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On November 20, the CFPB announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against a debt-relief company and its two owners (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the complaint, between 2011 and April 2019, the defendants allegedly misrepresented material aspects of their student loan debt-relief services, by, among other things, falsely representing that the services would reduce or eliminate payments, stop wage garnishment, lift tax liens, and improve credit scores. Additionally, the Bureau alleges the defendants violated the TSR by requesting and receiving payment of fees for their services before they renegotiated, settled, reduced, or otherwise altered the terms of at least one debt pursuant to an agreement. Moreover, the defendants’ fees were allegedly not proportional to or a percentage of the amount saved as a result of their services. The complaint seeks injunctions against the defendants as well as damages, redress, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and the imposition of civil money penalties.
On November 5, the CFPB announced an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a student loan debt-relief company, a debt-settlement company, and the owner of both companies (collectively, “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 between $1,000 and $1,450 for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the U.S. Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. According to the complaint, some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. Additionally, the CFPB alleges 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 alleges that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserts 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.
The complaint seeks consumer redress, injunctive relief, and civil money penalties.
On July 10, the CFPB released the latest quarterly consumer credit trends report on debt settlement and credit counseling from 2007 through 2019. The report notes that debt settlements “increased sharply” during the 2008 recession. It also noted that debt settlement activity has been on the rise again following changes in delinquencies and credit tightness. The Bureau concludes that the recent increase in debt settlement activity is a “function of changing macroeconomic conditions, creditor account management strategies, and apparent increases in for-profit [debt settlement] activity.” The report notes that there is no corresponding increase in credit counseling activities, which is consistent with debt settlement companies “gaining market presence” and a reduction in the availability of credit counseling programs.
On April 22, the Virginia legislature enacted SB 77, which requires entities servicing student loans in the Commonwealth to be licensed by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Notably, banks, savings institutions, credit unions, and financial institutions regulated under 12 U.S.C. § 2002 are exempt from the licensing requirements. In addition to outlining specific licensing requirements, SB 77 states that non-exempt student loan servicers must also refrain from, among other things, (i) engaging in any unfair or deceptive act or practice in connection with the servicing of a qualified education loan by misrepresenting the amount, nature, or terms of any loan fees or payments, the terms and conditions of the loan agreement, or the borrower’s loan obligations; (ii) misapplying loan payments to an outstanding balance; (iii) failing to report both the favorable and unfavorable payment history of a borrower to a nationally recognized consumer credit bureau at least once a year provided the loan servicer regularly reports such information; (iv) failing to communicate with a borrower’s authorized representative; and (v) making false statements or omitting material facts in connection with information provided to the SCC or another government authority. Student loan servicers must also comply with other requirements, such as evaluating qualified borrowers for income-driven repayment programs, and responding to borrowers’ written inquiries within 30 days.
Additionally, SB 77 creates a private cause of action available to “[a]ny person who suffers damage as a result of the failure of a qualified education loan servicer to comply” with the bill’s requirements or with applicable federal student loan servicing laws and regulations. The bill further provides that violations are subject to a civil penalty not exceeding $2,500 and are considered prohibited practices under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. SB 77 has a delayed effective date of July 1, 2021; however, the SCC will begin accepting applications starting on or before March 1, 2021.
On April 7, the Virginia governor signed HB 1553, which outlines licensing and regulatory requirements for debt settlement services providers. Among other things, HB 1553 specifies that all debt settlement services providers must be licensed by the state, must file a bond with the state commissioner, and must comply with outlined record retention, reporting, and examination requirements. HB 1553 also outlines prohibited conduct, including prohibiting licensees from accepting a fee from a consumer prior to providing the requested debt settlement service, or from using false, misleading, or deceptive advertisements in connection with the offered services. HB 1553 also provides for cease and desist orders and civil penalties to be issued against licensees that violate these requirements, grants consumers a private right of action against licensees, and makes a violation a prohibited practice under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. Additionally, the State Corporation Commission is directed to “establish a procedure, to be in effect by March 1, 2021, for any person to apply, prior to July 1, 2021, for a license” that will take effect when HB 1553’s requirements become effective on July 1, 2021.
On July 9, the CFPB announced a $25 million settlement with the nation’s largest debt settlement provider to resolve allegations that the company engaged in deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2017 the Bureau claimed, among other things, that the company (i) misled consumers about its ability to negotiate with creditors that the company knew maintained policies against working with settlement companies; (ii) charged advance fees without settling consumers’ debts; and (iii) failed to inform consumers about their rights to refunds from their deposit accounts if they left the settlement program. The proposed stipulated final judgment and proposed order requires the company to pay $20 million in restitution to affected consumers and a $5 million civil money penalty (CMP), in addition to providing certain upfront disclosures to consumers before enrollment. The settlement further enjoins the company from engaging in the alleged unlawful conduct in the future and stipulates that $493,500 of the CMP will be remitted in light of a penalty the company previously paid under a consent order issued by the FDIC in 2018.
Maryland approves bills on debt settlement services, mortgage lenders, and credit service businesses
On April 18, the Maryland governor approved several bills concerning debt settlement service providers, mortgage lenders, and credit service businesses.
Under HB 59, registrants providing debt settlement services are required to apply for a license or renewal and obtain a valid unique identifier issued by the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System and Registry (NMLS) on or after July 1. HB 59 also requires the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation (OCFR) to establish a time period of at least two months within which registrants must transfer licensing information to NMLS. Additionally, registration fees are decreased to $400 from $1,000 for the issuance or renewal of a registration.
HB 61 amends the Annotated Code of Maryland related to mortgage lenders, loan servicers, and loan originators to, among other things, (i) alter and clarify certain tangible net worth requirements and criteria for mortgage lenders, servicers, and originators; (ii) repeal a provision that requires licensees to reapply for a license should a location change request not be filed in a timely manner with the OCFR; (iii) extend examination cycle periods; and (iv) amend certain expiration provisions related to mortgage loan originator licensees. The amendments take effect October 1.
Finally, SB 68 amends the definition of a “credit service business” to mean, among other things, any person who represents the ability to provide advice or assistance to consumers concerning improving a consumer’s credit record, establishing a new credit file, or obtaining credit extensions. SB 68 also exempts certain credit services businesses from certain information statement requirements when engaged to obtain an extension of credit for a consumer. Credit services businesses that qualify for an exemption must provide the consumer with certain information concerning the right to file a complaint as well as a copy of the contract before the consumer executes the contract. SB 68 takes effect October 1.
On December 4, the FTC announced that it charged two debt relief companies and five individuals with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in connection with their sale of “bogus” credit card interest rate reduction services. According to the complaint, the defendants contacted consumers using illegal robocalls and made false guarantees to “substantially and permanently” lower the consumers’ credit card interest rates and/or save the consumer thousands of dollars in interest payments. However, the scheme rarely obtained the promised results. In some instances where consumers did get lower interest rates, those rates were only temporary “teaser” rates that did not result in a permanent rate reduction. In addition, defendants failed to disclose the associated balance transfer fees that accompanied the lower teaser rates. The FTC also charged the defendants with TSR violations for (i) collecting illegal upfront fees; (ii) making illegal robocalls; (iii) contacting consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry; and (iv) not paying the required fees to the Registry. The FTC charged one additional individual defendant with substantially assisting the two debt relief operations with the allegedly illegal conduct. The FTC is seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the defendants, requesting the appointment of a receiver to control the two corporate entities, and an asset freeze to assist in potential consumer redress.
On November 9, the CFPB announced the filing of a complaint against the largest debt settlement provider in the country and its co-CEO for allegedly deceiving consumers about its debt settlement services. According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by:
- misleading consumers about the settlement provider’s ability to negotiate with creditors that the settlement provider knew maintained policies against working with settlement companies;
- instructing consumers to mislead creditors when asked about their participation in a debt settlement program;
- leading consumers to believe the defendants would negotiate on their behalf when, in fact, some consumers were only “coached” on how to negotiate settlements on their own;
- misleading consumers by charging them the full fee when creditors stop collection efforts without the defendants taking any action despite advertising that the fee is only charged if settlement is negotiated by the settlement provider and payments begin under the terms of a settlement; and
- failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose consumers’ rights to refunds from their deposit accounts if they leave the settlement program.
The CFPB is seeking monetary relief, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief against the defendants.
On October 13, in partnership with 11 states and the District of Columbia, the FTC announced a federal-state law enforcement initiative to combat deceptive student loan debt relief scams. According to the FTC, “Operation Game of Loans” targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers, such as allegedly (i) charging illegal upfront fees; (ii) making false or misleading statements promising, among other things, debt relief, loan forgiveness, reduced interest rates, and credit repair services; (iii) pretending to be affiliated with the government or loan servicers; (iv) engaging in deceptive marketing practices; (v) pocketing consumer fees rather than applying the money towards student loan balances; and (vi) charging consumers for document preparation services that are readily available to consumers for free. According to a press release issued by the FTC, the initiative “encompasses 36 actions by the FTC and state attorneys general against scammers alleged to have used deception and false promises of relief to take more than $95 million in illegal upfront fees from American consumers over a number of years.”
That same day, as part of “Operation Game of Loans,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a lawsuit against a pair of entities (defendants) accused of allegedly violating Illinois law by charging upfront fees for services guaranteed to “lower monthly student loan payments, improve credit scores, get students out of default, and negotiate tax and student loan debt adjustments.” The complaint further alleges that not only do the defendants lack the ability to provide the advertised services, they also allegedly impersonate students to gain access to students’ Federal Student Aid IDs (the federal government prohibits entities from accessing federal student aid websites even if authorized by the borrower), and fail to refund consumers—as promised—if they fail to provide debt relief. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association webinar
- Buckley Webcast: From there to here – Anticipating comparative redlining claims
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference
- Buckley Webcast: New sheriff in town – AML and sanctions under the new administration
- Tim Lange to discuss "Impact of Covid-19 on your business" at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues & Regulatory Compliance Conference