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Crypto company settles NY AG’s hidden-fee claims
On May 18, the New York attorney general announced a settlement with a Brooklyn-based cryptocurrency company to resolve claims that it charged investors “exorbitant and undisclosed fees” to store cryptocurrency in an account that was advertised as being free on its website. The fees charged to investors to use its wallet storage were allegedly so high that they completely cleaned out investors’ accounts, the AG said. The company agreed to the AG’s findings that it regularly charged and increased fees without properly notifying investors. According to the AG’s investigation, the company changed the wallet storage fee structure four times without clearly disclosing the fee increase, which led to some investors being charged fees equal to 96 percent of the value of their account holdings. In total, the company took approximately $4.25 million from investors. The AG maintained that the company also failed to register as a commodity broker dealer in the state for a period of time, and that while it was eventually granted a virtual currency license pursuant to 23 NYCRR Part 200, it failed to file a registration statement. Under the terms of the assurance of discontinuance, the company is required to pay $508,910 in restitution to the state and provide full restitution to all investors who were misled. The company is also required to provide monthly refund status updates to the AG, limit the amount of fees charged for using its wallet service to 0.002 percent per cryptocurrency per month for at least five years, and ensure that it adequately discloses all fees to investors.
CFPB: Reopening a closed account could be a UDAAP
On May 10, the CFPB released Circular 2023-02 to opine that unilaterally reopening a closed account without a customer’s permission in order to process a transaction is a likely violation of federal law, particularly if a bank collects fees on the account. “When a bank unilaterally chooses to open an account in someone’s name after they have already closed it, this is a fake account,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in the announcement. “The CFPB is acting on all fronts to halt the harvesting of illegal junk fees.”
The Bureau described receiving complaints from consumers about banks reopening closed accounts and then assessing overdraft/nonsufficient funds fees and monthly maintenance fees. Such practices, the Bureau warned, may violate the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibition on unfair acts or practices. Consumers may experience substantial injury including monetary harm by paying fees due to the unfair practice, the Bureau said, explaining that because consumers likely cannot reasonably avoid the injury, “[a]ctual injury is not required; significant risk of concrete harm is sufficient.” Aside from subjecting consumers to fees, when a bank processes a credit through a reopened account, the consumers’ funds may become available to third parties, including those that do not have permission to access such funds, the Bureau warned, adding that there is also a risk that banks may furnish negative information to consumer reporting agencies if reopening the account overdraws the account and the consumer does not quickly repay the amount owed. The Bureau further noted that deposit account agreements typically indicate that a financial institution “may return any debits or deposits to the account that the financial institution receives after closure and faces no liability for failing to honor any debits or deposits received after closure.”
The Circular explained that rather than reopening an account when a third party attempts to deposit or withdraw money from it, banks should decline the transactions. This allows customers the opportunity to update their information with the entity attempting to access a closed account while avoiding potential fees. “Reopening a closed account does not appear to provide any meaningful benefits to consumers or competition,” the Bureau said in the Circular. “While consumers might potentially benefit in some instances where their accounts are reopened to receive deposits, which then become available to them, that benefit does not outweigh the injuries that can be caused by unilateral account reopening.”
OCC, FDIC say some overdraft fees may be unfair or deceptive
On April 26, the OCC and FDIC issued supervisory guidance addressing consumer compliance risks associated with bank overdraft practices. (See OCC Bulletin 2023-12 and FDIC FIL-19-2023.) The guidance highlighted certain practices that may result in increased risk exposure, including assessing overdraft fees on “authorize positive, settle negative” (APSN) transactions and assessing representment fees each time a third party resubmits the same item for payment after being returned by a bank for non-sufficient funds. The agencies provided guidance for banks that may help control risks associated with overdraft protection programs and achieve compliance with Dodd-Frank’s UDAAP prohibitions and section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices.
The FDIC’s supervisory guidance expanded on the 2019 Consumer Compliance Supervisory Highlights (covered by InfoBytes here), and warned that APSN overdraft fees present risks of unfairness under both statutes as consumers “cannot reasonably avoid” receiving these fees because they lack “the ability to effectively control payment systems and overdraft processing systems practices.” The FDIC cited the “complicated nature of overdraft processing systems” as another impediment to a consumer’s ability to avoid injury. The FDIC also emphasized that risks of unfairness exist both in “available balance” or “ledger balance” methods of assessing overdraft fees, but cautioned that risks may be “more pronounced” when a bank uses an available balance method. Furthermore, the FDIC warned that disclosures describing how transactions are processed may not mitigate UDAAP and UDAP risk. Banks are encouraged to “ensure customers are not charged overdraft fees for transactions consumers may not anticipate or avoid,” and should take measures to ensure overdraft programs provided by third parties comply with all applicable laws and regulations, as such arrangements may present additional risks if not properly managed, the FDIC explained.
The OCC’s guidance also warned that disclosures may be deceptive under section 5 if they fail to clearly explain that multiple or additional fees may result from multiple presentments of the same transaction. Recognizing that some banks have already implemented changes to their overdraft protection programs, the OCC also acknowledged that “[w]hen supported by appropriate risk management practices, overdraft protection programs may assist some consumers in meeting short-term liquidity and cash-flow needs.” The OCC encouraged banks to explore other options, such as offering low-cost accounts and low-cost alternatives for covering overdrafts, such as overdraft lines of credit and linked accounts.
House Republicans question CFPB’s card late-fee proposal
On March 1, several Republican House Financial Services Committee members sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra expressing concerns over the Bureau’s credit card late fee proposal. Among other things, the lawmakers claimed that last year the Bureau broke precedent by failing to address, for the first time, credit card late fees when the agency issued the annual fee adjustments as required under Regulation Z, which implements TILA (covered by InfoBytes here). “In prior years when the CFPB did not make inflation adjustments, because inflation was low, it explained the statistical basis for not indexing the fee,” the letter said. “However, the CFPB has yet to explain or justify why there was not an increase in the most recent annual adjustment announcement—a striking lack of transparency and accountability, and especially so in an era of outsized inflation.” The lawmakers also addressed the Bureau’s February notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend Regulation Z and its commentary. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau said the NPRM would lower the safe harbor dollar amount for first-time and subsequent-violation credit card late fees to $8, eliminate the automatic annual inflation adjustment, and cap late fees at 25 percent of the consumer’s required minimum payment. According to the lawmakers, the changes would disincentivize consumers to make timely payments and impact consumer behavior by shifting “delinquent payment costs to other, innocent, consumers who absorb the associated costs through higher rates or inability to further access unsecured credit that they may need to smooth their consumption.”
The lawmakers posed several questions to the Bureau, including asking why the agency failed to convene a panel as mandated by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 to advise on the rulemaking “[g]iven the broad applicability of this rule making to small institutions.” The Bureau was also asked to provide the data used to determine the dollar limits, as well as any communications the agency had with the Biden administration in the development of the NPRM.
CFPB highlights problems with cash-benefit programs
On March 1, the CFPB released an Issue Spotlight exploring the challenges that recipients of public benefits programs offering cash assistance face when accessing funds through financial products or services. According to the report, financial products used to deliver public benefits, such as Social Security and unemployment compensation, are delivered through various methods—particularly prepaid cards—that may subject consumers to high fees and reduce the amount of funds the individual is able to receive.
The Bureau noted that some prepaid cards charge numerous fees that cut away at a consumer’s available funds. According to the Federal Reserve, $1.3 billion in transaction fees (including maintenance, balance inquiry, customer service, or ATM fees) were collected by prepaid card administrators in 2020. The report also found that due to significant variations in program structure and delivery at the state and county level, the amount and types of fees charged to access cash assistance vary. Additionally, inadequate and untimely customer service often prevents consumers from being able to correct problems with their accounts or access funds, the report said. Consumers highlighted concerns such as having inadequate protections against unauthorized transfers, paying high costs to replace a card, and experiencing insufficient or hypersensitive fraud filters that cause delays and account freezing. The report also flagged concerns about consumers being told to use a prepaid card issued by a particular financial institution, rather than being allowed to deposit funds into an account at an institution of their choice, thereby limiting competition.
The Bureau said it will continue to monitor and take action against entities who violate federal consumer financial protection laws and will share the report’s findings with federal and state agencies that administer public benefits programs.
VA reduces funding fee for certain loans
On February 14, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a funding fee charge update for loans closed on or after April 7, 2023. According to Circular 26-23-06, funding fees are charged on VA transactions involving a home loan where a borrower does not qualify for a fee waiver. A reduced funding fee also applies to borrowers purchasing or constructing a home with a five or 10 percent down payment. The VA explained that lenders are to continue charging non-exempt veterans the current funding fee percentage for loans closed prior to April 7 (fee rates are listed here). For loans closed on or after April 7, lenders must charge the new funding fee percentage (fee rates are listed here).
CFPB proposal targets late fees on cards
On February 1, the CFPB issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend Regulation Z, which implements TILA, and its commentary to better ensure that late fees charged on credit card accounts are “reasonable and proportional” to the late payment as required under the statute, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The NPRM would (i) adjust the safe harbor dollar amount for late fees to $8 for any missed payment—issuers are currently able to charge late fees of up to $41—and eliminate a higher safe harbor dollar amount for late fees for subsequent violations of the same type (a company would be able to charge above the immunity provision provided it could prove the higher fee is necessary to cover the incurred collection costs); (ii) eliminate the automatic annual inflation adjustment for the immunity provision amount (the Bureau would instead monitor market conditions and make adjustments as necessary); and (iii) cap late fees at 25 percent of the consumer’s required minimum payment (issuers are currently able to potentially charge a late fee that is 100 percent of the cardholder’s minimum payment owed).
The NPRM also seeks feedback on other possible changes to the CARD Act regulations, including “whether the proposed changes should apply to all credit card penalty fees, whether the immunity provision should be eliminated altogether, whether consumers should be granted a 15-day courtesy period, after the due date, before late fees can be assessed, and whether issuers should be required to offer autopay in order to make use of the immunity provision.” Comments on the NPRM are due by April 3, or 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, whichever is later.
According to the CFPB, the Federal Reserve Board “created the immunity provisions to allow credit card companies to avoid scrutiny of whether their late fees met the reasonable and proportional standard.” As a result, the CFPB stated that immunity provisions have risen (due to inflation) to $30 for an initial late payment and $41 for subsequent late payments, resulting in consumers being charged approximately $12 billion in late fees in 2020. Based on CFPB estimates, the NPRM could reduce late fees by as much as $9 billion per year. CFPB Director Rohit Chopra issued a statement commenting that the current immunity provisions are not what Congress intended when it passed the CARD Act.
The Bureau also released an unofficial, informal redline of the NPRM to help stakeholders review the proposed changes, as well as a report titled Credit Card Late Fees: Revenue and Collection Costs at Large Bank Holding Companies, which documents findings on the relationship between late fee revenue and pre-charge-off collection costs for certain large credit card issuers. According to the report, “revenue from late fees has consistently far exceeded pre-charge-off collection costs over the last several years.”
The NPRM follows several actions initiated by the Bureau last year, including a request for comments on junk fees, a research report analyzing credit card late fees, and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking that solicited information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding credit card late fees and late payments, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses (previously covered by InfoBytes here and here).
NYDFS issues check-cashing fee regulations
On January 18, NYDFS announced that it has adopted an updated check cashing regulation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, NYDFS issued a proposed check cashing regulation in June 2022, following an emergency regulation announced in February 2022, that halted annual increases on check-cashing fees and locked the current maximum fee set last February at 2.27 percent (covered by InfoBytes here). The regulation establishes a new fee methodology that evaluates the needs of licensees and consumers who use check cashing services. Two tiers of fees for licensed check cashers are recommended: (i) the maximum fee that a check casher may charge for a public assistance check issued by a federal or state government agency (including checks for Social Security, unemployment, retirement, veteran’s benefits, emergency relief, housing assistance, or tax refunds) is set at 1.5 percent; and (ii) the maximum fee a check casher is permitted to charge for all other checks, drafts, or money orders is $1 or 2.2 percent, whichever is greater. According to NYDFS Superintendent Adrienne Harris, “the existing fee methodology wasn’t just outdated, but inappropriate and punitive to consumers.” She further noted that “[c]heck cashers should not be entitled to automatic, annual fee increases.”
District Court grants $11.9 million settlement in ATM fees suit
In December, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted preliminary approval of a $11.9 million settlement in a class action suit resolving allegations pertaining to a defendant national bank’s out-of-network ATM fees. According to the plaintiff’s motion, the plaintiffs challenged a fee assessed by the defendant “when its accountholders check their account balance at a [an out-of-network] ATM, referred to herein as an ‘Out of Network ATM Balance Inquiry Fee’ or ‘OON ATM Balance Inquiry Fee.’” The plaintiffs alleged that such fees on balance inquiries, when combined with fees assessed by the bank and by the out-of-network ATM owner, resulted in three total fees on a single cash withdrawal at an out of network ATM, and violated the terms of the defendant’s account agreement.
District Court approves $2.8 million settlement in FDCPA convenience fee class action
On December 22, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted preliminary approval of a $2.8 million settlement in an FDCPA class-action suit resolving allegations that convenience fees were charged when consumers made payments on their mortgages over the phone or online. According to the suit, the plaintiffs claimed the defendant did not charge processing fees if borrowers made payments by check or signed up for automatic monthly debits from their bank accounts. The plaintiffs further argued that the processing fees were “illegal and improper because neither the mortgages themselves nor applicable statutes authorize such fees.” The parties agreed to mediation in April 2022, and a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement was filed in August. A coalition of state attorneys general from 32 states and the District of Columbia, led by the New York AG filed an amicus brief in the district court opposing the original proposed $13 million settlement in the suit (covered previously by InfoBytes here). The AGs outlined concerns with the proposed settlement, including that (i) the relief provided to class members violates various state laws, and that the defendant seeks to ratify fees in an “unwritten, mass amendment” that violates state laws and regulations; (ii) class members only receive an “inadequate” one-time payment, while the defendant may continue to charge excessive fees for the life of the loan; and (iii) low- and moderate-income borrowers are not treated equitably under the proposed settlement. Under the terms of the new settlement, members of the class who do not opt out of the settlement will receive a share of the $2.8 million. The settlement also reduces the fees class members will have to pay when making payments online or via the telephone for the next two years. The defendant also agreed to add additional disclosures to its website to increase borrower awareness of alternative payment methods that could have lower fees or no fees. Defendant’s representatives will also receive additional training to ensure they provide additional information and disclosures about convenience fees when speaking with customers.