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Washington enacts credit repair regulation
On April 20, the Washington governor signed HB 1311 to enact provisions relating to credit repair services performed by a credit services organization. Among other things, the Act outlines new requirements, including that a credit services organization must provide consumers with a monthly statement that details the services performed, as well as “an accounting of any funds paid by a consumer and held or disbursed on the consumer’s behalf and copies of any letters sent by the credit services organization on the consumer’s behalf,” if applicable. Additionally, a credit services organization is prohibited from sending any communications to a consumer reporting agency, creditor, collection agency, or regulatory entity unless the consumer has provided prior written authorization. Credit services organizations must also comply with specified written communication requirements and provide disclosures addressing consumers’ rights to review their files. Modifications to certain provisions relating to notices of cancellation have also been made. The Act is effective July 23.
District Court allows FTC suit against owners of credit repair operation to proceed
On February 13, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied a motion to dismiss filed by certain defendants in a credit repair scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last May the FTC sued a credit repair operation that allegedly targeted consumers with low credit scores promising its products could remove all negative information from their credit reports and significantly increase credit scores. At the time, the court granted a temporary restraining order against the operation for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices that scammed consumers out of more than $213 million. The temporary restraining order was eventually vacated, and the defendants at issue (two individuals and two companies that allegedly marketed credit repair services to consumers, charged consumers prohibited advance fees in order to use their services without providing required disclosures, and promoted an illegal pyramid scheme) moved to dismiss themselves from the case and to preclude the FTC from obtaining permanent injunctive and monetary relief.
In denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court held, among other things, that “controlling shareholders of closely-held corporations are presumed to have the authority to control corporate acts.” The court pointed to the FTC’s allegations that the individual defendants at issue were owners, officers, directors, or managers, were authorized signatories on bank accounts, and had “formulated, directed, controlled, had the authority to control, or participated in the acts and practices set forth in the complaint.” The court further held that the FTC’s allegations raised a plausible inference that the individual defendants have the authority to control the businesses and demonstrated that they possessed, “at the most basic level, ‘an awareness of a high probability of deceptiveness and intentionally avoided learning of the truth.’”
The court also disagreed with the defendants’ argument that the permanent injunction is not applicable to them because they have since resigned their controlling positions of the related businesses, finding that “[t]his development, if true, does not insulate them from a permanent injunction.” The court found that “the complaint contains plausible allegations of present and ongoing deceptive practices that would authorize the [c]ourt to award a permanent injunction ‘after proper proof.’” In addition, the court said it may award monetary relief because the FTC brought claims under both sections 13(b) and 19 of the FTC Act and “section 19(b) contemplates the ‘refund of money,’ the ‘return of property,’ or the ‘payment of damages’ to remedy consumer injuries[.]”
FTC proposes to permanently ban credit repair operation
On December 15, the FTC announced proposed court orders to permanently ban a group of companies and their owners (collectively, “defendants”) from offering or providing credit repair services. In May the FTC filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly violating the FTC Act, the Credit Repair Organizations Act, and the TSR, among other statutes, by making deceptive misrepresentations about their credit repair services and charging illegal advance fees (covered by InfoBytes here). At the time, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted a temporary restraining order against the defendants. The proposed court orders (see here and here) were agreed to by the defendants, and contain several requirements: (i) a permanent ban against the defendants from operating or assisting any credit repair service of any kind; (ii) a prohibition against making unsubstantiated claims “about the benefits, performance, or efficacy of any good or service without sufficient supporting evidence”; and (iii) the release of numerous possessions that will be liquidated by a court-appointed receiver and used by the FTC to provide refunds to impacted consumers. The proposed court orders also include a total monetary judgment of more than $18.8 million, which is partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
FTC secures TRO against credit repair scheme
On May 31, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Maryland granted a temporary restraining order against a credit repair operation for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices that scammed consumers out of more than $213 million. According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation targeted consumers with low credit scores promising its products could remove all negative information from their credit reports and significantly increase credit scores. The operation allegedly violated the FTC Act, the Credit Repair Organizations Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by, among other things, (i) making misrepresentations regarding its credit repair services; (ii) selling a product that purportedly sends rent payment information to credit bureaus even though “this information is not generally part of consumers’ credit score and many credit bureaus don’t accept this kind of information directly from consumers”; (iii) charging illegal advance fees; (iv) failing to provide consumers required information such as refund and cancellation policies; and (v) recruiting consumers to sell credit repair products to other consumers as part of a pyramid scheme even though few consumers ever received the promised earnings (and many consumers actually lost money as agents). Beyond the temporary restraining order, the FTC is seeking a permanent injunction, monetary relief, and other equitable relief.
CFPB’s TSR claims against software company to proceed
On April 5, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied a motion to dismiss claims brought by the CFPB alleging violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the California-based software company and its owner (collectively, “defendants”) market and sell credit-repair business software and other tools to credit-repair businesses charging unlawful advance fees to consumers. According to the Bureau, the defendants provide substantial assistance to these businesses and purportedly encourage them to “charge unlawful advance fees” even though, under the TSR, companies that telemarket their services are prohibited from requesting or receiving fees from consumers until consumers are provided with a credit report showing that the promised results have been achieved.
The court was unpersuaded by the defendants’ argument that the Bureau exceeded its authority to pursue enforcement actions against them, claiming the credit-repair businesses that use defendants’ products and services are not “covered persons” under the CFPA, as the businesses “provide only retrospective credit-repair services and thus do not provide prospective consumer financial services under the CFPA.” The court held that the CFPA’s broad purpose and expansive language covers the services provided by the credit-repair businesses to improve or repair consumers’ credit and that such activity is considered “credit counseling” under the CFPA and is therefore a “consumer financial product or service.” The court further held that the credit-repair businesses were “covered persons” based on allegations that they provide consumers’ credit history to help with the approval of a mortgage or auto loan, recognizing that performing analysis relating to the credit history of consumers in connection with a decision regarding a consumer financial product or service is covered by the CFPA. The court also disagreed with the defendants’ argument that they are not “service providers” under the statute, in part, because the defendants “have the capacity to vet and monitor” the credit-repair businesses. The court also was not persuaded that the Credit Repair Organizations Act’s (CROA) provision allowing credit-repair businesses to charge monthly fees supersedes the TSR requirement that such a company cannot collect payment until the promised results have been achieved, holding that the requirements of each are not in conflict and noting that “if a credit repair agency does not qualify as a telemarketer, then it need not comply with the TSR—only the CROA is applicable,” and that nothing in the language of the CROA indicates that the defendants’ activities “may not simultaneously be regulated by the [TSR].”
FTC, DOJ halt deceptive credit repair operation
On March 21, the FTC and DOJ announced that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas entered a permanent injunction against a credit repair organization accused of allegedly defrauding consumers out of millions of dollars by promising to remove negative information from their credit reports, while actually filing fake identity theft reports to explain the negative items. (Press releases linked here and here.) According to the complaint, filed by the DOJ on behalf of the FTC, the defendants allegedly claimed their “two-step process” could remove negative items from consumers’ credit histories or credit reports through “advance disputing” of negative information and help boost credit scores by adding “credit building products” to consumers’ credit reports. However, according to the FTC, defendants failed to follow through on their credit repair promises, and instead filed identity theft reports even when consumers had not actually been victims of identity theft. The FTC claimed many consumers actually saw their credit scores decrease because the defendants’ “unsupported challenges rarely if ever cause[d] credit reporting agencies to delete or change any consumer’s credit information.” Company representatives also allegedly informed consumers that the process could boost consumers’ credit scores by 50-200 points within 90 days—a violation of the Credit Repair Organizations Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. Additionally, the FTC claimed that the defendants illegally required consumers to pay upfront fees up to $1,500, and failed to include disclosures detailing cancellation policies or provide consumers with copies of the contracts they were required to sign in order to obtain the defendants’ services. The permanent injunction imposes financial restrictions on the defendants and halts their operations.
5th Circuit: Law firm may send debt dispute letters on behalf of clients
On April 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling in favor of defendant credit repair organizations (including a law firm), holding that plaintiff data furnishers failed to provide sufficient evidence supporting their claims of fraud and fraud by nondisclosure. The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the defendants were sending dispute letters that appeared to have come directly from the defendants’ debtor clients. Under the FCRA and the FDCPA, the plaintiffs are obligated to investigate disputed debts that come directly from debtors. Letters from law firms, the plaintiffs argued, do not trigger such requirements. According to the plaintiffs, the disputes they were receiving were costing them money to investigate, which they would not have spent if had they known the letters were coming from a law firm. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on their claims of fraud and fraud by non-disclosure and awarded them roughly $2.5 million. The district court ultimately vacated the jury’s verdict, however, explaining that the evidence failed to show that the defendants made any false misrepresentations, material or otherwise, when they signed their clients’ names on letters mailed to the plaintiffs. The law firm defendant “had the legal right to sign its clients’ names on the correspondence it sent on their behalf to data furnishers who reported inaccurate information about the clients’ credit,” the district court wrote.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit determined, among other things, that the plaintiffs did “not provide any precedential support or explanation for their assertion that these facts demonstrate Defendants committed fraud and fraud by non-disclosure beyond the observation that the jury found for them on those claims.” Moreover, the appellate court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the engagement agreements that clients signed with the defendant law firm, which allowed it to send dispute letters on a client’s behalf, were fraudulent because the defendant law firm did not discuss the letters with the consumers first. According to the appellate court, the existence of any such discussion was immaterial because the engagement agreements allowed the defendant law firm to send letters on a client’s behalf. However, the appellate court noted that “[w]hile we do not hold today that there are no situations in which a third party may act fraudulently when it mails dispute letters (and leave for another day what those situations may be), we can safely say that this is not one of them.”
CFPB moves to enforce subpoena against telemarketer in alleged credit repair operation
On August 25, the CFPB filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Florida to compel a telemarketing company (defendant) allegedly associated with a credit repair operation to comply with a subpoena and produce documents requested by the Bureau. According to the Bureau, the defendant has refused to comply with a subpoena in the ongoing litigation of a 2019 CFPB action against the credit repair operation (covered by InfoBytes here). The operation allegedly violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by using “Hotswap Partners,” such as the defendant, who allegedly engaged in deceptive acts and practices when selling and marketing financial products and “live-transferr[ing]” consumers to the credit repair operation’s telemarketing call centers. The Bureau contends that the defendant transferred “thousands of consumers” to the operation each year for at least a decade, yet has only provided a minimal number of documents in response to the subpoena, which seeks records related to the defendant’s business activities and marketing relationship with the credit repair operation. According to the Bureau, the defendant has refused to produce additional materials based on “boilerplate and unsubstantiated objections.” The Bureau also argues that the defendant has failed to provide a basis for its objections, which include a “general privilege objection and a general objection that the requested format of certain unspecified documents would ‘impose an unreasonable burden on the Company,’” and has “rebuffed” every attempt made by the Bureau to discuss compliance with the subpoena.
Credit repair trade association sues CFPB over TSR six-month waiting period
On May 21, a credit repair trade association filed a complaint against the CFPB in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida alleging the Bureau violated the credit repair organizations’ First Amendment rights under the Constitution by enforcing a six-month payment waiting period in the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The association is challenging Section 310.4(a)(2)(ii) of the TSR, which prohibits credit repair organizations from requesting or receiving payment for services rendered for a minimum of six months after the services have been performed. The complaint alleges that the prohibition (i) exceeds the FTC’s statutory authority under the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act; (ii) conflicts with the Credit Repair Organizations Acts (CROA); and (iii) is an infringement on the First Amendment rights of credit repair organizations by improperly impairing fully protected speech. Specifically, the association argues that the TSR is only applicable to credit repair organizations in certain situations, and the CROA—which does not require the six-month waiting period nor proof that “results were achieved”—is “the final and decisive law concerning credit repair organizations, including the time and manner of their billing practices.” Moreover, the complaint argues that the Bureau does not have the authority to enforce the TSR against credit repair organizations, as the Dodd-Frank Act did not explicitly transfer the authority from the FTC. The complaint is seeking a declaratory judgment that the TSR is unenforceable, invalid, and unlawful.
CFPB and Massachusetts AG sue credit-repair telemarketers
On May 22, the CFPB and the Massachusetts attorney general announced a joint lawsuit against a credit repair organization and the company’s president and owner (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly committing deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law. The complaint also alleges the defendants engaged in deceptive and abusive telemarketing acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s (CFPA) prohibition against deceptive acts or practices and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the defendants allegedly enrolled tens of thousands of consumers by deceptively claiming that their credit-repair services could help consumers substantially improve their credit scores. The services also allegedly promised to fix “unlimited” amounts of negative items from consumers’ credit reports. However, the complaint asserts that in “numerous instances,” the defendants failed to achieve these results. The defendants also allegedly engaged in abusive acts and practices in violation of the TSR by requesting and collecting fees before achieving any results related to repairing a consumer’s credit. Among other things, the complaint further alleges that the defendants claimed to have more than 60 credit repair experts but actually only employed a handful of Boston-based employees, only some of whom interacted with consumers. The majority of the interactions, the complaint alleges, were conducted by telemarketers located in Central America who were paid “almost entirely by commission” based on the number of consumers they enrolled.
The complaint seeks injunctive relief; “damages and other monetary relief against [the defendants] as the Court finds necessary to redress injury to consumers resulting from [the defendants’] violations, which may include, among other things, rescission or reformation of contracts, refund of monies paid, and restitution; and civil money penalties.”