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On June 28, the FTC filed a complaint against a national retailer for allegedly allowing its money-transfer services to facilitate fraud. The complaint alleges the retailer knew about the role money transfer services play in scams but failed to properly secure the services offered at its stores, thus allowing money to be sent to “domestic and international fraud rings.” According to the FTC, at least 226,679 complaints totaling more than $197 million were received by several money transfer services companies about fraud-induced money transfers that were sent from or received at one of the retailer’s stores between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2018. An investigation by the FTC purportedly revealed that the retailer’s practices allegedly harmed consumers by, among other things, (i) allowing the payout of suspicious money transfers, which allowed scammers to retrieve fraud proceeds at one of the retailer’s stores; (ii) failing to have in place a written anti-fraud policy or consumer protection program until November 2014; (iii) allowing cash pickups for large payments, often through the use of fake IDs; (iv) failing to display or provide materials warning consumers about potential frauds; (v) failing to effectively train or retrain employees; and (vi) allowing money transfers to be used for telemarketing purchases, which are prohibited under the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) due to the high risk of fraud.
According to the complaint, the retailer “is well aware that telemarketing and other mass marketing frauds, such as ‘grandparent’ scams, lottery scams, and government agent impersonator scams, induce people to use [the retailer’s] money transfer services to send money to domestic and international fraud rings. Nevertheless, [the retailer] has continued processing fraud-induced money transfers at its stores—funding telemarketing and other scams—without adopting policies and practices that effectively detect and prevent these transfers.”
The complaint seeks a permanent injunction, monetary relief, civil penalties, restitution, and other relief for each violation of the FTC Act and the TSR. The FTC also requests the “rescission or reformation of contracts, the refund of money, the return of property, the payment of damages, public notification, or other relief necessary to redress injury to consumers damages.”
The retailer issued a press release following the FTC’s announcement, stating that it considers the agency’s claims to be “misguided and legally flawed,” and that the civil lawsuit “was approved by the FTC by the narrowest of margins after Chair Lina Khan refused [the retailer] the due process of hearing directly from the company.” The retailer noted that the FTC’s decision comes after DOJ declined to pursue the case in court. Among other thing, the retailer contended that because it maintains robust anti-fraud measures there is no need for injunctive relief requiring the retailer to change its practices. The retailer pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC, which limited the FTC’s ability to obtain monetary relief in federal court (covered by InfoBytes here), to argue that the FTC “pivoted their focus in this case after AMG to a distorted interpretation of the TSR to effectively try and hold [the retailer] strictly liable for money transfers that third-party criminals reportedly persuaded some consumers to send.” The retailer added that “[s]witching their main legal theory to the TSR is an obvious attempt to get around the Supreme Court’s ruling in AMG.”
On April 28, the FTC proposed rulemakings to extend protections for small businesses against telemarketing business-to-business schemes and strengthen safeguards to protect consumers from other telemarking scams. Both the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPR) and advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) stem from the FTC’s regulatory review of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and address public comments received as part of the review.
The NPR proposes to amend TSR recordkeeping requirements to require telemarketers to retain seven new categories of information related to their telemarketing activities, including records concerning each unique prerecorded message, records sufficient to show the established business relationship between a seller and a consumer, records of the service providers used by a telemarketer to deliver outbound calls, and records of the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry that were used to ensure compliance with this rule. Additionally, the NPR seeks comments on whether the FTC should amend the TSR to prohibit material misrepresentations and false or misleading statements in business-to-business telemarketing transactions to prevent harm caused by deceptive telemarketing, and proposes adding a definition of “previous donor” related to charitable donation solicitations.
The ANPRM seeks comments on a range of issues related to whether calls related to tech-support scams should be covered by the TSR, whether telemarketers should be required to provide consumers with a simple click-to-cancel process when they sign up for subscription plans, and whether the TSR should stop treating telemarketing calls made to businesses differently from those made to consumers. According to the FTC, robocalls made to businesses are generally exempt from certain TSR provisions.
Comments on both proposed rulemakings are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On April 29, the CFPB filed a proposed stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California resolving allegations that a student loan debt relief business and a general debt-settlement company, along with their owner and CEO (collectively, “defendants”), engaged in wrongful fee-charging practices and deceptive telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by charging illegal advance fees and using deceptive tactics to induce consumers to sign up for services. According to the complaint, from 2015 to the present, the defendants allegedly charged consumers upfront fees for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. Some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. The CFPB also alleged that the defendants required some consumers to pay the fee in installments into a trust plan, which carried a $6 monthly banking fee paid to the administrator of the trust accounts. The Bureau alleged that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserted that from 2019 to the present, the defendants violated the CFPA by representing to consumers that they were turned down for a loan in order to pitch the company’s settlement services. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the student loan debt relief business and the general debt-settlement company are permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services, and the CEO is banned for five years.
The CEO is also required to pay a civil monetary penalty of $30,000 to the CFPB.
On April 26, the FTC announced the filing of a proposed consent order with a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service provider, a related company, and the company’s owner (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly “help[ing] scammers blast millions of illegal robocalls.” In the complaint the FTC claims that the defendants violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Act, and the TSR by continuing to provide VoIP services to customers despite “knowing or consciously avoiding knowing” the customers were: (i) using the services to place calls to numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call (DNC) Registry; (ii) delivering prerecorded messages; and (iii) displaying spoofed caller ID services to callers involved in scams related to credit card interest rate reduction, tech support, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the announcement, this is the third such action by the FTC against VoIP service providers during the past two years. Under the terms of the consent order, the defendants are (i) banned from assisting and facilitating abusive telemarketing practices, including the use of VoIP services; (ii) prohibited from further violations of the TSR or assisting others in doing so; (iii) banned from providing services or assigning telephone numbers without employing automated procedures to block calls from unassigned or invalid numbers; and (iv) required to ensure that they do not provide VoIP to suspected telemarketers. The proposed order also provides for a $3 million civil money penalty that is suspended due the company’s inability to pay.
On April 19, the FTC filed a complaint against a day-trading investment company and its CEO alleging the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in connection with the company’s investment opportunities. According to the complaint, the Massachusetts-based defendants promote day-trading investments online and sell programs promising to show consumers how to earn substantial profits in a short time period. The FTC contends that the defendants promote these so-called “profitable” and “scalable” trading strategies to consumers through allegedly deceptive sales pitches and inform consumers that their strategies are effective even with initial investments as small as $500. However, the FTC claims that 74 percent of customers’ accounts actually lost money and that only 10 percent of the accounts earned more than $90.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the defendants are required to pay $3 million in consumer redress and are permanently restrained and enjoined from making unsubstantiated earnings claims concerning consumers’ potential to earn money using their trading strategies regardless of the amount of capital invested or the amount of time spent trading. Defendants are also prohibited from violating federal law, or from making any misrepresentations about investment opportunities, including misrepresentations in connection with telemarketing regarding the amount of “risk, liquidity, earnings potential, or profitability of goods or services that are the subject of a sales offer.”
On April 14, the FTC filed a complaint against a Caribbean for-profit medical school and its Illinois-based operators alleging the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule, Holder Rule, and Credit Practices Rule (CPR) in connection with its marketing and credit practices. According to the complaint, the defendants improperly marketed the school’s medical license exam pass rate and residency match success. In addition, financing contracts omitted a legally-mandated Holder Rule notice in their credit agreements, among other things. Under the Holder Rule, “any seller that receives the proceeds of a purchase money loan [must] include, in the underlying credit contract, a specific notice informing the consumer of their right to assert claims against any holder of the credit contract.” In addition to omitting the required notice, the defendants also allegedly attempted to waive consumers’ legal rights by inserting language in the credit agreements stating, “ALL PARTIES, INCL[U]DING BOTH STUDENT BORROWER AND COSIGNER. . .WAIVE ANY CLAIM OR CAUSE OF ACTION OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER THAT THEY MAY HAVE WITH RESPECT TO [DEFENDANT]…” The FTC also contended that the defendants included a notice informing cosigners of their liability in the middle of the contract, instead of providing a separate document containing specific language required by the CPR.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the defendants are required to pay a $1.2 million judgment that will go towards refunds and debt cancellation for affected consumers, and also cease collection of approximately $357,000 in consumer debt covered by the proposed order. Defendants are also required to notify each consumer that their debt is being cancelled and that consumer reporting agencies will be directed to delete the debt from the consumers’ credit reports. Additionally, defendants are prohibited from misrepresenting their pass rates and residency matches, and from making unsubstantiated claims or violating federal law. The order also provides Holder Rule protections, including prohibiting defendants from selling, transferring, or assigning any consumer credit contracts unless the recipient of such contract agrees, in writing, “that its rights are subject to the borrowers’ claims and defenses against [d]efendants” and requiring defendants to notify each borrower whose credit contract is sold.
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].”
On March 22, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against one of the defendants in an action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney, alleging a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint asserted that the defendants violated the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws. Amended complaints (see here and here) also added new defendants and included claims for avoidance of fraudulent transfers under the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act and California’s Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, among other things. A stipulated final judgment and order was entered against the named defendant in July (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of more than $35 million in redress to affected consumers, a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau, and $5,000 in civil money penalties to each of the three states. The court also previously entered final judgments against several of the defendants, as well as a default judgment and order against two other defendants and a settlement with two non-parties (covered by InfoBytes here, here, here, here, and here).
The final judgment issued against the settling defendant, who neither admitted nor denied the allegations except as specifically stated, permanently bans the defendant from participating in telemarking services or offering or selling debt-relief services, and prohibits it from misrepresenting benefits consumers may receive from a product or service. The defendant is also permanently restrained from violating applicable state laws, and may not disclose, use, or benefit from customer information obtained in connection with the offering or providing of the debt relief services. The settlement orders the defendant to pay more than $2.8 million in consumer redress, as well as a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau and $5,000 to each of the three states.
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.
On March 15, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against an independent sales organization and its owners (collectively, “respondents”) for allegedly opening merchant accounts for fictitious companies on behalf of a business opportunity scam previously sued by the FTC in 2013. According to the complaint, the scammers promoted business opportunities to consumers that falsely promised they would earn thousands of dollars. From its previous 2013 lawsuit, the FTC obtained judgments and settlements of over $7.3 million (covered by InfoBytes here). The complaint alleged that respondents violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by helping the scammers launder millions of dollars of consumers’ credit card payments from 2012 to 2013 and ignoring warning signs that the merchants were fake. The FTC claimed that the respondents, among other things, (i) opened merchant accounts based on “vague” business descriptions; (ii) ignored the fact that for most of the merchants, the principals or business owners had poor credit ratings, which should have raised questions about the financial health of the merchants; (iii) neglected to obtain merchants’ marketing materials or follow up on signs that the merchants were engaged in telemarketing; and (iv) ignored inconsistencies related to the bank accounts listed on several of the merchants’ applications. The FTC further claimed that the respondents created 43 different merchant accounts for fictitious companies on behalf of the scam and even provided advice to the organizers of the scam on how to spread out the transactions among different accounts to evade detection.
Under the terms of the proposed consent order (which is subject to public comment and final FTC approval), the respondents would be prohibited from engaging in credit card laundering, as well as any other tactics to evade fraud and risk monitoring programs. The respondents would also be 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 credit-card industry monitoring programs. Furthermore, the respondents would be required to screen potential merchants and monitor the sales activity and marketing practices of current merchants engaged in certain activities that could harm consumers. The FTC noted that it is unable to obtain a monetary judgment 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.)
- Daniel R. Alonso discussed “The importance of the FCPA in the world and its current impact” at a ‘Competitive Breakfast’ event sponsored by the international compliance firm Intedya
- Jedd R. Bellman discussed “The CFPB’s crackdown on collection junk fees and the growing anti-CFPB rhetoric” at an Accounts Recovery webinar
- Buckley Webcast: State supervision, enforcement, and multistate coordination
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Latest on AML regulations and impact of economic sanctions” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Hank Asbill to discuss “Ethical issues at sentencing” at the 31st Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar