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FTC obtains TROs to halt student loan debt relief schemes
On May 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently issued temporary restraining orders (TROs) against two student loan debt relief companies that allegedly tricked consumers into paying for nonexistent repayment and loan forgiveness programs. According to the complaints (see here and here), the defendants allegedly made deceptive claims in order to lure low-income consumers into paying hundreds to thousands of dollars in illegal upfront fees as part of a purported plan to pay down their student loans. The defendants allegedly made consumers believe that they were enrolled in a legitimate loan repayment program, that their loans would be forgiven in whole or in part, and that most or all of their payments would be applied to their loan balances. The FTC alleges that, in reality, the defendants pocketed the borrowers’ payments. The FTC also charged the defendants with falsely claiming to be or be affiliated with the Department of Education and stating that they were purchasing borrowers’ debt from federal student loan servicers in order to secure debt relief on their behalf. When consumers realized the debt relief program did not exist, the defendants allegedly often refused to provide refunds.
According to the FTC, these deceptive misrepresentations violated Section 5 of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The FTC also alleges that the companies violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), by using deceptive tactics to obtain consumers’ financial information, and the TSR, by calling numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry and by failing to pay required Do Not Call Registry fees for access. In issuing the TROs (see here and here), which temporarily halt the two schemes and freeze the defendants’ assets, the court noted that, upon “[w]eighing the equities and considering the FTC’s likelihood of ultimate success on the merits,” there is good cause to believe that immediate and irreparable harm will occur as a result of the defendants’ ongoing violations of the FTC Act, the TSR, and the GLBA, unless the defendants are restrained and enjoined.
FTC obtains permanent ban against debt relief operators
On May 1, three individuals accused of allegedly participating in a credit card debt relief scheme agreed to court orders permanently banning them from telemarketing and selling debt relief products and services. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last November the FTC filed a lawsuit claiming the defendants and their affiliated companies violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by using telemarketers to pitch their deceptive scheme, in which they falsely claimed to be affiliated with a particular credit card association, bank, or credit reporting agency, and promised they could improve consumers’ credit scores after 12 to 18 months. The defendants also allegedly misrepresented that the upfront fee, which in some cases was as high as $18,000, was charged to consumers’ credit cards as part of the overall debt that would be eliminated, and therefore would not actually have to be paid. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the defendants agreed to the court orders (available here, here, and here) imposing numerous conditions, including (i) a permanent ban on advertising, selling, or assisting in any debt relief product or service or participating in telemarketing; (ii) a broad prohibition forbidding defendants from deceiving consumers about any other products or services they sell or market; and (iii) the surrender of certain property interests and assets that will be used to provide restitution to affected consumers. The orders impose a total monetary judgment of approximately $17.5 million, for which each defendant is jointly and severally liable, to be satisfied by defendants’ surrender of certain assets and subject to a partial suspension of the remainder of the judgment pursuant to defendants’ truthfulness regarding their financial status and ability to pay.
FTC, DOJ sue payment processor for tech support scams
On April 17, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against several corporate and individual defendants for violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by allegedly engaging in credit card laundering for tech support scams. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, since at least 2016, the defendants—a payment processing company and several of its subsidiaries, along with the company’s CEO and chief strategy officer—worked with telemarketers who made misrepresentations to consumers about the performance and security of their computers through the use of deceptive pop ups in order to sell technical support scams. Defendants’ involvement included assisting and facilitating the illegal sales and laundering the credit card charges through their own merchant accounts (thus giving the scammers access to the U.S. credit card network) where defendants received a commission for each charge. The complaint maintained that the defendants “engaged in this activity even though it and its officers knew or consciously avoided knowing that its tech support clients were engaged in deceptive telemarketing practices.”
The proposed court orders (see here, here, and here) each impose monetary judgments of $16.5 million and (i) prohibit the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering through merchant accounts; (ii) require the defendants to screen and monitor any high-risk clients and take action if clients should charge consumers without authorization or violate the TSR; and (iii) prohibit the defendants from engaging in payment processing or assisting tech support companies that engage in false or unsubstantiated telemarketing or advertising. According to the DOJ’s announcement the defendants will be required to pay a combined total of $650,000 in consumer redress. This payment will result in the suspension of the total monetary judgment of $49.5 million due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
FTC program targets robocalls from overseas
On April 11, the FTC implemented Project Point of No Entry (PoNE) in an attempt to stop foreign-based scammers and imposters from targeting U.S. consumers with illegal robocalls. The FTC warned “point of entry” or “gateway” VoIP service providers that routing or transmitting illegal call traffic may violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which allows the Commission to seek civil penalties, restitution, and injunctions to stop violations. Through Project PoNE, the FTC will identify violators and “pursue recalcitrant providers” by opening enforcement investigations and filing lawsuits, as appropriate. According to the FTC, “Project PoNE has uncovered the activity of 24 target point of entry service providers responsible for routing and transmitting illegal robocalls between 2021 and 2023, in connection with approximately 307 telemarketing campaigns, including government and business imposters, COVID-19 relief payment scams, and student loan debt relief and forgiveness schemes, among others.” The FTC attributed the results to its collaboration with the Industry Traceback Group, the FCC, and state attorneys general, and said it will make publicly available recordings of the robocalls that target providers have allowed into the U.S. to help consumers identify and avoid scams. The announcement highlighted that before being contacted by the FTC, “the targets had a combined total of 1,043 tracebacks,” but that after being warned about the possible illegal conduct, the number decreased to 196 tracebacks. Of these 196 tracebacks, the FTC said “147 are linked to two uncooperative providers, one of which is subject to an FCC law enforcement action.”
FTC to ban auto warranty operation
On March 24, the FTC announced that a Florida-based group of operators (defendants) faces a permanent ban from the extended automobile warranty industry and will be barred from any further involvement in outbound telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the defendants allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling automobile warranties. According to the FTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) misrepresented their affiliation with consumers’ car dealers or manufacturers; (ii) misrepresented warranty coverage; (iii) falsely promised consumers they could obtain a full refund if they cancelled within 30 days; (iv) used remotely created checks, which are illegal in telemarketing transactions; and (v) placed unsolicited calls to numbers on the do not call registry. The proposed stipulated order for permanent injunction, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, would require the defendants to pay a $6.6 million monetary judgment and would impose a permanent industry ban. However, the monetary judgment is largely suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay.
States receive $245 million judgment against robocall operation
On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas entered stipulated orders and permanent injunctions against two individuals who, along with their companies (also named as defendants in the litigation), allegedly operated a massive robocall campaign to sell extended car warranties and health care services. (See orders here and here.) Eight states attorneys general alleged violations of the TCPA and the Telemarketing Sales Rule, as well as various state consumer protection laws, claiming that the defendants initiated millions of robocalls to individuals nationwide without their prior express consent, spoofed caller ID numbers to mislead recipients, and called people whose numbers were on the Do Not Call Registry. Under the terms of the orders, the individual defendants (who neither admitted nor denied the allegations) are permanently banned from initiating or facilitating (or causing others to initiate or facilitate) any robocalls, working in or with companies that make robocalls, or engaging in any telemarketing. The court also ordered each individual defendant to pay a $122.3 million monetary judgment; however, these payments are mostly suspended in favor of the more permanent bans due to their inability to pay. The states noted that they are continuing their cases in the same action against others who allegedly worked with the individual defendants to facilitate the robocalls.
DFPI settles with student loan debt relief company
On February 28, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) announced a settlement with an unlicensed student debt relief company and its owner. The announcement is part of the DFPI’s continued crackdown on student loan debt relief companies found to have violated the California Consumer Financial Protection Law (CCFPL), the Student Loan Servicing Act (SLSA), and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). According to the settlement, a DFPI inquiry into the company’s practices found that since at least 2018, the company placed unsolicited phone calls to consumers advertising its student loan forgiveness and modification services. The company allegedly gave borrowers the impression that it was a part of, or affiliated with, an official government agency, and would act “as an intermediary between borrowers and the borrowers’ lenders or loan servicers with the goal of helping those consumers lower or eliminate their student loan debts.” The DFPI found that since 2018 at least 790 California consumers enrolled in the company’s debt relief program, whereby the company collected at least $713,000 through up-front servicing fees ranging from $116 to $2,449 from California consumers. By allegedly engaging in unlicensed student loan servicing activities, engaging in unlawful, unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices with respect to consumer financial products or services, and by charging advance fees for debt relief services, the DFPI claimed the company violated the SLSA, CCFPL, and TSR.
Under the terms of the consent order, the company and owner must desist and refrain from engaging in the alleged conduct, rescind all debt relief, debt management, or debt consulting service agreements, and issue refunds to California consumers. The owner is also ordered to “desist and refrain from owning, managing, operating, or controlling any entity that services student loans, or which offers or provides any consumer financial products or services as defined by the CCFPL, unless and until he or the entity has the applicable approvals from the DFPI and is in compliance with the SLSA, CCFPL, TSR, and the Federal Trade Commission Act.”
FTC, DOJ sue telemarketers of fake debt relief services
On February 16, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against several corporate and individual defendants for alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in connection with debt relief telemarketing campaigns that delivered millions of unwanted robocalls to consumers. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the defendants are interconnected platform providers, lead generators, telemarketers, and debt relief service sellers. Alleged violations include: (i) making misrepresentations about their debt relief services; (ii) initiating telemarketing calls to numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry, as well as calls in which telemarketers failed to disclose the identity of the seller and services being offered; (iii) initiating illegal robocalls without first obtaining consent; (iv) failing to make oral disclosures required by the TSR, including clearly and truthfully identifying the seller of the debt relief services; (v) misrepresenting material aspects of their debt relief services; and (vi) requesting and receiving payments from customers before renegotiating or otherwise altering the terms of those customers’ debts. The complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, civil penalties, and monetary damages. Two of the defendants (a debt relief lead generator and its owner) have agreed to a stipulated order that, if approved, would prohibit them from further violations and impose a monetary judgment of $3.38 million, partially suspended to $7,500 to go towards consumer redress due to their inability to pay.
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.