ claim that consumers were obtaining a free credit report.
The court entered a judgment ordering the defendants to pay over $5 million in equitable monetary relief to the FTC and prohibiting defendants from, among other things, charging consumers for any credit monitoring services and disclosing or using any collected consumer information. The defendants must also submit to compliance reporting and monitoring by the FTC.
FTC and New York Attorney General announce action against phantom debt operation
On June 27, the FTC and the New York Attorney General’s Office announced charges against two New York-based phantom debt operations and their principals. The complaint alleges they ran a deceptive and abusive debt collection scheme involving the marketing and selling of fictitious loan debt portfolios and collecting on debts consumers did not owe. The charges brought against the operations allege violations of the FTC Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and New York state law. According to the complaint, the debt broker knowingly purchased fabricated debt from a phantom debt collection operation previously charged by the FTC and the Illinois Attorney General in a separate action for selling fabricated debt. (As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Illinois-based operation was banned from the debt collection business and prohibited from selling debt portfolios.) The debt broker then engaged a debt collection agency and its owner to collect on the fabricated debt using illegal collection tactics, while continuing to purchase debts and place them for collection despite having knowledge that consumers disputed the debts. The complaint seeks, among other things, injunctive relief, restitution, and disgorgement.
Native American tribes to forfeit $3 million in profits made from payday lending scheme
On June 26, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed two forfeiture complaints, which cover agreements with two Native American tribes to forfeit a combined $3 million in profits made from their involvement in an allegedly fraudulent payday lending scheme (see here and here). As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2016, the FTC required a Kansas-based operation and its owner to pay more than $1.3 billion for allegedly violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by making false and misleading representations about costs and payment of the loans. The business owner and his attorney were subsequently found guilty in October 2017 of operating a criminal payday loan empire. As part of the agreements, the two tribes admit that representatives filed affidavits containing false statements in the legal actions against the payday loan scheme. If the tribes comply with agreement requirements, the DOJ will not pursue criminal action for the specified violations.
In February, multiple federal agencies entered into a $613 million deferred prosecution agreement over Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and anti-money laundering (AML) compliance program deficiencies with a national bank, which included allegations that the bank was on notice of the owner’s use of the bank to launder proceeds from his fraudulent payday lending scheme. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.)
District Court grants preliminary injunction in FTC search engine suit
On June 6, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the FTC’s request for preliminary injunction against an individual defendant and the company he owns and manages (stipulating defendants) for allegedly violating the FTC Act by making robocalls to small business owners claiming they represented a global search engine and could guarantee top search result placements. The stipulating defendants are part of a larger group of Florida-based companies, affiliates, and representatives (defendants) identified in the FTC’s 2018 complaint. According to the FTC’s May 23 press release, the defendants—who allegedly have no relationship with the search engine—threatened to remove companies from the search engine’s results or label them as “permanently closed” unless they accepted the robocall and paid a fee to participate in the defendants’ program. The complaint also claimed that the defendants—who lost the ability to accept payments by credit card after their merchant account was closed due to high chargeback rates—allegedly “took money, usually $100, from at least 250 of their prior or existing customers’ checking accounts without those customers’ advance knowledge, consent, or authorization, and with no apparent reason or justification.”
In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that there exists “good cause” to believe the FTC’s allegations against the stipulating defendants, and that the FTC is “likely to prevail on the merits of this action.” The injunction, among other things, blocks the stipulating defendants from continuing with their business, freezes their assets and records, and orders the appointment of a receiver to take control over those assets. A temporary restraining order was also issued against all defendants on May 8.