Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On January 17, the FTC announced it had reached settlements with a number of defendants alleged to have operated “an unlawful credit repair scam that has deceived consumers across the country.” According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants purportedly made false representations to consumers regarding their abilities to improve credit scores, falsely promised to remove any negative entries on the consumers’ credit reports, illegally collected upfront fees from consumers before the services were fully performed, and used threats and coercion to intimidate consumers from disputing charges. The FTC alleged these misleading statements and illegal actions violated TILA, the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Act, and the Credit Repair Organizations Act, among other things. Additionally, the FTC claimed that the defendants “routinely engage in electronic fund transfers from consumers’ bank accounts without obtaining proper authorization, and use remotely created checks to pay for credit repair services they have offered through a telemarketing campaign, in violation of the TSR.” The defendants, without admitting or denying the allegations, agreed to settlements that ban the defendants from offering credit repair services through “advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling,” impose a total monetary penalty of nearly $14 million, and require several defendants to turn over the contents of bank and merchant accounts as well as investment and cryptocurrency accounts. See the settlements here, here, and here.
On January 10, the FTC announced that it entered into two settlement agreements: one with a call center and two individuals, and one with an additional individual (together, “the settling defendants”) that it claims made illegal robocalls to consumers as part of a cruise line’s telemarketing operation allegedly aimed at marketing free cruise packages to consumers. According to the two settlements (see here and here), the settling defendants “participated in unfair acts or practices in violation of . . . the FTC Act, and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule [(TSR)]” by “(a) placing telemarketing calls to consumers that delivered prerecorded messages; (b) placing telemarketing calls to consumers whose telephone numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry; and (c) transmitting inaccurate caller ID numbers and names with their telemarketing calls.” The defendants are permanently banned from making telemarketing robocalls, and have been levied judgments totaling $7.8 million, all but $2,500 of which has been suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
Also on January 10, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida against the remaining six defendants allegedly involved in the telemarketing operation, for violations of the FTC Act and TSR based on the same actions alleged against the settling defendants.
On December 26, the CFPB denied a petition by a student loan relief company to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau last October. According to the company’s petition, the CID requested information as part of an investigation into the company’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. As previously covered by InfoBytes, stipulated orders were entered against the company by the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the company being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services. In its petition, the company argued that the CFPB’s requests were duplicative of the FTC’s earlier investigation. The company also argued that the documents and materials sought in the CID were overly burdensome and the time frame to respond was too short. Furthermore, the company stated that until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Seila Law v. CFPB on whether the Bureau’s structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, the CID should either be withdrawn or stayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Bureau’s ability to proceed with enforcement actions.
The Bureau denied the petition, arguing that “the administrative CID petition process is not the proper forum for raising and deciding constitutional challenges to provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” The Bureau also noted that the company failed to show that it engaged with Bureau staff on ways to alleviate undue burden, such as proposing modifications to the substance of the requests, and that even though the Bureau proposed an extension to the CID deadline, the company did not seek such an extension.
On January 9, the CFPB announced that it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a mortgage lender, a mortgage brokerage, and several student loan debt relief companies (collectively, “the defendants”), for allegedly violating the FCRA, TSR, and FDCPA. In the complaint, the CFPB alleges that the defendants violated the FCRA by, among other things, illegally obtaining consumer reports from a credit reporting agency for millions of consumers with student loans by representing that the reports would be used to “make firm offers of credit for mortgage loans” and to market mortgage products. The Bureau asserts that the reports of more than 7 million student loan borrowers were actually resold or provided to companies engaged in marketing student loan debt relief services.
According to the complaint, “using or obtaining prescreened lists to send solicitations marketing debt-relief services is not a permissible purpose under FCRA.” The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the TSR by charging and collecting advance fees before first “renegotiat[ing], settl[ing], reduc[ing], or otherwise alter[ing] the terms of at least one debt pursuant to a settlement agreement, debt-management plan, or other such valid contractual agreement executed by the customer,” and prior to “the customer ma[king] at least one payment pursuant to that settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other valid contractual agreement between the customer and the creditor or debt collector.” The CFPB further alleges that the defendants violated the TSR and the CFPA when they used telemarketing sales calls and direct mail to encourage consumers to consolidate their loans, and falsely represented that consolidation could lower student loan interest rates, improve borrowers’ credit scores, and change their servicer to the Department of Education.
The Bureau is seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the defendants from committing future violations of the FCRA, TSR, and CFPA, as well as an award of damages and other monetary relief, civil money penalties, and “disgorgement of ill-gotten funds.”
On December 5, the FTC and the Ohio attorney general announced that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against a VoIP service provider and its foreign counterpart for facilitating (or consciously avoiding knowing of) a “phony” credit card interest rate reduction scheme committed by one of its client companies at the center of a joint FTC/Ohio AG action. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the original complaint alleged that a group of individuals and companies—working in concert and claiming they could reduce interest rates on credit cards—had violated the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various Ohio consumer protection laws. In addition to obtaining a TRO against the most recent alleged participants, the FTC and Ohio AG amended their July complaint to add the telecom companies as defendants alleging the companies “played a key role in robocalling consumers to promote a credit card interest reductions scheme.”
On October 30, the CFPB, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against a 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 complaint filed October 21 and unsealed on October 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015 the defendants have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, 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 claim the defendants engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. The defendants also allegedly failed to inform borrowers that they automatically requested that the loans be placed in forbearance and submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, as well as damages, restitution, disgorgement, and civil money penalties.
On November 15, the court entered a preliminary injunction enjoining the alleged violations of law in the complaint, contining the asset freeze, and appointing a receiver against the defendants.
On September 24, the FTC announced a proposed $23 million settlement with a Belizean bank resolving allegations that it assisted various entities in deceiving U.S. consumers into purchasing parcels of land in a luxury development in Belize. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in November 2018, the FTC filed charges and obtained a temporary restraining order against the operators of an international real estate investment scheme, which allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by advertising and selling parcels of land through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC asserted that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased them outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, including HOA fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than invest in the development. The FTC argued that “consumers either have lost, or will lose, some or all of their investments.” At the time, the FTC filed separate charges against the Belizean bank for allegedly assisting and facilitating the scam.
According to the FTC, the bank has now agreed to the proposed consent order to settle the allegations. The consent order requires the bank to pay $23 million, which will be used to provide equitable relief, including consumer redress, and to cease all non-liquidation business activities permanently. Additionally, the consent order prohibits the liquidator or anyone else from seeking to re-license and operate the bank’s business. The consent order must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
On September 12, the FTC announced two separate suits filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against various entities and individuals who allegedly engaged in deceptive practices when promoting student loan debt relief schemes.
In the first complaint, filed jointly with the Minnesota attorney general, a debt relief company and its owners (collectively, the “Minnesota defendants”) were alleged to have violated the FTC Act, TILA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and various state laws, by charging consumers who sought student loan payment reduction programs an advance fee of over $1,300 while falsely representing that the payment would go toward their student loans. The advance fee, the FTC contends, was allegedly financed through high-interest loans from a third-party finance company identified as a co-defendant in both complaints. The stipulated order entered against the Minnesota defendants prohibits them from, among other things: (i) making material misrepresentations related to their financial products and services, or any other kind of product or service; (ii) making unsubstantiated claims about their financial products and services; (iii) engaging in unlawful telemarketing practices; or (iv) collecting payments on accounts sold prior to the order’s date. The stipulated order also requires the Minnesota defendants to notify its customers that none of their prior payments have gone towards a Department of Education repayment program or towards their student loans, and orders the payment of $156,000, with the total judgment of approximately $4.2 million suspended due to inability to pay.
The FTC filed a second complaint against a separate student loan debt relief operation for allegedly engaging in deceptive and abusive practices through similar actions, including charging consumers advance fees of up to $1,400 and enrolling consumers in the same finance company’s high-interest loan program. The action against the second student loan debt relief operation is ongoing.
Both complaints also charge the finance company with violating the assisting and facilitating provision of the TSR by providing substantial assistance to both sets of defendants even though it knew, or consciously avoided knowing, that they were engaging in deceptive and abusive telemarketing practices. The FTC also alleges that the finance company violated TILA when it failed to clearly and conspicuously make certain required disclosures concerning its closed-end credit offers. Separate stipulated orders were entered by the FTC in each case (see here and here) against the finance company. The orders’ terms require the finance company to pay a combined $1 million out of a nearly $28 million judgment, with the rest suspended due to inability to pay, as well as relinquish its rights to collect on any outstanding loans. Among other things, the orders also permanently ban the finance company from engaging in transactions involving secured or unsecured debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services.
On August 28, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona denied motions to dismiss an enforcement action brought by the FTC against a group of individuals and entities that allegedly facilitated a telemarketing scheme that previously resulted in the principal actors in the scheme settling with the FTC and later pleading guilty to state criminal charges. The alleged scheme involved “credit card laundering”—the creation of fictitious entities to process customer credit card transactions so that the actual entity receiving the funds would not be identified. The defendants in the current matter are an Independent Sales Organization and several of its officers allegedly involved in that effort (prior Info Bytes coverage here). The defendants first argued that the relevant part of the FTC Act only permits injunctive relief and that the FTC’s requests for restitution and disgorgement were improper because those forms of relief are penalties, not equitable relief, under Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission. The court noted, however, that the Supreme Court in Kokesh expressly limited the holding to the question of the statute of limitations applicable to the SEC, and that the Ninth Circuit has subsequently approved decisions granting restitution and disgorgement under the FTC Act. The defendants also argued that injunctive relief was not warranted where the unlawful conduct in question ceased in 2013, but the court ruled that the FTC need only show that it has “reason to believe” that a defendant is violating or is about to violate the law. The court declined to address the FTC’s argument that its “reason to believe” decision is unreviewable, but it found that the FTC had pled sufficient facts to establish that it has reason to believe that the defendants would violate the statute. In particular, the court noted that a “court’s power to grant injunctive relief survives the discontinuance of illegal conduct,” that “an inference arises from illegal past conduct that future violations may occur,” and that “courts should be wary of a defendant’s termination of illegal conduct when a defendant voluntarily ceases unlawful conduct in anticipation of formal intervention.” Those factors were all present, along with the fact that the defendants “remain in the same professional occupation.”
On August 27, the FTC announced a settlement with an Illinois-based educational services company and its subsidiaries (defendants) to resolve deceptive marketing allegations in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. In the complaint, the FTC claimed the defendants used third-party lead generators that posed as military recruiters or job-finding services to encourage consumers to provide contact information via websites. The websites did not clearly inform the consumers that the personal information entered into online forms might be sold or used in training or educational programs. Rather, the FTC asserted that the lead generators falsely informed consumers that their information would not be shared. According to the FTC, the defendants then purchased these leads to call consumers in an attempt to enroll them in post-secondary schools, with many of these calls made to consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry. While the defendants did not carry out the deceptive practices to generate the leads, the FTC stated that the defendants established control over the marketing materials and reviewed telemarketing scripts that allegedly directed lead generators to falsely identify themselves as military recruiters. The FTC’s press release emphasized that “[t]his case demonstrates that the FTC will seek to hold advertisers liable for the deceptive or illegal practices of their affiliates, publishers, or other lead generators. We expect companies purchasing leads to implement strong vendor management programs and stay on the right side of the law.” Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are: (i) ordered to pay $30 million; (ii) required to implement a system to review any marketing materials used by lead generators; (iii), prohibited from calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry without obtaining written consent; and (iv) banned from falsely stating that they represent the military or prospective employers.
- Andrew W. Schilling to moderate "Expectations of in-house counsel from their law firm partners" at the ACI's 7th Annual Advanced Forum on False Claims and Qui Tam
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "Cybersecurity basics for compliance staff" at a NAFCU webinar
- Buckley Webcast: Tips for navigating changes to the FHA recertification process
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A 20/20 view on 2020’s legislative and regulatory outlook" at the ACAMS Anti-Financial Crime and Public Policy Conference
- Kari K. Hall and Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Overdrafts and regulatory trends" at the CLE Alabama Banking Law Update
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Industry open forum session on NMLS usage" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Regulating innovative consumer lending products" at the NMLS Annual Conference & Training
- Daniel P. Stipano to moderate "Washington update" at the 17th Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti Money Laundering 2020 conference
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Private flood insurance updates" at the MBA's Servicing Solutions Conference & Expo 2020
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: CFL overview
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "MLA & SCRA" on a NAFCU webinar
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Pathway of the SARs: Tracking trajectories of suspicious activity reports from alerts to prosecution" at the ACAMS moneylaundering.com 25th Annual International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Which bud’s for you? A deep-dive into evolving marijuana laws" at the ACAMS moneylaundering.com 25th Annual International AML & Financial Crime Conference