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On September 19, the FTC and the California Department of Financial Protection (DFPI) announced a lawsuit against several companies and owners for allegedly operating an illegal mortgage relief operation. (See also DFPI’s announcement here.) The filing marks the agencies’ first joint action, which alleges the defendants’ conduct violated the California Consumer Financial Protection Law, the FTC Act, the FTC’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (the MARS Rule or Regulation O), the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act. The agencies claimed that the defendants preyed on distressed consumers with false promises of mortgage assistance relief. According to the complaint, the defendants made misleading claims during telemarketing calls to consumers, including those with numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, as well as through text messages and in online ads. In certain cases, defendants represented they were affiliated with government agencies or were part of a Covid-19 pandemic assistance program. Among other things, defendants falsely claimed they were able to lower consumers’ interest rates or payments, and instructed consumers not to pay their mortgages, leading to late fees and significantly lower credit score. Defendants also allegedly told consumers not to communicate directly with their lenders, which caused consumers to miss default notices and face foreclosure. Additionally, defendants charged consumers illegal up-front fees ranging from $500 to $2,900 a month, and told consumers they were negotiating loan modifications that in most cases never happened.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted a restraining order temporarily shutting down the defendants’ operations. In freezing the defendants’ assets and ordering them to submit financial statements, the court noted that the agencies established a likelihood of success in showing that the defendants “have falsely, deceptively, and illegally marketed, advertised, and sold mortgage relief assistance services.”
On December 30, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada had, on December 5, granted its motion for summary judgment in an action against a mortgage loan modification operation (operation) for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (MARS Rule). The January 2018 complaint alleged that the operation had engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when it “preyed on financially distressed homeowners” by making false representations in advertising that its mortgage relief services could prevent foreclosures and “substantially lower” mortgage interest rates, as previously covered here. Additionally, the complaint charged that the operation used “doctored logos” in correspondence with consumers to give the impression that it was “affiliated with, endorsed or approved by, or otherwise associated with the federal government’s Making Home Affordable loan modification program,” and similarly claimed affiliation or “special arrangements” with the holder or servicer of the consumer’s loan. The court agreed with the FTC’s allegations, finding that the operation violated the FTC Act and the MARS Rule. The court entered a monetary judgment against the operation of over $18.4 million as equitable relief, which the FTC may use to compensate consumers harmed by the operation’s business practices. To the extent that an FTC representative determines that direct consumer redress is impracticable or money remains after redress is completed, the FTC may apply any remaining funds to other equitable relief (including consumer information remedies) that it determines is reasonably related to the practices alleged in the complaint. The court also permanently enjoined the operation from marketing or providing any secured or unsecured debt relief product or service, as well as from making deceptive statements to consumers regarding any other financial product or service.
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