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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

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  • Virtual currency is not considered “money” in Pennsylvania; platforms do not need money transmitter license

    State Issues

    The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities recently published guidance stating that virtual currency, including “Bitcoin,” is not considered “money” under the state’s Money Transmitter Act (MTA). According to the guidance, only “fiat currency,” or currency issued by the U.S. government is considered “money” under the MTA and that to transmit money under the MTA, (i) fiat currency must be transferred with or on behalf of an individual to a third party; and (ii) the money transmitter must charge a fee for the transmission. Because virtual currency trading platforms (along with virtual currency kiosks, ATMs, and vending machines) never directly handle fiat currency and there is no transfer of money from a user to a third party, they are not money transmitters under the MTA and therefore do not need a license in order to operate in the state.

    State Issues Virtual Currency Licensing Money Service / Money Transmitters

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  • Georgia Department of Banking and Finance revokes money transmitter license

    State Issues

    On January 11, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance (Department) announced the issuance of a Final Order taken against a Florida-based money transmitter and two of its officers for allegedly failing to, among other things, timely file suspicious activity reports (SARs) or conduct required background checks on covered employees. Following a hearing, the Department issued the Final Order on January 9 to revoke the company’s money transmitter license and order the officers to cease and desist. According to the Order, the officers’ failure to timely file SARs related to four cancelled money transmission transactions violated Georgia’s Rules and Regulations 80-3-1-.03(3), which obligate money transmitters to “comply with the recordkeeping requirements, currency transaction reporting, and suspicious activity reporting set forth in the Bank Secrecy Act.” Moreover, the Department further asserted that the officers materially misrepresented why the filings were delayed, and therefore deemed the officers “incompetent or untrustworthy to engage in the money transmission business.”

    State Issues Enforcement Money Service / Money Transmitters Bank Secrecy Act Licensing

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  • Florida Attorney General settles with car rental company for misleading fee disclosures

    State Issues

    On January 22, the Florida Attorney General announced a settlement with a car rental automotive group resolving allegations the company did not adequately disclose add-on fees for cashless tolls and other related add-on charges. According to the settlement, the Attorney General launched an investigation after receiving consumer complaints alleging the company did not clearly disclose that consumers would be charged $15 per cashless toll, in addition to the actual toll fees. Additionally, consumers who opted into an add-on product that would allow them to go through cashless tolls without penalty alleged the company misled them regarding that product’s fees. The settlement requires the company to (i) clearly and conspicuously disclose all fees regarding cashless tolls or associated products within written agreements; (ii) provide clear disclosures regarding fees on their website, online reservation system, confirmation emails and at the rental counters; (iii) refund fees paid for tolls or the associated add-on product to consumers who were charged between January 1, 2011 and January 7, 2019, and who submit claim forms; and (iv) provide accurate disclosures on damage waivers. The settlement also prohibits the company from charging consumers for a higher car class when the car class reserved by a consumer is unavailable.

    State Issues Courts Disclosures State Attorney General Settlement Add-On Products

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  • State Attorneys General weigh in on small-dollar lending RFI

    Federal Issues

    On January 22, a coalition of 14 state Attorneys General submitted a comment letter responding to the FDIC’s Request for Information (RFI) on small-dollar lending. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the RFI here.) According to the letter, while the coalition welcomes the FDIC’s interest in encouraging FDIC-supervised financial institutions to offer responsibly underwritten and prudently structured small-dollar credit products that are economically viable and address consumer credit needs, the coalition simultaneously raises several legal risks affecting state-chartered banks seeking to enter this space.

    • Banks face challenges when entering into relationships with “fringe lenders,” specifically with respect to the potential evasion of state restrictions related to state usury laws, “rent-a-bank” lending, and tribal sovereign immunity. The coalition recommends that the FDIC discourage banks from entering into such relationships.
    • State-chartered banks are still subject to state unfair or deceptive acts or practices laws and state-law unconscionability claims. The coalition recommends that the FDIC encourage banks to evaluate consumers’ ability to repay, factoring in conditions such as consumers’ monthly expenses, their ability to repay a loan’s entire balance without re-borrowing, and their “capacity to absorb an unanticipated financial event. . .and, nonetheless, still be able to meet the payments as they become due.” The coalition recommends that the FDIC include the factors banks should consider before extending small-dollar loans to consumers in any guidance that it issues.

    Federal Issues State Issues State Attorney General Small Dollar Lending FDIC RFI

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  • California small-dollar lender reaches settlement resolving interest rate allegations

    State Issues

    On January 22, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) announced a $900,000 settlement with a California-based lender for allegedly steering borrowers into high-interest loans to avoid statutory interest rate caps. According to the DBO, the lender’s practice of overcharging interest and administrative fees violated the California Financing Law, which caps interest on small-dollar loans up to $2,499 at rates between 20 percent and 30 percent, but does not provide a cap for loans of $2,500 and higher. The DBO also asserts that the lender’s brochures, which advertised loans of “‘up to $5,000’ without stating that the minimum loan amount offered by [the lender] was $2,501,” were false, misleading, or deceptive. Moreover, the lender allegedly failed to allow certain borrowers the opportunity to make advance payments “in any amount on any loan contract at any time.”

    Additionally, the DBO alleges that the lender overcharged roughly $700,000 in payday loan transactions by (i) collecting charges twice; (ii) allowing borrowers to take out a new loan before paying off the old one; and (iii) depositing some borrowers’ checks prior to the specified date in the loan agreement without their written authorization.

    Under the terms of the consent order, the lender will, among other things, provide $800,000 in refunds to qualifying borrowers, pay $105,000 in penalties and other costs, and provide accurate verbal disclosures to borrowers concerning loan amounts and interest rate caps.

    State Issues Payday Lending Interest Rate Small Dollar Lending CDBO Settlement

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  • Connecticut allows federal employees impacted by shutdown to apply for zero-interest loans

    State Issues

    On January 22, the Connecticut Governor signed HB 5765 to allow essential and nonessential federal employees, who are otherwise ineligible to receive unemployment assistance, to apply for zero-interest bank loans of up to $5,000 while the government remains shut down. Federal employees may be eligible for more if the partial government shutdown extends for a longer period. Under the new program, the loans have a 90-day grace period in which banks may not require repayment or charge interest on principal. The grace period begins when the affected employee’s federal agency is funded and is followed by a 180-day repayment period. Among other things, HB 5765 permits municipalities to defer property tax payments from impacted federal employees based on outlined eligibility criteria. According to a press release issued by the Governor, the coordination—where loans will be backed by the state—marks the first public-private partnership in the nation between a state and private banks and credit unions. The act takes effect immediately.

    State Issues State Legislation Shutdown Relief Consumer Lending Consumer Finance

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  • NYDFS fines mortgage loan servicer for alleged violations of Abandoned Property Relief Act

    State Issues

    On January 16, NYDFS announced a $100,000 settlement with a New York state-registered mortgage loan servicer for allegedly failing to register and maintain two properties as required by the state’s Abandoned Property Relief Act. Under the Act, NYDFS can hold banks and mortgage servicers accountable should they fail to fulfill certain maintenance obligations at vacant and abandoned residential properties (“zombie” properties) securing mortgage loans in their portfolios. NYDFS rejected claims that the servicer was unable to maintain the “zombie” properties due to not receiving authorization from the mortgagee and that the properties were not subject to the requirements of the Act because backdated lien releases extinguished its maintenance obligation. Under the terms of the consent order, the servicer has also agreed to provide confirmation within 30 days to NYDFS that all properties subject to New York’s Vacant and Abandoned Property Law have been sufficiently registered with NYDFS’ registry of vacant and abandoned properties, are maintained properly, and that all quarterly filings for each property have been submitted.

    State Issues NYDFS Enforcement Mortgage Servicing

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  • NYDFS issues whistleblowing program guidance and best practices

    State Issues

    On January 7, NYDFS issued guidance providing principles and best practices that all NYDFS-regulated institutions “regardless of industry, size, or number of employees” should consider when designing and implementing a robust whistleblowing program, which the department considers to be an essential component of an institution’s comprehensive compliance program.

    The guidance notes that the design of a whistleblowing program should be based on factors such as the institution’s size, geographical reach and business. However, it outlines ten elements that institutions should, at a minimum, consider how to account for when designing their programs:

    • Independent, well-publicized, easy-to-access, and consistent reporting channels;
    • Strong protections for whistleblower anonymity;
    • Established procedures for identifying and managing the effects of possible conflicts of interest;
    • Adequately trained staff members responsible for receiving a whistleblowing complaints, determining a course of action, and competently managing any investigation, referral, or escalation;
    • Established procedures for appropriately investigating allegations of wrongdoing;
    • Established procedures for ensuring appropriate follow-up to valid complaints;
    • Protections against any form of retaliation;
    • Confidential treatment, including safeguards to protect the confidentiality of the whistleblower and the whistleblowing matters themselves;
    • Appropriate oversight by senior managers, internal and external auditors, and the Board of Directors; and
    • A top-down culture of support for the whistleblowing function.

    As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December NYDFS issued a consent order against an international bank and its New York branch to resolve allegations stemming from an investigation into the governance, controls, and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblower program.

    State Issues Whistleblower Of Interest to Non-US Persons

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  • District Court certifies class action against lead generator’s payday lending practices

    Courts

    On January 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota granted a motion for class certification in a case challenging a company’s payday lending practices under several Minnesota consumer protection statutes and common law. The plaintiffs filed the proposed class action alleging, among other things, that the company, which generates leads for payday lenders, failed to disclose that it was not licensed in the state, and that the loans may not be legal in Minnesota. The Minnesota Attorney General had notified the company in 2010 and 2012 that it was subject to Minnesota law restricting payday loans and that it was “aiding and abetting lenders that violate Minnesota law.” The court found that the plaintiffs identified “questions of law or fact common to the class that are capable of class-wide resolution,” which “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” The court noted that a class action would fairly promote the interests of the class and ensure judicial economy, and that even though the plaintiffs’ proposed method for measuring the amount of damages would require individual inquiry, “it is less consuming than issues requiring individual testimony and will not overwhelm the liability and damages issues capable of class-wide resolution.”

    Courts Payday Lending Class Action State Issues Consumer Lending

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  • Massachusetts amends legislation protecting consumers from security breaches

    State Issues

    On January 10, the Massachusetts Governor signed HB 4806, following the House and Senate’s adoption of amendments to the bill. The bill, which is effective April 10, amends current law related to security breaches and the protection of consumer financial and credit information. Among other provisions, the amendments to the current law:

    • Prohibit users from requesting or obtaining the consumer credit report of a consumer unless the user obtains the consumer’s prior written, verbal, or electronic consent, and discloses the user's reason for accessing the consumer report to the consumer prior to obtaining consent.
    • Require every consumer reporting agency to disclose to consumers, when properly identified, (i) the nature, contents, and substance of all information on file (except medical information) at the time of the request; (ii) the sources of all credit information; and (iii) “the recipients of any consumer report on the consumer which it has furnished for employment purposes within the 2-year period preceding the request, and for any other purpose within the 6-month period preceding the request.”
    • State that a consumer reporting agency may not charge a fee to any consumer for placing, lifting, or removing a security freeze from a consumer report.
    • Specify that a consumer reporting agency may not “knowingly offer a paid product to prevent unauthorized access or restrict access to a consumer's credit.”
    • Require persons who experience a security breach to report specific information to the state Attorney General, as well as certify that their credit monitoring services are in compliance.
    • State that consumers shall receive notice provisions in the event of a breach of security, including the right to obtain police reports, steps for requesting a security freeze, and various mitigation services.
    • Require persons who experience a breach that compromises social security numbers to provide at least 18 months of free credit monitoring for affected individuals.

    State Issues State Legislation Credit Reporting Agency Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Security Freeze Data Breach

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