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On January 18, the CFPB filed a proposed stipulated judgment and order to resolve a complaint filed last year against an Illinois-based third-party payment processor and its founder and former CEO (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in unfair practices in violation of the CFPA and deceptive telemarketing practices in violation of the Telemarketing Act and its implementing rule, the Telemarketing Sales Rule. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB alleged that the defendants knowingly processed remotely created check (RCC) payments totaling millions of dollars for over 100 merchant-clients claiming to offer technical-support services and products, but that actually deceived consumers—mostly older Americans—into purchasing expensive and unnecessary antivirus software or services. The tech-support clients allegedly used telemarketing to sell their products and services and received payment through RCCs, the Bureau claimed, stating that the defendants continued to process the clients’ RCC payments despite being “aware of nearly a thousand consumer complaints” about the tech-support clients. According to the Bureau, roughly 25 percent of the complaints specifically alleged that the transactions were fraudulent or unauthorized.
If approved by the court, the defendants would be required to pay a $500,000 civil penalty, and would be permanently banned from participating in or assisting others engaging in payment processing, consumer lending, deposit-taking, debt collection, telemarketing, and financial-advisory services. The proposed order also imposes $54 million in redress (representing the total amount of payments processed by the defendants that have not yet been refunded). However, full payment of this amount is suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
On October 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted final approval to a $14 million TCPA class action settlement, resolving allegations that a meal-kit delivery service (or its vendor) placed telemarketing calls to customers’ phone numbers. Class members consist of customers who (i) received one or more calls placed using a dialing platform; (ii) received at least two telemarketing calls during any 12-month time period where their phone numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry for at least 31 days before the call was placed; and/or (iii) received one or more calls after registering their phone numbers with the company’s internal do-not-call list. As part of the $14 million settlement, class counsel will receive more than $3.4 million in attorneys’ fees and costs and the settlement administrator will receive $450,000. Two named plaintiffs will receive service payments of $10,000 each, while another seven named plaintiffs will each receive service payments ranging from $2,000 to $5,000.
On August 10, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied a motion to dismiss filed by a credit repair organization and the company’s president and owner (collectively, “defendants”) in a joint action taken by the CFPB and the Massachusetts attorney general, which alleged the defendants committed deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law, and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint alleges the defendants, among other things, claimed their credit-repair services could help consumers substantially improve their credit scores and promised to fix “unlimited” amounts of negative items from consumers’ credit reports, but, in “numerous instances,” the defendants failed to achieve these results. The defendants also allegedly violated the TSR by engaging in abusive acts and by requesting and collecting fees before achieving any results related to repairing a consumer’s credit. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they were governed by the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA), which cannot be reconciled with the TSR, the TSR definition of “telemarketing” is vague and violates the Due Process Clause, and that applying the TSR’s definition of telemarketing would place an unfair content-based restriction on speech that restricts when they can collect payments for their services. Moreover, the defendants claimed, among other things, that the FTC “exceeded its authority in promulgating rules targeting their conduct because Congress intended that only unsolicited telemarketing calls would be addressed by the FTC’s regulations.”
The court disagreed, holding first that that the CROA and the TSR do not conflict. “[C]ompliance with the TSR’s payment requirement would not cause defendants to violate the CROA,” the court stated. “The TSR simply adds a precondition to requesting payment…” Additionally, the court noted that the TSR’s “restriction is on conduct—the timing of the payment—not on speech,” adding that while “Congress directed the FTC to create rules regarding specific telemarketing activities. . ., Congress also authorized the FTC to create additional rules addressing ‘deceptive telemarketing acts or practices’ at its discretion.” As such, the court held that defendants did not show that “Congress intended the FTC to exclusively address unsolicited telemarketing calls.” Furthermore, the court held that the plaintiffs adequately defined the defendants’ allegedly deceptive conduct and that the alleged violations of state law are plausible.
On July 13, the New York governor signed S.3941, which expands the state’s definition of telemarketing to include marketing by text message. A press release issued by the governor noted that expanding the definition closes a loophole in state law that previously limited the definition to phone calls, including unwanted robocalls. “Electronic text messages to  mobile devices have become the newest unwelcomed invasive marketing technique. Consumers should not be burdened with excessive and predatory telemarketing in any form, including text messages,” the press release stated. The act takes effect 30 days after becoming law.
On May 17, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Massachusetts-based debt-settlement company for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau alleged the company violated the TSR and/or the CFPA by, among other things, (i) requesting and receiving payment of fees for services before renegotiating, settling, reducing, or otherwise altering the terms of at least one debt pursuant to an agreement or before a consumer had made a payment under their agreement; (ii) misrepresenting to consumers that it would not charge fees for its services until it settled a debt and consumers made payments under the settlement to the creditor; (iii) charging fees based on the amount of debt after enrollment instead of the amount of debt at the time of enrollment; and (iv) failing to disclose the amount of time it would take the company to make a settlement offer or the amount of debt the consumer would need to accumulate to make a settlement offer to each creditor. The CFPB’s original complaint had sought an injunction against the company as well as damages, redress, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and the imposition of civil money penalties.
The judgment, ordered by the court on May 19, requires the company to: (i) pay a $7.7 million judgment, which would be partially suspended upon the company paying harmed consumers $5.4 million; (ii) stop its deceptive practices and; (iii) pay a $1 civil money penalty.
On April 22, the FCC imposed a $4.1 million fine against a phone carrier for allegedly impersonating other carriers in telemarketing calls and deceiving consumers into changing carriers without consent. The FCC first proposed the fine in 2018 after the agency, state regulators, and the Better Business Bureau received many complaints about this conduct. According to the FCC, the company’s “actions specifically harmed elderly and infirm consumers who, in some cases, were left without telephone service for extended periods of time while the company refused to reinstate service until the unauthorized charges were paid in full.” FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement condemning the “ugly scam” as a violation of the Communications Act, and warned: “To anyone else using our nation’s phone systems to perpetuate this kind of scam, take note because our efforts won’t stop here.”
On August 25, the CFPB filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Florida to compel a telemarketing company (defendant) allegedly associated with a credit repair operation to comply with a subpoena and produce documents requested by the Bureau. According to the Bureau, the defendant has refused to comply with a subpoena in the ongoing litigation of a 2019 CFPB action against the credit repair operation (covered by InfoBytes here). The operation allegedly violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by using “Hotswap Partners,” such as the defendant, who allegedly engaged in deceptive acts and practices when selling and marketing financial products and “live-transferr[ing]” consumers to the credit repair operation’s telemarketing call centers. The Bureau contends that the defendant transferred “thousands of consumers” to the operation each year for at least a decade, yet has only provided a minimal number of documents in response to the subpoena, which seeks records related to the defendant’s business activities and marketing relationship with the credit repair operation. According to the Bureau, the defendant has refused to produce additional materials based on “boilerplate and unsubstantiated objections.” The Bureau also argues that the defendant has failed to provide a basis for its objections, which include a “general privilege objection and a general objection that the requested format of certain unspecified documents would ‘impose an unreasonable burden on the Company,’” and has “rebuffed” every attempt made by the Bureau to discuss compliance with the subpoena.