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On October 13, the CFPB announced a settlement with the Texas-based auto-financing subsidiary of a Japanese automobile manufacturer to resolve allegations that the servicer violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act by engaging in illegal repossession and collection practices. The CFPB alleged that the servicer engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by (i) wrongfully repossessing vehicles even though customers made payments to decrease their delinquency to less than 60 days past due or kept a promise to pay; (ii) limiting the ability of borrowers who pay over the phone to select payment options with significantly lower fees; (iii) making false statements in loan extension agreements, which “created the net impression that consumers could not file for bankruptcy”; and (iv) knowing its repossession agents were charging customers upfront storage fees before returning personal property left inside repossessed cars.
Under the terms of the consent order, the servicer must pay a $4 million civil money penalty, as well as up to $1 million in consumer redress. The servicer must also credit any outstanding fees stemming from the repossession and pay consumers redress for each day it wrongfully held their vehicles. The servicer is also ordered to, among other things, (i) cease using language that creates the impression that customers may not file for bankruptcy; (ii) conduct a quarterly review to identify and remediate any future wrongful repossessions; (iii) adopt policies and procedures to correct its repossession practices; (iv) prohibit its repossession agents from charging fees to get personal property returned; and (v) clearly disclose phone payment fees to consumers.
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 July 6, the CFPB filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a Delaware financial-services company operating in Florida and New York along with its owner (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibition against deceptive acts or practices by making misleading marketing representations when advertising its high yield CD accounts. The Bureau's complaint alleges that since August 2019, the company took more than $15 million from at least 400 consumers. According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in four separate deceptive acts or practices by: (i) falsely representing that consumers’ deposits into the high yield CD accounts would be used to originate loans for healthcare professionals, when in fact, the company never used the deposits to originate loans for healthcare professionals, never sold a loan to a bank or secondary-market investor, and never entered into a contract with a buyer or investor to purchase a loan; (ii) concealing the company’s true business model by falsely representing that the consumers’ deposits, when not being used to originate healthcare loans, would be held in an FDIC- or Lloyd’s of London-insured account or a “cash alternative” or “cash equivalent” account, when in reality, consumers’ deposits were, among other things, invested in securities; (iii) falsely describing the company as a commercial bank and claiming their high yield CD accounts were comparable to a traditional savings accounts with a guaranteed return, when in fact, the company was not a commercial bank, and consumers’ deposits were actively traded in the stock market or used in securities-backed investments; and (iv) falsely representing that past high yield CD accounts allegedly paid interest at rates between 5 percent and 6.25 percent prior to 2019; however, the company did not offer CDs until August 2019, and “consumers’ principals was neither guaranteed nor insured.” Among other things, the Bureau seeks monetary relief, consumer redress, injunctive relief, and a civil money penalty.
On June 23, the CFPB announced a settlement with several contract for deed companies to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the FCRA and its implementing Regulation V, as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Act, by, among other things, misrepresenting to consumers the necessary steps to resolve consumer-reporting complaints. Specifically, the CFPB’s investigation revealed that the defendants allegedly told consumers who complained about errors on their consumer reports that they had to file a dispute with the consumer reporting agency, even though Regulation V requires furnishers to investigate written disputes and contact the applicable consumer reporting agency to resolve any errors. According to the CFPB, this was inaccurate as a matter of law and a deceptive practice. In addition, the CFPB claimed that one defendant failed to implement policies and procedures required by Regulation V to protect the accuracy and integrity of furnished consumer information.
Under the terms of the consent order, the defendants will collectively pay a total of $35,000 in civil money penalties and have agreed not to “misrepresent or assist others in misrepresenting, expressly or impliedly, how consumers can initiate disputes concerning their consumer reports.”
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 May 20, the FTC announced that it and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection amended their complaint against a Utah-based company and its affiliates (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly using deceptive marketing to persuade consumers to attend real estate events costing thousands of dollars. The amended complaint adds additional defendants and new charges asserting the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants after the FTC and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection accused the defendants of violating the FTC Act, the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), and Utah state law, by marketing real estate events with false claims and celebrity endorsements. Among other things, the defendants allegedly told consumers they would (i) earn thousands of dollars in profits from real estate investment “flips” by using the defendants’ products; (ii) receive 100 percent funding for their real estate investments, regardless of credit history; and (iii) receive a full refund if they do not make “‘a minimum of three times’” the price of the workshop within six months. The amended complaint alleges that, in addition to the claims made at the real estate events, the defendants reiterated the false or misleading statements in the course of their telemarketing activities in violation of the TSR.
On May 19, the California attorney general, along with 33 other attorneys general, announced a multistate $550 million settlement with an auto sales financing company for allegedly placing subprime borrowers in auto loans that carried a high risk of default, in violation of state consumer protection laws. Specifically, California’s complaint alleges that the company violated the state’s Unfair Competition Law by, among other things, (i) extending auto loan credit to borrowers the company knew or should have known were likely to result in default and repossession; (ii) failing to disclose to borrowers the high risk of failure associated with the loans; (iii) requiring borrowers to make payments through methods that resulted in third-party fees; and (iv) misrepresenting borrowers’ ability to acquire repossessed vehicles already sent to auction. Additionally, the attorney general alleges that the company “turned a blind eye” to dealer abuse, resulting in higher origination prices for borrowers.
According to the press release, the company will pay approximately $433 million in forgiveness of loans still owned by the company across the U.S. and will waive deficiency balances for borrower loans that the company no longer owns. Notably, certain borrowers who had defaulted as of December 31, 2019 but were still in possession of their vehicle will be allowed to keep the vehicle and have the deficiency balance on the loan waived. California’s settlement also requires injunctive measures such as (i) requiring the company to consider the borrower’s ability to repay the loan; (ii) barring the company from purchasing loans where the borrower’s residual income is zero or negative; (iii) setting reasonable debt to income ratios; and (iv) no longer requiring dealers to sell ancillary products.
In addition to California, the multistate settlement includes: Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, who together with Attorney General Becerra comprise the executive committee; as well as the attorneys general of Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.
- 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
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference