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On April 1, the CFPB announced a $1.3 million settlement with a Texas-based short-term lender to resolve allegations that the lender violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, FCRA, and TILA. The Bureau alleged that while “marketing, servicing, and collecting on high-interest payday, auto-title, and unsecured consumer-installment loans,” the lender made deceptive representations through advertisements and telemarketing calls when promoting purported loan discounts. The Bureau also alleged that the lender engaged in unfair collection call practices by allegedly calling consumers who failed to make payments numerous times—some more than 15 or 20 times a day—even after being asked to stop. In addition, the lender allegedly repeatedly called consumers’ workplaces and references as a tactic to obtain payments and disclosed, or risked disclosing, to third parties the existence of the delinquent debts. According to the Bureau, the lender also violated FCRA by failing to maintain adequate consumer reporting policies and procedures to ensure the “accuracy and integrity” of the information furnished to consumer reporting agencies, and violated TILA by failing to provide telemarketers guidance on how to lawfully disclose a loan’s annual percentage rate as required by federal law when responding to consumers’ questions about interest and other loan costs.
Under the terms of the consent order, the lender is required to pay a $1.1 million civil money penalty, $286,675 in consumer redress, and is, among other things, (i) permanently restrained from certain collection practices; (ii) required to ensure employees do not misrepresent discount offers when marketing or selling consumer financial products or services; and (iii) tasked with ensuring employees correctly disclose the APR of loan products.
On March 9, the FTC filed a complaint against a Colorado-based credit repair company and its owner for allegedly making false representations to consumers regarding their ability to improve credit scores and increase access to mortgages, personal loans, and other credit products in violation of the Credit Repair Organizations Act, the FTC Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. In its complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants charged consumers illegal, upfront fees ranging from $325 to $4,000 per tradeline with the deceptive promise that they could “piggyback” on a stranger’s good credit, thereby artificially inflating their own credit score in the process. As the FTC explained, “piggybacking” occurs when a consumer pays to be registered as an “additional authorized user” on a credit card held by an unrelated account holder with positive payment histories. The FTC alleged that the defendants’ practices did not, in fact, significantly improve consumers’ credit scores as promised, and that while the defendants claimed on their website that their piggybacking services were legal, the FTC “has never determined that credit piggybacking is legal” and the practice does not fall within the protections of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants will be banned from selling access to another consumer’s credit as an authorized user and from collecting advance fees for credit repair services. The defendants will also be required to pay a $6.6 million monetary judgment, which be partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
On February 12, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a California-based investment training operation alleging use of deceptive claims to sell costly “training programs” targeting older consumers. According to the complaint, the operation allegedly 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.” The FTC also alleges that the operation’s instructors claim to be successful traders who have amassed substantial wealth using the strategies, but are actually salespeople working on commission. However, the FTC asserts, among other things, that the operation fails to track customers’ trading results and that its earnings claims are false or unsubstantiated. Moreover, the FTC alleges the operation requires that dissatisfied customers requesting refunds sign agreements barring them from posting negative comments about the operation or its personnel, and specifically prohibits customers from reporting potential violations to law enforcement agencies. Among other things, the FTC seeks injunctive relief against the operation, as well as “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief.”
On February 4, the Washington state attorney general filed a complaint in King County Superior Court against a group of defendants who market services claiming they can release consumers from timeshare contracts. The AG alleges that since 2012, the defendants have unfairly and deceptively contracted with over 32,000 consumers seeking to release timeshare contracts, collecting millions in upfront fees. According to the complaint, the defendants, among other things, advertise their timeshare exit services as being “risk-free” with a 100 percent money-back guarantee; however, the defendants allegedly refuse to issue refunds to clients who face foreclosure, damaged credit ratings, and other negative financial consequences claiming that such outcomes are successful because the clients “technically” no longer own the timeshares. In addition, the AG alleges that the defendants charge clients upfront fees for each timeshare to be exited, and then outsource more than 95 percent of their clients’ files to third-party vendors for significantly discounted rates. These vendors are allegedly left to accomplish the timeshare exits without input or supervision from the defendants and often without a contract governing their work. The complaint alleges violations of the Consumer Protection Act, the Debt Adjusting Act, and the Credit Services Organization Act. The AG seeks numerous remedies including injunctive relief prohibiting the defendants from selling their services and $2,000 in civil penalties per violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
On February 5, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based payday lender and six subsidiaries (defendants) for allegedly assisting in the collection of online installment loans and online lines of credit that consumers were not legally obligated to pay based on certain states’ usury laws or licensing requirements. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint in 2017—amended in 2018—against the defendants for allegedly violating the CFPA’s prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by, among other things, making deceptive demands and originating debit entries from consumers’ bank accounts for loans that the defendants knew were either partially or completely void because the loans were void under state licensing or usury laws. The defendants—who operated in conjunction with three tribal lenders engaged in the business of extending and collecting the online installment loans and lines of credit—also allegedly provided material services and substantial assistance to two debt collection companies that were also involved in the collection of these loans.
Under the stipulated final consent order, the defendants are prohibited from (i) extending, servicing, or collecting on loans made to consumers in any of the identified 17 states if the loans violate state usury limits or licensing requirements; and (ii) assisting others engaged in this type of conduct. Additionally, the settlement imposes a $1 civil money penalty against each of the seven defendants. The Bureau’s press release notes that the order “is a component of the global resolution of the [defendants’] bankruptcy proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, which includes settlements with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and private litigants in a nationwide consumer class action.” The press release also states that “[c]onsumer redress will be disbursed from a fund created as part of the global resolution, which is anticipated to have over $39 million for distribution to consumers and may increase over time as a result of ongoing, related litigation and settlements.”
On February 3, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a lead generator website (respondents) that compares and ranks consumer financial products such as student loans, personal loans, and credit cards. According to the FTC’s complaint, the respondents violated the FTC Act by allegedly making false representations to consumers that their rankings were objective, honest, accurate, and unbiased, when in fact, the defendants allegedly offered higher rankings to companies that paid for placement. In addition, the complaint alleges that certain highly ranked companies dropped placement spots after refusing to pay for their positions. The complaint further contends that the respondents allegedly claimed that customer reviews were impartial, but in reality most reviews were written by company employees or their family friends, or others associated with the company, or by fabricated consumers. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the respondents have agreed to pay $350,000 under the terms of the proposed settlement, and are prohibited from making future misrepresentations connected with the “advertising, promotion, offering for sale, or sale of any product or service.”
On January 2, the Missouri attorney general filed a petition for preliminary and permanent injunction in Missouri Circuit Court against a nonprofit trust and its registered agent (the defendants) alleging the defendants deceived thousands of state residents by marketing memberships in the trust with the promise that the pooled resources would fund “to-be-completed homes.” The AG alleges that the defendants solicited consumers to attend meetings, purchase memberships, and pay monthly dues, and also asked members to provide additional funds to go towards appliances and other fixtures for the homes. However, the agent defendant allegedly admitted that none of the promised homes were constructed or otherwise provided to the members.
The AG further contends that “none of the solicited funds were ever used or invested towards providing a home to any of the members,” and were instead used to cover the trust’s operating expenses. According to the AG, the defendants’ actions violate state law and constitute false promises, omissions of material fact, and deception. The AG seeks injunctive relief “up to and including prohibiting and enjoining [d]efendants . . . from owning or operating organizations that sell or manage real estate that solicit upfront payments for goods or services, or that solicit charitable contributions.” The AG also seeks restitution for member losses, a fine equal to 10 percent of the restitution amount, a $1,000 fine per violation, and compensation for the state’s costs in pursuing the case.
On December 6, the FTC issued an unanimous opinion against a British consulting and data analytics firm, finding that the firm violated the FTC Act by engaging in “deceptive practices to harvest personal information from tens of millions of [a social media company’s] users.” The information—which was allegedly collected through an application that told users it would not harvest identifiable information—was then used to target potential voters. The opinion also found that the firm engaged in deceptive practices relating to its participation in the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework. The opinion follows an administrative complaint issued against the firm in July (previously covered by InfoBytes here). Under the terms of the administrative final order, the firm is prohibited from misrepresenting “the extent to which it protects the privacy and confidentiality of personal information as well as its participation in the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield framework and other similar regulatory or standard-setting organizations,” and it must apply Privacy Shield protections to personal information collected during its participation in the program or return or delete the information. Among other things, the firm also must delete or destroy the personal information collected from consumers through the app, as well as any other information or work product that originated from the information.
On November 13, the Washington attorney general announced an office supply company has agreed to pay $900,000 to resolve an investigation into deceptive computer repair services. According to the AG’s office, the company allegedly used a software program, called “PC Health Check” or similar names, to facilitate the sale of diagnostic and repair services to retail customers that cost up to $200, regardless of whether their computer was actually infected with viruses or malware. The company claimed that the program, which allegedly detected malware symptoms on consumers’ computers, actually based the results on answers to four questions consumers were asked by a company employee at the beginning of the service, including whether the computer had slowed down, had issues with frequent pop-up ads, received virus warnings, or crashed often. After the questions were asked, the responses were entered into the program and a simple scan of the computer was run. The AG’s office claims that the scan had no connection to the malware symptoms results because an affirmative answer by the consumer to any of the four questions always led to the report of actual or potential malware symptoms. The release also states that in 2012, a company employee informed management that “the software reported malware symptoms on a computer that ‘didn’t have anything wrong with it,’” but that the company continued to sell the repair services until 2016 to an estimated 14,000 Washington consumers. According to the AG’s release, Washington is the only state to reach an agreement with the company over the alleged practices in addition to the $35 million national settlement the company and its software vendor reached with the FTC in March for similar conduct. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
On November 5, the FTC and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah against a Utah-based company and its affiliates (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly using deceptive marketing to persuade consumers to purchase real estate training packages costing thousands of dollars. According to the complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and Utah state law by marketing real estate training packages with false claims through the use of celebrity endorsements. The defendants’ marketing materials allegedly told consumers, among other things, that they would (i) receive strategies for making profitable real estate deals during seminars included in the packages; and (ii) learn how to access wholesale or deeply discounted properties. The complaint argues, however, that the promises were false and misleading, as, among other things, the seminars promoted additional workshops costing more than $1,100 to attend where consumers largely received general information about real estate investing, along with promotions for “advanced training” costing tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, the discounted properties were typically sold or brokered to consumers by the defendants at inflated prices with concealed markups, the complaint alleges. Among other things, the FTC and Utah Division of Consumer Protection seek monetary and injunctive relief against the defendants.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association 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