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On November 30, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office proposed regulations to combat so-called “junk fee” practices and make business payment methods more transparent, according to this press release
The purpose of the new rules is to help define unfair and deceptive practices for imposing fees as well as establishing standards for automatic renewal or continuous service contracts. Under the proposed regulations, the following acts performed by a business would be considered an “unfair and deceptive practice”: failing to disclose the total price of a product; failing to disclose any fees, interest, charges, or other expenses related to a product; and failing to disclose the total price before requiring a consumer to provide any personal information. The proposed regulations also state that, for recurring fees and trial offers, companies must provide a means of contact so that a consumer may cancel and must offer a way for a consumer to terminate a trial period in the same way it was entered.
The AG’s office will be holding a public hearing on the proposal on December 20 and is accepting public comments until then. If enacted, Massachusetts would be only the second state (following California) to issue a rule specifically targeting “junk fees.”
On October 11, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion concerning consumers’ requests for information regarding their accounts with large banks and credit unions (financial institutions). According to the Bureau, Section 1034(c) of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (the “law”) requires insured depository institutions that offer consumer financial products or services and that have total assets of more than $10 billion, as well as their affiliates, to “comply in a timely manner with consumer requests for information concerning their accounts for consumer financial products and services, subject to limited exceptions.” The advisory opinion includes the following guidance and interpretations:
- Requirements of the law apply even if a customer does not expressively invoke the law.
- Requirements of the law apply to consumer requests for information including information that appears on periodic statements or in online portals including: (i) the amount of the balance in a deposit account; (ii) the interest rate on a loan or credit card; (iii) individual transactions or payments; (iv) bill payments; (vi) recurring transactions; (vii) terms and conditions; and (viii) fee schedules.
- The term “supporting written documentation” in the law requires financial institutions to provide, upon request, “written documents that will substantiate information provided in response to consumer questions, or that will assist consumers with understanding or verifying information regarding their accounts.”
- Financial institutions must provide account information and documentation that is in their “control” and “possession.” This excludes (i) confidential commercial information; (ii) information collected to prevent fraud or money laundering or detecting or making any report regarding unlawful conduct; (iii) information required by law to be kept as confidential; and (iv) supervisory information and nonpublic information.
- The law does not contain language stating or suggesting that financial institutions cannot impose unreasonable conditions on consumer information, but there is no reason Congress intended for the law to allow financial institutions to do so. Generally, the Bureau believes requiring fees and obstacles that impede a consumer’s ability to access their rights granted by the law is a violation of the provision. A financial institution could violate this law by imposing “excessively long wait times to make a request to a customer service representative, requiring consumers to submit the same request multiple times, requiring consumers to interact with a chatbot that does not understand or adequately respond to consumers’ requests, or directing consumers to obtain information that the institution possesses from a third party instead,” among other things.
- There is no fixed time limit for an institution to respond to a consumer’s request, but the CFPB does not view the timing requirements of this law to differ from the timing requirements of other applicable federal laws or regulations.
- Responses must provide all information requested accurately to be considered compliant.
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra delivered remarks on a press call, in which he emphasized that the Bureau’s investigations have uncovered many examples of junk fee-related misconduct by large financial institutions. He reminded consumers that financial institutions should not charge them excessive fees when trying to manage their finances. “Congress passed a law a decade ago requiring heightened customer service standards," said Chopra. "To date, this law has not been enforced. We are changing that.” Chopra also announced that later this month, the CFPB will propose rules to create more competition in banking to make switching financial institutions for better rates and less junk fees, more accessible.
The CFPB additionally issued the results of its recent oversight inspections of major financial institutions, which resulted in financial institutions refunding $140 million in junk fees, $120 million of which were for “surprise overdraft fees and double-dipping on non-sufficient funds fees.”
On October 11, the FTC released a notice of proposed rulemaking meant to prohibit unfair and deceptive, costly fees, also known as “junk fees.” After announcing its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last year (covered by InfoBytes here), and after considering more than 12,000 public comments, the FTC determined that some businesses misrepresent overall costs by omitting mandatory fees from advertised prices until consumers are “well into completing the transaction,” and fail to adequately explain the nature and amount of fees. The Commission is seeking another round of comments for its proposed rule, which, for any entity that “offers goods or services” to consumers, would prohibit:
- Offering, displaying, or advertising an amount a consumer may pay without “clearly and conspicuously” disclosing the “total price,” which must be displayed “more prominently than any other pricing information.”
- Misrepresenting “the nature and purpose of any amount a consumer may pay.”
- Disclosing “any other pricing information” besides the total price “more prominently” than disclosures of the total price in an “offer, display, or advertisement.”
The proposed rule would also grant the FTC more robust enforcement authority to seek refunds for harmed consumers and impose monetary penalties of up to $50,120 per violation. The proposed rule also requires businesses to include any mandatory costs for ancillary goods or services in their price disclosures.
The FTC is working alongside the CFPB, OCC, FCC, HUD and the Department of Transportation to develop and implement rules banning junk fees. The CFPB has also issued guidance emphasizing that large banks and credit unions are prohibited from imposing unreasonable obstacles on customers, such as charging excessive fees, for basic information about their accounts. Further, the White House has called on federal agencies “to reduce or eliminate hidden fees, charges, and add-ons for everything from banking services to cable and internet bills to airline and concert tickets.”
The Commission is seeking public input on 37 questions, with comments due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On July 19, the White House released a Fact Sheet announcing that the Biden-Harris administration is cracking down on junk fees in rental housing to lower costs for renters. The administration explained how rental housing fees can be burdensome for renters, with application fees often exceeding the actual cost of background checks, accumulating to hundreds of dollars as prospective renters apply for multiple units. Additionally, mandatory fees, such as convenience fees for online rent payment, mail sorting, trash collection, and obscure charges like "January fees," further strain renters' finances and hinder comparison shopping, as the true cost of renting may be higher than expected or affordable, the announcement states. The Fact Sheet outlines the president’s steps for taking action: (i) major rental housing platforms will disclose total upfront costs in addition to the advertised rent; (ii) legislative efforts to regulate rental housing fees and safeguard consumer interests are underway in several states; and (iii) HUD presented new research outlining a blueprint for a nationwide initiative to tackle rental housing fees. HUD’s new research presents an extensive review of rental fees, emphasizing strategies adopted by state, local, and private sectors to promote transparency and equity in the rental market. These strategies encompass measures like capping or abolishing rental application fees, enabling renters to submit their own screening reports, utilizing a single application fee for multiple applications, and ensuring clear disclosure of total move-in and monthly rent costs. HUD's research serves as a guide for local authorities and landlords alike to enhance conditions for renters.
On June 13, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra testified before the Senate Banking Committee to discuss the Bureau’s most recent semi-annual report to Congress. Covering the period beginning April 1, 2022 and ending September 30, 2022, the semi-annual report addressed a wide range of issues, including the adoption of significant rules and orders, supervisory and enforcement actions, and actions taken by states relating to federal consumer financial law. The report also stated the Bureau received approximately 1.237 million consumer complaints, for which roughly 75 percent pertained to credit or consumer reporting. With respect to the Bureau’s mandated objectives, Chopra’s prepared statement highlighted rulemaking progress on several topics, including small business lending data collection and PACE lending. He also emphasized the agency’s heightened focus on supervising nonbank financial firms and reiterated that the Bureau will continue to shift its enforcement focus from small businesses to repeat offenders.
Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-OH) praised Chopra’s leadership in his opening statement, highlighting actions taken by the Bureau since Chopra’s last hearing appearance and disagreeing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision that the agency’s funding authority violates the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause and the separation of powers. However, Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-SC) argued that Chopra “has created uncertainty in the marketplace by attempting to regulate through speeches and blog posts under the guise of ‘clarifying guidance,’” and continues to mislabel payment incentives as “junk fees” or “illegal fees.” Scott also took issue with the Bureau’s small business lending rule and asked why the agency should be trusted to collect a large amount of lending data when the agency itself experienced a data breach when an employee transferred sensitive consumer data to a personal email account without authorization.
During the hearing, Chopra addressed concerns accusing him of bypassing regulatory review by issuing policy changes through agency guidance and press announcements. “The things we hear from small firms is they really want to know how existing law applies,” Chopra said. “We have so many changes in technology, and these small firms don’t have the ability to hire so many lawyers[,] [s]o I’ve actually continued a practice of my predecessor, Director Kraninger to issue these advisory opinions and other guidance documents. They do not create any new obligations. They simply restate what the existing laws are.”
Chopra also answered questions relating to the Bureau’s proposal to limit credit card late fees and, among other things, adjust the safe harbor dollar amount for late fees to $8 for any missed payment (issuers are currently able to charge late fees of up to $41). (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Chopra explained that the proposed rule still allows recovery of costs but said the agency is trying to make the process “more rigorous and make sure it reflects market realities.” “[I]ssuers tell us is that they don’t want to profit off of late fees,” Chopra added. “That's exactly the goal here, because the law says those penalty fees are supposed to be reasonable and proportional. We’re trying to make it more clear about the way we can do that, while also making the market more competitive.”
Republican senators expressed concerns with the proposal during the hearing, with Scott commenting that no one wants to pay the late fee, but that “the truth of the matter is that fee is going to be paid just in a different form. . . .whether it’s through increased interest rates or increased cost of products, it doesn’t go away.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) countered that “if there’s an $8 cap on credit card late fees, unless the banks can show that their costs are higher, in which case they can charge more, all that will happen, as best I can tell is that the banks will have slightly lower profit margins.”
Chopra faced similar question during a hearing held the next day before the House Financial Services Committee. Among the topics, committee members raised questions relating to technology risks presented by artificial intelligence and how existing law applies to machine learning. Chopra was also accused of overseeing an unconstitutional agency and flouting the notice-and-comment rulemaking process. Also discussed during the hearing was a recently introduced joint resolution to nullify the Bureau’s small business lending rule. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Representative Roger Williams (R-TX) stressed that community banks are “concerned that the complicated reporting requirements will tie up loan officers and increase compliance costs plus compliance officers, which will be passed down to the consumer.”
On May 10, the CFPB released Circular 2023-02 to opine that unilaterally reopening a closed account without a customer’s permission in order to process a transaction is a likely violation of federal law, particularly if a bank collects fees on the account. “When a bank unilaterally chooses to open an account in someone’s name after they have already closed it, this is a fake account,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in the announcement. “The CFPB is acting on all fronts to halt the harvesting of illegal junk fees.”
The Bureau described receiving complaints from consumers about banks reopening closed accounts and then assessing overdraft/nonsufficient funds fees and monthly maintenance fees. Such practices, the Bureau warned, may violate the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibition on unfair acts or practices. Consumers may experience substantial injury including monetary harm by paying fees due to the unfair practice, the Bureau said, explaining that because consumers likely cannot reasonably avoid the injury, “[a]ctual injury is not required; significant risk of concrete harm is sufficient.” Aside from subjecting consumers to fees, when a bank processes a credit through a reopened account, the consumers’ funds may become available to third parties, including those that do not have permission to access such funds, the Bureau warned, adding that there is also a risk that banks may furnish negative information to consumer reporting agencies if reopening the account overdraws the account and the consumer does not quickly repay the amount owed. The Bureau further noted that deposit account agreements typically indicate that a financial institution “may return any debits or deposits to the account that the financial institution receives after closure and faces no liability for failing to honor any debits or deposits received after closure.”
The Circular explained that rather than reopening an account when a third party attempts to deposit or withdraw money from it, banks should decline the transactions. This allows customers the opportunity to update their information with the entity attempting to access a closed account while avoiding potential fees. “Reopening a closed account does not appear to provide any meaningful benefits to consumers or competition,” the Bureau said in the Circular. “While consumers might potentially benefit in some instances where their accounts are reopened to receive deposits, which then become available to them, that benefit does not outweigh the injuries that can be caused by unilateral account reopening.”
On March 8, the Biden administration convened a gathering of state legislative leaders to hold discussions about so-called “junk fees”—described as the “unnecessary, unavoidable, or surprise charges” that obscure true prices and are often not disclosed upfront. While the announcement acknowledged actions taken by federal agencies over the past few years to crack down on these fees, the administration recognized the role states play in advancing this effort. The Guide for States: Cracking Down on Junk Fees to Lower Costs for Consumers outlined actions states can take to address these fees, and provided several examples of alleged junk fees, including hotel resort fees, debt settlement fees, event ticketing fees, rental car and car purchase fees, and cable and internet fees. The guide also highlighted “the banking industry’s excessive and unfair reliance on banking junk fees.” The administration pointed out that a number of businesses have changed their policies in response to the increased scrutiny of junk fees and said several banks have ended fees for overdraft protection. The same day, the CFPB released a new Supervisory Highlights, which focused on junk fees uncovered in deposit accounts and the auto, mortgage, student, and payday loan servicing markets (covered by InfoBytes here).
Additionally, HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge published an open letter to the housing industry and state and local governments, encouraging them to “limit and better disclose fees charged to renters in advance of and during tenancy.” Fudge noted that “actions should aim to promote fairness and transparency for renters while ensuring that fees charged to renters reflect the actual and legitimate costs to housing providers.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta also issued a statement responding to the administration’s call to end junk fees. “Transparency and full disclosure in pricing are crucial for fair competition and consumer protection,” Bonta said, explaining that in February the state senate introduced legislation (see SB 478) to prohibit the practice of hiding mandatory fees.
On March 8, the CFPB released a special edition of its Supervisory Highlights focusing on junk fees uncovered in deposit accounts and the auto, mortgage, student, and payday loan servicing markets. The findings in the report cover examinations completed between July 1, 2022 and February 1, 2023. Highlights of the supervisory findings include:
- Deposit accounts. Examiners found occurrences where depository institutions charged unanticipated overdraft fees where, according to the Bureau, consumers could not reasonably avoid these fees, “irrespective of account-opening disclosures.” Examiners also found that while some institutions unfairly assessed multiple non-sufficient (NSF) fees for a single item, institutions have agreed to refund consumers appropriately, with many planning to stop charging NSF fees entirely.
- Auto loan servicing. Recently examiners identified illegal servicing practices centered around the charging of unfair and abusive payment fees, including out-of-bounds and fake late fees, inflated estimated repossession fees, and pay-to-pay payment fees, and kickback payments. Among other things, examiners found that some auto loan servicers charged “payment processing fees that far exceeded the servicers’ costs for processing payments” after a borrower was locked into a relationship with a servicer selected by the dealer. Third-party payment processors collected the inflated fees, the Bureau said, and servicers then profited through kickbacks.
- Mortgage loan servicing. Examiners identified occurrences where mortgage servicers overcharged late fees, as well as repeated fees for unnecessary property inspections. The Bureau claimed that some servicers also included monthly private mortgage insurance premiums in homeowners’ monthly statements, and failed to waive fees or other changes for homeowners entering into certain types of loss mitigation options.
- Payday and title lending. Examiners found that lenders, in connection with payday, installment, title, and line-of-credit loans, would split and re-present missed payments without authorization, thus causing consumers to incur multiple overdraft fees and loss of funds. Some short-term, high-cost payday and title loan lenders also charged borrowers repossession-related fees and property retrieval fees that were not authorized in a borrower’s title loan contract. The Bureau noted that in some instances, lenders failed to timely stop repossessions and charged fees and forced consumers to refinance their debts despite prior payment arrangements.
- Student loan servicing. Examiners found that servicers sometimes charged borrowers late fees and interest despite payments being made on time. According to the Bureau, if a servicer’s policy did not allow loan payments to be made by credit card and a customer representative accidentally accepted a credit card payment, the servicer, in certain instances, would manually reverse the payment, not provide the borrower another opportunity for paying, and charge late fees and additional interest.
CFPB Deputy Director Zixta Martinez recently spoke at the Consumer Law Scholars Conference, where she focused on the Bureau’s goal of reigning in junk fees. She highlighted guidance issued by the Bureau last October concerning banks’ overdraft fee practices, (covered by InfoBytes here), and commented that, in addition to enforcement actions taken against two banks related to their overdraft practices, the Bureau intends to continue to monitor how overdrafts are used and enforce against certain practices. The Bureau noted that currently 20 of the largest banks in the country no longer charge surprise overdraft fees. Martinez also discussed a notice of proposed rulemaking issued last month related to credit card late fees (covered by InfoBytes here), in which the Bureau is proposing to adjust the safe harbor dollar amount for late fees to $8 for any missed payment—issuers are currently able to charge late fees of up to $41—and eliminate a higher safe harbor dollar amount for late fees for subsequent violations of the same type. Martinez further described supervision and enforcement efforts to identify junk fee practices and commented that the Bureau will continue to target egregious and unlawful activities or practices.
On December 14, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra testified at a hearing titled Consumers First: Semi-Annual Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau held by the House Financial Services Committee on the CFPB’s most recent semi-annual report to Congress (covered by InfoBytes here). Chopra’s prepared statement focused on: (i) the current state of the economy and household finance; (ii) promoting an open, competitive, and a decentralized market; and (iii) actions by Congress where bipartisan support is expected. Chopra also cited concerns regarding the accuracy of medical debt credit reporting and noted that the CFPB is continuing “to examine how medical debt burdens are impacting household balance sheets.”
House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) praised Chopra’s leadership in her opening statement, stating that the Bureau has combated “redlining, housing discrimination, illegal evictions, and foreclosures, and has worked tirelessly to root out appraisal bias.” However, Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-PA) argued that the Bureau’s “lack of transparency is of grave concern.” McHenry discussed the CFPB’s six compliance bulletins, five advisory opinions, five interpretive rules, and seven circulars published this year, which he considers to have fostered “uncertainty” within the financial services industry. McHenry also warned Chopra that he can expect “much more thorough” oversight next year when Republicans take control of the House and when McHenry becomes the chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
During the hearing, Chopra acknowledged that the Bureau's Section 1071 Rulemaking “is on track to issue a final rule by March 31, 2023”—a deadline established by court order in July as a result of a stipulated settlement reached in February 2020 with a group of plaintiffs, including the California Reinvestment Coalition, related to the collection of small business lending data (covered by InfoBytes here). Chopra added that the Bureau wants to ensure it has “an implementation period that gives the smaller firms more time, and the ability to make sure it’s not duplicative with existing requirements under the Community Reinvestment Act.”
During the hearing, Republican committee members inquired about the agency’s creation and use of the term “junk fees” to describe, among other things, legal fees that banks charge for financial products and services. According to Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) “there is no such word in financial services lexicon,” and the Bureau is “making up a word and then using it to go out and enforce something that doesn’t exist.” Republican committee members also inquired about the Bureau’s recent updates to its UDAAP exam manual. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in March, the CFPB announced significant revisions to its UDAAP exam manual, in particular highlighting the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) commented that “this is not interpretive guidance,” and said Chopra is “trying to change the law.”
Chopra reiterated the Bureau’s priorities in his December 15 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee. During the hearing, Ranking Member Sherrod Brown (D-OH) noted that Republican lawmakers proposed legislation to subject the CFPB to appropriations and to change the CFPB's single-director structure to a commission. Chopra was also questioned by Ranking Member Patrick Toomey (R-PA) who raised concerns regarding the Bureau’s “overreach and pursuit of a politicized agenda.” He further argued that “the Dodd-Frank Act exempted the CFPB from appropriations,” and “empowers the CFPB to simply take funds from the Fed, which is itself also not subject to appropriation, thereby doubly insulating the CFPB from any congressional control.” Other topics discussed during the hearing included, among other things, military lending, credit cards, and overdraft fees.
On November 3, the FTC announced an action against an internet phone service provider claiming the company imposed “junk fees” and made it difficult for consumers to cancel their services. The FTC alleged in its complaint that the company violated the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act by imposing a series of obstacles, sometimes referred to as “dark patterns”, to deter and prevent consumers from canceling their services or stopping recurring charges. Consumers who were able to sign up for services online were allegedly forced to speak to a live “retention agent” on the phone during limited working hours in order to cancel their services. The company also allegedly employed a “panoply of hurdles” to cancelling consumers by, among other things, making it difficult for the consumer to locate the phone number on the website, obscuring contact information, failing to consistently transfer consumers to the appropriate number, imposing lengthy wait times, holding reduced operating hours for the cancellation line, and failing to provide promised callbacks. Additionally, the FTC claimed the company often informed consumers they would have to pay an early termination fee (sometimes hundreds of dollars) that was not clearly disclosed when they signed up for the services, and continued to illegally charge consumers without consent even after they requested cancellation. According to the FTC, consumers who complained often only received partial refunds.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the company will be required to take several measures, including (i) obtaining consumers’ express, informed consent to charge them for services; (ii) simplifying the cancellation process to ensure it is easy to find and use and is available through the same method the consumer used to enroll; (iii) ending the use of dark patterns to impede consumers’ cancellation efforts; and (iv) being transparent about the terms of any negative option subscription plans, including providing required disclosures as well as a simple mechanism for consumers to cancel the feature. The company will also be required to pay $100 million in monetary relief.