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On June 10, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against an individual defendant who participated in a deceptive debt-relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the Bureau, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student-loan borrowers and charging more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. In the third amended complaint, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015, the debt relief operation violated the CFPA, TSR, FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by, among other things, misrepresenting: (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness for borrowers; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. Moreover, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that it was their practice to request that the loans be placed in forbearance and also submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments.
Under the terms of the final judgment, in addition to various forms of injunctive relief, the individual defendant must pay a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau and $5,000 each to Minnesota, North Carolina, and California. The individual defendant is also “liable, jointly and severally, in the amount of $95,057,757, for the purpose of providing redress to Affected Consumers,” although his obligation to pay this amount is “suspended based on [his] inability to pay.”
On June 9, the CFPB filed a stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California resolving allegations that the operator of a student-loan debt relief company engaged in unfair debiting of consumer accounts, in violation of the CFPA. According to the complaint, in 2016, the defendant founded a student debt relief company, which “did not solicit new consumers, but instead obtained student-loan account and billing information for hundreds of former [student debt relief operation] consumers without the knowledge or consent of those consumers.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2016, the CFPB filed a consent order against a San Diego-based student debt relief operation for alleged violations of the CFPA, the TSR, and Regulation P by deceiving borrowers into paying fees for federal loan benefits and misrepresenting to consumers that it was affiliated with the Department of Education. The CFPB alleged that the defendant led a debt collection scheme by withdrawing $39 per month, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in total fees from student borrowers’ bank accounts, without authorization, after previously obtaining their names and account information from the former student loan debt relief business. According to the CFPB, “under this scheme, [the defendant’s] company had unlawfully debited more than $240,000 from hundreds of student borrowers’ accounts.” Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant is permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services and must pay a $175,000 penalty to the CFPB.
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.
On May 25, the FTC announced an action resolving allegations against a subscription scam operation and its officers (collectively, “defendants”) that allegedly deceptively used telemarketing schemes on consumers. According to the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, the defendants allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by calling consumers to claim that they were conducting a survey and offering “free” or low-cost magazine subscriptions. After the survey, the defendants allegedly sent consumers a bill falsely stating that they agreed to pay several hundred dollars for the magazine subscriptions. According to the FTC, there was a “no-cancellation policy,” and the defendants allegedly harassed consumers when they refused to pay the exorbitant bills, including by threatening to initiate collection actions or threatening to submit derogatory information about them to the major credit bureaus. The proposed order follows a 2010 permanent injunction that was entered against the same defendants, which prohibited them from committing future violations. The recent order requires the defendants to pay a suspended judgment of $14.4 million and requires them to give up all claims to money already paid to the FTC. Additionally, the defendants are required to monitor their compliance with the proposed order “and may face significant contempt remedies if they violate its terms.” The FTC noted that the original monetary relief was vacated after the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC, which limited the FTC’s ability to obtain monetary relief in federal court (covered by InfoBytes here). The FTC pointed out that the “settlement of this matter for a suspended judgment of $14.47 million, after originally having been awarded $24 million at trial, demonstrates the challenges since the Supreme Court’s AMG decision.”
On May 24, the FTC finalized an order against an independent sales organization and its owners (collectively, “respondents”) to settle allegations that they violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by helping scammers launder millions of dollars of consumers’ credit card payments from 2012 to 2013 and ignored warning signs that the merchants were fake. According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, the respondents, among other things, created 43 different merchant accounts for fictitious companies and provided advice to the organizers of the scam on how to spread out the transactions among different accounts to evade detection (covered by InfoBytes here).
Under the terms of the final order, the respondents are required to make several substantial changes to their processes, and are prohibited from engaging in credit card laundering, as well as any other actions to evade fraud and risk monitoring programs. Additionally, the respondents are banned from providing payment processing services to any merchant that is, or is likely to be, engaged in deceptive or unfair conduct, and to any merchant that is flagged as high-risk by the credit card industry monitoring programs. Furthermore, the respondents are required to screen potential merchants who are engaged in certain activities that could harm consumers, and monitor and designate as necessary current merchants who may require additional screening. The FTC noted that it is unable to obtain a monetary judgment in this action due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC, which held that the FTC does not have statutory authority to obtain equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act (covered by InfoBytes here).
On May 24, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against an individual defendant who participated in a deceptive debt-relief enterprise operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the CFPB, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student-loan borrowers and charging more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. In the third amended complaint, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015 the debt relief operation violated the CFPA, TSR, FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting, among other things: (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness for borrowers; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. Moreover, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that it was their practice to request that the loans be placed in forbearance and also submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments. Under the terms of the final judgment, the individual defendant must pay a $483,662 civil money penalty to the Bureau.
On May 6, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted a temporary restraining order against a credit repair operation for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices. According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation violated the FTC Act, the CROA, and the TSR by, among other things; (i) making misrepresentations regarding credit repair services; (ii) making misrepresentations regarding a money-making opportunity associated with a government benefit related to Covid-19; (iii) making untrue or misleading representations to consumers, which included increasing their credit score; (vi) charging for the performance of credit repair services that the defendants agreed to perform prior to such services being fully performed; (v) making untrue or misleading statements with respect to their sales pitch on credit worthiness, credit standing, or credit capacity to consumer reporting agencies, creditors, and potential creditors; and (vi) charging illegal advance fees. Beyond the temporary restraining order, the FTC is seeking a permanent injunction, the appointment of a receiver, immediate access to business premises, an asset freeze, and other equitable relief.
On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the FTC and the Florida attorney general after finding that an individual defendant could be held liable for the actions of the entities he controlled. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and the Florida AG filed a complaint in 2016 against several interrelated companies and the individual defendant who founded the companies, alleging violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in a scheme that targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. Among other things, the defendants also claimed to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates and charged up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services. In 2018, the court granted the FTC and the Florida AG’s motion for summary judgment, finding there was no genuine dispute that the individual defendant controlled the defendant entities, that he knew his employees were making false representations, and that he failed to stop them. The court entered a permanent injunction, which ordered the individual defendant to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief and permanently restrained and enjoined the individual defendant from participating—whether directly or indirectly—in telemarketing; advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or misrepresenting material facts.
The individual defendant appealed, arguing that there were genuine disputes over whether: (i) he controlled the entities; (ii) he had knowledge that employees were making misrepresentations and failed to prevent them; (iii) employee affidavits “attesting that they had saved customers money created an issue of fact about whether his programs did what he said they would do”; and (iv) he had knowledge of “rogue employees” violating the “do not call” registry to solicit customers.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit determined that the facts presented by the individual defendant did not create a genuine dispute about whether he controlled the entities, and further stated that the individual defendant is liable for the employees’ misrepresentations because of his control of the entities and his knowledge of those misrepresentations. The appellate court explained that while the individual defendant argued that he could not be liable because he did not participate in those representations, he failed to present any evidence in support of that argument and, even if he had, “it wouldn’t matter, because [the individual defendant’s] liability stems from his control of [the companies], not from his individual conduct.” Additionally, the appellate court held that whether the services were helpful to customers was immaterial and did not absolve him of liability, because liability for deceptive sales practices does not require worthlessness. As to the “do not call” registry violations, the appellate court disagreed with the individual defendant’s claim that an “outside dialer or lead generator”—not the company—placed the outbound calls, holding that this excuse also does not absolve him of liability.
On March 10, the FTC reached a settlement with a payment processing company and two senior officers (collectively, “defendants”) whereby the company would pay $2.3 million in restitution as part of their role in allegedly helping the operators of a group of marketing entities enroll consumers into online discount clubs and debit more than $40 million from consumers’ bank accounts for membership without their authorization. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC’s 2017 complaint claimed that the online discount clubs claimed to offer services to consumers in need of payday, cash advance, or installment loans, but instead enrolled consumers in a coupon service that charged initial fees ranging from $49.89 to $99.49, as well as monthly recurring fees of up to $19.95. However, the FTC’s complaint stated that “99.5 percent of the consumers being illegally charged for the ‘discount clubs’ never accessed any coupons, and that tens of thousands called the defendants to try and cancel the charges, while thousands more disputed the charges directly with their banks.” The FTC accused the defendants of providing “substantial assistance or support” in the way of payment processing services while “knowing or consciously avoiding knowing” that the actions being supported were in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The FTC further detailed how defendants ignored several indications of fraudulent activity, including the consistently high return rates generated by the discount club transactions and that a primary client of their services had already been the subject of previous FTC enforcement actions for engaging in similar conduct.
Under the terms of the settlement, which is pending court approval, the defendants are banned from, among other things, (i) processing remotely created payment orders; (ii) processing payments on behalf of clients whose business involves outbound telemarketing, discount clubs, or offers to help consumers with payday loans; (iii) processing payments on behalf of any client that the defendants know or should know is engaging in deceptive or unfair acts or practices or violating the TSR; and (iv) processing payments for any existing or prospective clients without first conducting a reasonable screening to ensure clients are not violating federal law.
On February 28, the FTC announced the permanent ban of the operators (collectively, “defendants”) of a debt relief scheme from processing debt relief payments and ordered the defendants to pay a $5.3 million fine. According to the FTC’s July 2020 complaint, which was filed jointly with the Florida attorney general in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, the defendants allegedly engaged in deceptive and abusive practices by selling their credit card interest rate reduction services to consumers in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The FTC and Florida AG claimed that the defendants utilized telemarketing calls promising to reduce consumers’ credit card interest rates permanently and substantially, and, after posing as representatives or affiliates of consumers’ credit card companies, the defendants allegedly claimed they could save consumers thousands of dollars in credit card interest and enable them to pay off their debt faster. The complaint also asserted that the defendants, at times, opened new credit cards that offered low introductory interest rates and transferred the balances of consumers’ existing debt to the new cards. For that, customers paid upfront fees of between $995 and $4,995 while also paying “substantial” fees to transfer the balances.
Under the terms of the settlement, the operators are permanently prohibited from participating the debt relief industry, misrepresenting material facts in connection with any product or service, and engaging in deceptive and abusive telemarketing acts and practices, unsubstantiated claims, and other payment practices. Two individual defendants agreed to pay a $225,000 monetary penalty and the other defendant agreed to pay $200,000.