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On September 25, the FTC announced a settlement with a Rhode Island-based company and its owner (defendants), resolving allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act by claiming to be an approved lender for the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) even though the defendants are neither affiliated with the SBA nor an SBA-authorized lender. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed an action against the defendants in April, alleging that the defendants made deceptive statements on their websites, such as “WE ARE A DIRECT LENDER FOR THE PPP PROGRAM!,” and directly contacted small businesses claiming to represent the SBA in order to solicit loan applications on behalf of the businesses’ banks. The settlement prohibits the defendants from engaging in the conduct subject to the action, including misrepresenting that they are affiliated with the SBA and that they are authorized to accept or process applications on behalf of the SBA. Moreover, the defendants are prohibited from disclosing or benefitting from consumer information obtained prior to the settlement without express, informed consent from the consumer, and are subject to certain reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered a California-based investment training operation to pay $362 million to resolve FTC allegations that the operation used deceptive claims to sell costly “training programs” targeting older consumers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC argued that the operation violated the FTC Act and the Consumer Review Fairness Act by using false or unfounded claims to market programs that purportedly teach consumers investment strategies designed to generate substantial income from trading in the financial markets “without the need to possess or deploy significant amounts of investable capital.” Additionally, the FTC alleged the operation required that dissatisfied customers requesting refunds sign agreements barring them from posting negative comments about the operation or its personnel, and prohibited customers from reporting potential violations to law enforcement agencies.
The district court agreed with the FTC, approving an order that requires the operation to pay a partially suspended judgment of $362 million, with three individual defendants required to pay $8.3 million, $158,000, and $736,300, respectively, and to surrender various assets. The remainder of the total judgment is suspended upon the completion of the individuals’ respective payments and surrender of assets, conditioned on the “truthfulness, accuracy, and completeness” of the sworn financial representations. Moreover, among other things, the order prohibits the operation from (i) making misleading claims of potential earnings or misrepresenting the time or effort required by consumers to “attain proficiency” in the operation’s trading strategy; and (ii) restricting customers from communicating with law enforcement or posting negative reviews. Additionally, the operation must notify all clients of their rights to post honest reviews and to file complaints.
On September 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a split decision, upheld the district court order requiring a publisher and conference organizer and his three companies (defendants) to pay more than $50.1 million to resolve allegations that the defendants made deceptive claims about the nature of their scientific conferences and online journals and failed to adequately disclose publication fees in violation of the FTC Act. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, the FTC alleged the defendants misrepresented that their online academic journals underwent rigorous peer reviews; instead, according to the FTC, the defendants did not conduct or follow the scholarly journal industry’s standard review practices and often provided no edits to submitted materials. Additionally, the FTC alleged that the defendants failed to disclose material fees for publishing authors’ work when soliciting authors and that the defendants falsely advertised the attendance and participation of various prominent academics and researchers at conferences without their permission or actual affiliation. The district court agreed with the FTC and, among other things, ordered the defendants to pay more than $50.1 million in consumer redress.
On appeal, the split 9th Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding that the defendants violated the FTC Act, noting that the despite the “overwhelming evidence against them,” the defendants “made only general denials” and did not “create any genuine disputes of material fact as to their liability.” The appellate court emphasized that the misrepresentations made by the defendants were “material” and “did in fact, deceive ordinary customers.” Moreover, among other things, the appellate court held that the defendants failed to meet their burden to show that the FTC “overstated the amount of their unjust gains by including all conference-related revenue.” Specifically, the appellate court determined that conferences were “part of a single scheme of deceptive business practices,” even though the conferences were individual, discrete events. Because the marketing was “widely disseminated,” the court determined that the FTC was entitled to a rebuttable presumption that “all conference consumers were deceived.”
In partial dissent, a judge asserted the FTC “did not reasonably approximate unjust gains” by including all conference-related revenue, because “the FTC’s own evidence indicates that only approximately 60% of the conferences were deceptively marketed.” Thus, according to the dissent, the case should have been remanded to the district court to determine whether the FTC can meet its initial burden.
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 31, the Massachusetts attorney general announced an action against a national auto lender for allegedly making unfair and deceptive auto loans and engaging in unfair debt collection practices. According to the complaint, since 2013, the auto lender allegedly made “high-risk high-interest subprime” loans to Massachusetts borrowers who the lender “knew or should have known were unable to repay their loans,” in violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act. Additionally, the attorney general asserts that consumers were subject to “hidden finance charges,” which resulted in consumers’ actual interest rates being higher than the state’s usury ceiling of 21 percent. Moreover, the lender’s collection employees allegedly “harassed” consumers in default by calling them “as often as eight times a day,” when state law limits collection calls to no more than two calls per week, sent improper repossession notices, and failed to use the correct fair market value when calculating deficiency amounts. Lastly, the attorney general argues that the lender used “false or misleading statements” concerning the characteristics of the loans packaged and securitized to investors.
The attorney general is seeking a permanent injunction, restitution, and civil penalties.
On August 3, the FTC filed a complaint against two New York-based merchant cash advance providers and two company executives (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices by misrepresenting the terms of their merchant cash advances (MCAs), using unfair collection practices, making unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ accounts, and misrepresenting collateral and personal guarantee requirements. The FTC’s complaint alleges that when marketing and offering MCAs to small business customers, the defendants, among other things, (i) falsely advertised that MCAs do not require collateral or personal guarantees, but when consumers defaulted on their financing agreements, the defendants frequently filed lawsuits against them, including against individual business owners who provided personal guarantees, to collect the unpaid amount; (ii) misrepresented the amount of total financing in the contract that consumers would receive by withholding fees that are deducted from the promised funds; and (iii) made unfair, unauthorized withdrawals from customers’ bank accounts in excess of consumers’ authorization without express informed consent, and routinely continued to debit customers’ bank accounts after the MCAs were fully repaid. According to the FTC, the “unauthorized overpayments have been a typical occurrence for [the defendants’] customers, and have impacted at least thousands of them, in amounts ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”
The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, along with monetary relief including “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief.”
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 June 29, the OCC issued a new Comptroller’s Handbook booklet, “Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices and Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices,” which covers details for examiners regarding UDAP violations under Section 5 of the FTC Act and UDAAP violations under sections 1031 and 1036 of the Dodd-Frank Act. The booklet includes, among other things, examination procedures for assessing the effectiveness of a bank’s compliance management systems in identifying and managing UDAP and UDAAP risks and red flags that examiners can use to identify acts or practices that may raise UDAP or UDAAP concerns. Specifically, Appendix A includes a detailed list of nine red flags that examiners can use to identify potential areas with higher risks, including items such as (i) customer complaints received by the OCC or the bank; (ii) whistleblower referrals; (iii) higher than average fee incomes; (iv) weak servicing and collection practices; and (v) inadequate oversight over incentive compensation programs. Additionally, Appendix B includes risk indicator charts for examiners to use when assessing the quantity and quality of a bank’s risk management for UDAP and UDAAP.
On June 24, the FTC and the Small Business Administration (SBA) sent warning letters to six companies that they may be misleading small businesses seeking SBA loans due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The press release highlights specific claims from each company that the letters assert “could lead consumers to believe the companies are affiliated with the SBA,” or that consumers could use their websites to apply for loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other programs authorized by the CARES Act. These cited claims include, among others, (i) offering “'COVID-19 SBA Loan Programs”; (ii) offering “SBA Lending experts” and “SBA Loan Officers”; and (iii) stating “Get matched with a PPP lender now!” The letters warn the recipients to remove all deceptive claims and advertisements and remediate any harm to small business consumers that may have been caused. The letters further instruct the companies to notify the FTC within 48 hours of the actions they take in response. Copies of all six warning letters are available via links in the press release.
On June 10, the FTC filed a complaint against two New York-based small-business financing companies and a related entity and individuals (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices by misrepresenting the terms of their merchant cash advances (MCAs), using unfair collection practices, and making unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ accounts. The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants purported “to provide immediate funds in a specific amount in exchange for consumers’ agreement to repay a higher amount from future business revenues” to be “remitted over time through daily debits from consumers’ bank accounts.” However, the defendants allegedly, among other things, (i) made false claims on their websites that their MCAs require “no personal guaranty of collateral from business owners,” when in fact, the contracts included such provisions; (ii) withheld various upfront fees ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars prior to disbursing funds to consumers (according to the complaint, these fees were either poorly disclosed in the contracts or not disclosed at all); (iii) directed agents to charge higher fees to consumers than permitted by the contracts; (iv) required businesses and their owners to sign confessions of judgment (COJs) as part of their contracts, and unlawfully and unfairly used the COJs to seize consumers’ personal and business assets, including in circumstances where consumers could not make payments due to technical issues outside their control, or in instances not permitted by the defendants’ financing contracts; (v) made threatening calls to borrowers, including threats of physical violence or reputational harm, to compel consumers to make payments; and (vi) made unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ accounts. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, along with monetary relief including “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief.”
The same day, the FTC published a blog post highlighting the Commission’s ongoing efforts to combat questionable financing practices targeting small businesses. The FTC also held a forum in 2019 on marketplace lending to small businesses, which analyzed the potential for unfair and deceptive marketing, sales, and collection practices in the industry, and released a follow-up staff perspective paper earlier this year (see InfoBytes coverage here and here). In addition, over the past few years, several states have introduced legislation and advisories on MCAs and small business financing (see prior InfoBytes coverage here).
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Being fair, responsible, & profitable" at the QuestSoft Lending Compliance & Risk Management Virtual Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "NMLS mortgage call report – Where’s NMLS 2.0?" at the QuestSoft Lending Compliance & Risk Management Virtual Conference
- Thomas A. Sporkin to discuss "Managing internal investigations and advanced government defense" at the Securities Enforcement Forum
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "2021 - A new beginning/what's to come" at the QuestSoft Lending Compliance & Risk Management Virtual Conference
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Mortgage servicing in a recession: Early intervention, loss mitigation and more" at the NAFCU Virtual Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Independent monitoring in the United States" at the World Compliance Association Peru Chapter IV International Conference on Compliance and the Fight Against Corruption
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Cyber security, incident response, crisis management" at the Legal & Diversity Summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The future of fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Pandemic fallout – Navigating practical operational challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "BSA/AML - Covid impact and regulatory/guidance roundup" at an NAFCU webinar