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On October 20, the FTC voted 3-1 at an open meeting to publish two rules for comments: the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on Junk Fees (see here) and the ANPRM on Fake Reviews and Endorsements (see here). The first ANPRM addresses junk fees that are charged for goods or services that have little or no added value to the consumer. The ANPRM seeks comments on the prevalence of junk fees and the consumer harms arising from junk fee practices, among other topics. The second APNRM initiates a rulemaking proceeding addressing fake reviews and other endorsements, which can cheat consumers and honest businesses alike. The ANPRM seeks comment on the prevalence of fake and deceptive reviews and the consumer harms arising from them, among other things.
At the start of the meeting, members of the public provided feedback on the Commission’s work with some members of the public expressing concerns about how junk fees are harming consumers and businesses. Others also expressed consumers’ frustration with hidden fees that are added to bills that were not advertised up front. Regarding fake advertisements, some emphasized how consumers rely on reviews and how fake reviews can harm consumers and sellers. Commissioner Wilson, the sole ‘no’ vote on both measures, noted that the APNRM on junk fees “is sweeping in its breadth,” and said the APNRM potentially contradicts existing laws and rules, among other things. Chair Kahn, Commissioner Slaughter, and Commissioner Bedoya all voted yes for both measures. Regarding the junk fees ANPR, Commissioner Slaughter mentioned that she does not consider this to be “obscure” and expressed her support for the ANPRM, emphasizing that markets cannot function effectively with junk fees. Commissioner Wilson noted that she agrees that “fake and deceptive reviews are unlawful,” but does not believe public comment should be sought for this proposal because “the Commission already has a multi-pronged strategy in place to combat this issue,” such as FTC-published endorsement guides. Additionally, in October 2021, the Commission issued a notice of penalty offenses, which is explained in the ANPRM, and may enable the Commission to obtain civil penalties from marketers that use fake reviews.
On October 20, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion, Fair Credit Reporting; Facially False Data, as part of a series of actions being taken by the Bureau to ensure consumer reporting companies comply with consumer financial protection laws. The advisory opinion emphasizes, among other things, that “a consumer reporting agency that does not implement reasonable internal controls to prevent the inclusion of facially false data, including logically inconsistent information, in consumer reports it prepares is not using reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy under section 607(b) of the [FCRA].” According to the Bureau, consumer reporting companies are legally required to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of information that they collect and report. As part of that requirement, companies must implement policies and procedures to screen for and eliminate junk data, including being able to detect and remove inconsistent account information and information that cannot be accurate. Additionally, companies’ internal controls must also be able to identify and prevent reporting of illegitimate credit transactions for a minor.
For more details on the CFPB’s advisory opinion program, please see InfoBytes coverage here.
On October 18, the CFPB filed a complaint against a Texas-based payment processing service platform (primarily related to collecting and processing event fees) for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and the EFTA by engaging in deceptive and abusive acts and practices. The Bureau alleged that the defendant enrolled consumers in, and charged them, for discount club memberships without their consent that were largely unrelated to the event the consumers were signing up for. The complaint noted that although the defendant’s memberships had a 30-day free “negative option trial membership,” the memberships automatically begin charging the membership fees at the end of the trial period. The Bureau also alleged that the defendant deployed dark patterns, which “are hidden tricks or trapdoors that companies build into their websites to get consumers to inadvertently click links, sign up for subscriptions, or purchase products or services.” The Bureau further alleged that the defendant violated the EFTA and Regulation E by increasing consumers’ membership fees without sending the consumer written notice of the new amount and the date of the new payment at least 10 days before initiating the new payment, which also constitute violations of the CFPA. The Bureau is seeking permanent injunctive relief, damages, restitution, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and other relief.
According to a statement by CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, the Bureau is “closely watching whether financial services firms are deploying digital dark patterns,” and is “looking at a range of ways to reduce unwanted junk fees.” He also added that the Bureau is “working to ensure our payments system is working safely and fairly” and that it “will continue to look at how payment platforms extract data and fees from their users.”
FTC will not extend comment period on NPRM seeking to ban auto lending junk fees and bait-and-switch tactics
On August 23, the FTC issued a decision declining to extend the public comment period for its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to ban “junk fees” and “bait-and-switch” advertising tactics related to the sale, financing, and leasing of motor vehicles by dealers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the NPRM seeks to prohibit dealers from making deceptive advertising claims to entice prospective car buyers and would also: (i) prohibit dealers from charging fees for “fraudulent add-on products” and services that—according to the FTC—do not benefit the consumer; (ii) require clear, written, and informed consent (including the price of the car without any optional add-ons); and (iii) require dealers to provide full, upfront disclosure of costs and conditions, including the true “offering price” (the full price for a vehicle minus only taxes and government fees), as well as any optional add-on fees and key financing terms. Dealers would also be required to maintain records of advertisements and customer transactions. In declining to extend the comment period, the FTC said the public has been afforded “a meaningful opportunity to provide the Commission with comments regarding its rulemaking proposal.” The comment period will end September 12.
On August 8, the FTC announced it has taken action against a healthcare company, two subsidiaries, and the former CEO and former vice president of sales (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly misleading consumers about their health insurance plans and using deceptive lead generation websites. According to the complaint, the defendants, along with their third-party partners, allegedly engaged in deceptive sales practices in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act (ROSCA). These practices included allegedly (i) lying to consumers about the nature of their healthcare plans; (ii) bundling and charging junk fees for unwanted products that were typically not clearly disclosed (consumers were often charged for these additional products after they cancelled their core healthcare plans); and (iii) making it difficult for consumers to cancel their plans. The FTC further alleged that the company (which sells association memberships and other healthcare-related products to consumers, often through telemarketing companies and lead generators), as well as the former CEO and former vice president of sales, were aware of the agents’ misconduct but allegedly “took steps to disguise and further the deception” instead of stopping the deceptive practices.
The FTC stated that the company and two of its subsidiaries have agreed to a proposed court order, which requires the payment of $100 million in consumer redress. The proposed order also requires the company to contact current customers and allow them to cancel their enrollment. The company is also required to send refunds to consumers who cancel right after their order is entered. Additionally, the proposed order prohibits the company from misleading consumers about their products, requires the disclosure of total costs and limitations prior to purchase, and requires consumers to provide express informed consent before they are billed. The company must also provide a simple and easy-to-use cancellation method and closely monitor other companies that sell its products.
The FTC also filed separate proposed court orders against the individual defendants (see here and here), which impose similar prohibitions and permanently bans them from playing any role in the sale or marketing of any healthcare-related product or service. The proposed orders also prohibit the former CEO from engaging in deceptive or abusive telemarketing practices, and bans the former vice president of sales from participating in any telemarketing whatsoever in the future.
On July 11, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra provided an overview of recent steps taken by the agency as part of a “whole-of-government effort” to promote financial market competition. In an effort to identify obstacles facing consumers who want to refinance or easily switch providers, the Bureau sent letters to the CEOs of the nation’s largest credit card companies asking for explanations of how they furnish data to credit reporting agencies regarding the exact monthly payment amounts made by borrowers (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau reported that “[c]onsumers reasonably expect that they will receive competitively priced credit based on their ability to manage and repay their credit obligations,” but warned that “this is impaired if actual payment amount information is being suppressed by major credit card companies.” Chopra added that the Bureau is also working to “identify impediments to refinancing in other markets, including mortgages and auto,” and is “accelerating its work to implement a required rulemaking on personal financial data rights” to help promote competition and switching by providing consumers more control of their data.
Chopra also highlighted an initiative to reduce junk fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau has requested comments from the public on fees associated with consumers’ bank accounts, prepaid or credit card accounts, mortgages, loans, payment transfers, and other financial products that are allegedly not subject to competitive processes to ensure fair pricing. The Bureau also issued an advisory opinion last month stating its interpretation that Section 808 of the FDCPA and Regulation F generally prohibit debt collectors from charging consumers “pay-to-pay” fees, also commonly known as convenience fees, for making payments online or by phone to make sure debt collectors are not “disadvantaged by those that impose unlawful fees” (covered by InfoBytes here). A rulemaking process has also begun to address credit card late fees and late payments and card issuers’ revenue and expenses (covered by InfoBytes here).
Additionally, Chopra discussed Bureau efforts to identify roadblocks facing small financial institutions and new entrants when challenging larger, more dominant players. Specifically, the Bureau issued orders to six large U.S. technology companies seeking information and data on their payment system business practices (covered by InfoBytes here). According to Chopra’s statement, the “information will help the CFPB shed light on how they will decide who they kick off their platform and how they will use the data of individual consumers and any competing businesses.” The Bureau is also working with community banks to understand the impact of major core services providers on their business (covered by InfoBytes here).
On June 29, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion to state its interpretation that Section 808 of the FDCPA and Regulation F generally prohibit debt collectors from charging consumers “pay-to-pay” fees for making payments online or by phone. “These types of fees are often illegal,” the Bureau said, explaining that its “advisory opinion and accompanying analysis seek to stop these violations of law and assist consumers who are seeking to hold debt collectors accountable for illegal practices.”
These fees, commonly known as convenience fees, are prohibited in many circumstances under the FDCPA, the Bureau said. It pointed out that allowable fees are those authorized in the original underlying agreements that consumers have with their creditors, such as with credit card companies, or those that are affirmatively permitted by law. Moreover, the Bureau stressed that the fact that a law does not expressly prohibit the assessment of a fee does not mean a debt collector is authorized to charge a fee. Specifically, the advisory opinion interprets FDCPA Section 808(1) to permit collection of fee only if: (i) “the agreement creating the debt expressly permits the charge and some law does not prohibit it”; or (ii) “some law expressly permits the charge, even if the agreement creating the debt is silent.” Additionally, the Bureau’s “interpretation of the phrase ‘permitted by law’ applies to any ‘amount’ covered under section 808(1), including pay-to-pay fees.” The Bureau further added that while some courts have adopted a “separate agreement” interpretation of the law to allow collectors to assess certain pay-to-pay fees, the agency “declines to do so.”
The Bureau also opined that a debt collector is in violation of the FDCPA if it uses a third-party payment processor for which any of that fee is remitted back to the collector in the form of a kickback or commission. “Federal law generally forbids debt collectors from imposing extra fees not authorized by the original loan,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said. “Today’s advisory opinion shows that these fees are often illegal, and provides a roadmap on the fees that a debt collector can lawfully collect.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau finalized its Advisory Opinions Policy in 2020. Under the policy, entities seeking to comply with existing regulatory requirements are permitted to request an advisory opinion in the form of an interpretive rule from the Bureau (published in the Federal Register for increased transparency) to address areas of uncertainty.
On June 23, the FTC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to ban “junk fees” and “bait-and-switch” advertising tactics related to the sale, financing, and leasing of motor vehicles by dealers. Specifically, the NPRM would prohibit dealers from making deceptive advertising claims to entice prospective car buyers. According to the FTC’s announcement, deceptive claims could “include the cost of a vehicle or the terms of financing, the cost of any add-on products or services, whether financing terms are for a lease, the availability of any discounts or rebates, the actual availability of the vehicles being advertised, and whether a financing deal has been finalized, among other areas.” The NPRM would also (i) prohibit dealers from charging junk fees for “fraudulent add-on products” and services that—according to the FTC—do not benefit the consumer; (ii) require clear, written, and informed consent (including the price of the car without any optional add-ons); and (iii) require dealers to provide full, upfront disclosure of costs and conditions, including the true “offering price” (the full price for a vehicle minus only taxes and government fees), as well as any optional add-on fees and key financing terms. Dealers would also be required to maintain records of advertisements and customer transactions. Comments on the NPRM are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
The FTC noted that in the past 10 years, the Commission has brought more than 50 auto-related enforcement actions and helped lead two nationwide law enforcement sweeps including 181 state-level enforcement actions in this space. Despite these efforts, the FTC reported that automobile-related consumer complaints are among the top ten complaint types submitted to the Commission.