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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 20, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Florida-based nonbank and the nonbank’s founder (collectively, “defendants”), resolving allegations that the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act by making misleading statements in disclosures and advertisements for their auto loan payment accelerator program. According to the Bureau, the defendants’ program automatically deducts partial payments on a bi-weekly basis from consumers’ bank accounts and then forwards those payments every month to consumers’ lenders or servicers. As a result, enrolled consumers end up making the equivalent of 13 monthly payments each year instead of 12. While the program is marketed as an opportunity for consumers to save money, the Bureau claimed that the defendants misrepresented the amount consumers would save by not disclosing a $399 enrollment fee in the savings calculations presented to consumers. Due to the enrollment fee, the program’s costs “ordinarily exceed[ed] any savings,” the Bureau alleged, noting that the defendants had no basis for claiming that thousands of consumers saved money by enrolling in the program.
The consent order requires the defendants to pay a $1 civil money penalty and $9.3 million in consumer redress, which is suspended upon payment of $900,000 based on the defendants’ demonstrated inability to pay the full judgment. The Bureau noted in its press release that harmed consumers may be eligible to receive additional relief from the Bureau’s Civil Penalty Fund. The defendants are also prohibited from making any deceptive misrepresentations about the payment program or any other payment accelerator programs.
On November 18, the FTC filed a complaint against a mobile banking app operator alleging the defendants violated the FTC Act by deceiving users about their high-interest bank accounts and falsely promising users “24/7” access to their funds. The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants represented that users would receive “‘minimum base’ interest rates” of at least 0.2 percent or 1.0 percent, but that users actually received a starting interest rate of 0.04 percent and stopped earning any interest if they requested that their funds be returned. Additionally, the complaint claims that while the defendants promised users 24/7 access to their funds and represented they could make transfers out of their accounts and receive the requested funds within three to five business days, some users waited weeks or months to receive their funds despite submitting repeated complaints to the defendants. Other users claimed they never received their money. Moreover, some users claimed that the defendants blamed the failure to deliver the requested funds on “unspecified issues with unspecified ‘banking partners’ or ‘technology partners’ and promised the delays were temporary.
The FTC seeks an 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 November 5, the CFPB filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against a Florida-based company and its CEO (collectively, “defendants”) alleging violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act through their offering of short-term, high-interest loans funded by deposits made by other consumers. According to the complaint, the defendants allegedly misrepresented both the risks associated with the deposit product as well as the annual percentage rate (APR) for the loans offered to other consumers. The Bureau alleges that the defendants engaged in deceptive acts or practices by, among other things, (i) purportedly marketing loans, which ranged from $100 to $500 each, as having a 440 percent APR, when in reality the actual APR ranged from 975 to 978 percent; (ii) claiming that deposits received by consumers to fund its loans are guaranteed a 15 percent annual percentage yield; (iii) guaranteeing that consumers’ deposits are FDIC insured and held at “‘member financial institutions’ and ‘participating banks’”; and (iv) claiming that roughly every minute a new consumer makes a deposit. However, the Bureau contends that deposits are not held in FDIC-insured accounts, that the rate of return is not guaranteed, and that “the average rate of new customers is just a few each day.” The Bureau further alleges that because the majority of the loans violate Florida’s criminal-usury law, rendering them uncollectable, the defendants would be unable to collect delinquent loans or meet their obligations to consumers seeking to withdraw their deposited funds. Among other things, the Bureau seeks an injunction against the defendants, damages, consumer redress, disgorgement, and a civil money penalty.
On November 2, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based payment plan company, resolving allegations that the company’s loan payment program disclosures contained misleading statements in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the Bureau, the company’s loan payment program for auto loans is marketed as an opportunity for consumers to pay off loans faster and more cheaply, where automatic partial payments are deducted bi-weekly from consumers’ bank accounts and then forwarded to consumers’ lenders or servicers. However, consumers who enrolled in the bi-weekly program end up “making 13 monthly payments or one full extra payment to [the company] each year,” the Bureau alleged, in addition to paying a bi-weekly debit fee. According to the consent order, the company, among other things, allegedly provided consumers with a customized “benefits summary” that stated a specific amount of interest savings the consumer would receive by enrolling in the program. The Bureau alleged that the benefits summary, however, failed to disclose that the fees would ordinarily exceed the interest savings. The program—which was purportedly marketed as a “financial benefit to consumers”—created the misleading impression that consumers would save money using the product even though the company allegedly knew the majority of enrolled consumers ended up paying more in total on their loans.
The consent order requires the company to pay a $1 civil money penalty and $7.5 million in consumer redress, which is suspended upon payment of $1.5 million based on the company’s demonstrated inability to pay the full judgment. The Bureau noted in its press release that harmed consumers may be eligible to receive additional relief from the Bureau’s Civil Penalty Fund. The company is also prohibited from making any misrepresentations about its payment program or any other payment accelerator programs.
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.
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