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Special Alert: CFPB’s RESPA advisory addresses online mortgage-comparison platforms
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued guidance yesterday making clear that those who operate or participate in online mortgage-comparison shopping platforms will be closely scrutinized for compliance with the prohibition on payments for referrals to mortgage lenders. “Companies operating these digital platforms appear to shoppers as if they provide objective lender comparisons, but may illegally refer people to only those lenders paying referral fees,” the agency said. Here’s what you need to know:
The CFPB issued an Advisory Opinion on how the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) applies to online mortgage-comparison platforms. The agency said platform operators violate RESPA “when they steer shoppers to lenders by using pay-to-play tactics rather than providing shoppers with comprehensive and objective information.” Specifically, the agency said operators receive a prohibited referral fee when they use or present information in a way that steers consumers to mortgage lenders in exchange for a payment or something else of value.
CFPB offers RESPA guidance on MSAs
On October 7, the CFPB issued FAQs covering RESPA Section 8 and corresponding Regulation X sections. The FAQs provide a general overview of Section 8 and its prohibited activities. The FAQs also address the application of Section 8 to common scenarios involving gifts and promotional activities and marketing services agreements (MSAs). Highlights of the examples include:
- Gifts. The FAQs note that if a gift ( “thing of value”) is given or accepted as part of an agreement or understanding for referral of business related to a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan then it is prohibited under Section 8. The FAQs emphasize that the agreement or understanding need not be in writing or oral and can be established by a practice, pattern, or course of conduct.
- Promotional activities. The FAQs state that promotional or educational activities connected to a referral source would be allowed under Regulation X if the activities (i) are not conditioned on referral of business; and (ii) do not involve defraying expenses that otherwise would be incurred by the referral source. The FAQs describe these conditions in more detail and provide example of activities that meet and do not meet Regulation X’s conditions.
- Marketing Services Agreements. The FAQs emphasize that MSAs that involve payments for referrals are prohibited under RESPA Section 8(a), whereas MSAs that involve payments for marketing services may be permitted under RESPA Section 8(c)(2), depending on certain facts and circumstances. MSAs are lawful under RESPA when structured and implemented as an agreement for the performance of actual marketing services and the payment reasonably reflects the value of the services performed. The FAQs provide examples of prohibited MSAs under Section 8(a) and Section 8(b), including (i) agreements structured to provide payments based on the number of referrals received; or (ii) the use of split charges, either being paid to a person that does not actually perform the services or the amount paid exceeds the value of the services performed by the person receiving the split.
Notably, with the release of the FAQs, the Bureau is rescinding its Compliance Bulletin 2015-05, entitled RESPA Compliance and Marketing Services Agreements, noting that the Bulletin “does not provide the regulatory clarity needed on how to comply with RESPA and Regulation X.” The Bureau emphasizes that with the rescission, MSAs will still “remain subject to scrutiny, and [the Bureau] remain[s] committed to vigorous enforcement of RESPA Section 8.”