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  • FTC fines two fintech firms $59 million for PPP loan practices

    Federal Issues

    On March 18, the FTC announced enforcement actions against two companies that allegedly made “false promises” to small businesses seeking Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Both companies have agreed to settle with the FTC to resolve alleged violations of the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act and the FTC Act. 

    According to the FTC’s complaint on the first company—a company that offers online financing products to small businesses—and its subsidiary allegedly engaged in a pattern of deceptive and unfair conduct by quoting shorter processing times for consumers’ applications, despite being aware of the significant delays. The companies also allegedly ignored consumers’ requests to withdraw their pending applications frequently. The FTC further alleged that roughly 40 percent of the companies’ consumers had their applications canceled or rejected. The proposed stipulated order included a prohibition against misrepresentations, an injunction concerning the companies’ application practices (which had prohibited them from failing to allow consumers to promptly withdraw their applications), and a $33 million judgment for monetary relief. The companies must also comply with reporting requirements detailed in the settlement.

    The FTC’s complaint against the second company—an online platform offering PPP financing services to small businesses—and its CEO, alleged that respondents made deceptive claims to consumers, many of whom were eligible but never received funding because the respondents failed to fix known technical issues with their system or provide consumers with assistance. According to the complaint, the company claimed that processing a loan would only take 24 hours through the “fast lane” service, but the company’s chat support was slow, as were its review and processing times. The FTC noted that the time-sensitive nature of PPP funding meant any delays had significant impacts on consumers. In addition to the $26 million monetary judgment, the settlement with the company and its CEO prohibited them from making any deceptive, false, or unsubstantiated claims about financial services or products.

    Federal Issues FTC FTC Act Enforcement Covid-19 PPP

  • FTC confirms two members as its board returns to full strength

    Federal Issues

    On March 8, the FTC announced the confirmation of two new commissioners: Andrew N. Ferguson and Melissa Holyoak. Additionally, current Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter received a confirmation vote for a second term. Newcomers Ferguson and Holyoak were nominated by President Biden and will serve until September 25, 2025; Slaughter will serve until the same date in 2029. Ferguson had previously been working as solicitor general of Virginia, and before that he was chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and as Republican counsel on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Holyoak was most recently solicitor general with the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Before that, she served as president and general counsel of a D.C.-based public interest law firm.

    Federal Issues FTC Utah

  • FTC updates the Telemarketing Sales Rule, proposes tech support rule

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On March 7, the FTC announced updates to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) to extend fraud protections to businesses and modernize recordkeeping requirements in response to technological advancements. These updates were part of an ongoing review of the TSR, which governs telemarketing practices and includes the Do Not Call Registry (DNC) and issued rules against telemarketing robocalls.

    The newly finalized rule broadened the scope of prohibited deceptive and abusive telemarketing practices to include business-to-business calls, which were previously exempt, except in specific cases. The rule also revised the TSR's recordkeeping requirements to reflect changes in technology and telemarketing methods, which included maintaining detailed call records and consent documentation, as well as compliance with the DNC Registry.

    In addition to these updates, the FTC proposed a rule that would enhance its ability to tackle tech support scams by extending the TSR's coverage to include inbound telemarketing calls for technical support services. This amendment addressed deceptive tech support schemes and would empower the FTC to seek stronger legal remedies such as civil penalties and consumer compensation. The Commission invited public feedback on a proposed definition of tech support scams.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Federal Issues FTC TSR Artificial Intelligence

  • FTC takes action against tax prep company for alleged unfair and deceptive practices

    Federal Issues

    On February 23, the FTC announced an action against a tax preparation company for alleged unfair and deceptive acts and practices related to the sale of tax preparation products and services. The FTC alleged in its redacted administrative complaint that the defendant unfairly pushed consumers into paying for more expensive tax preparation products. The FTC further alleged the company made it unnecessarily difficult to downgrade the consumer’s tax preparation plan, both by requiring the consumer to first speak with a representative and by requiring the consumer to re-input the data if the consumer chooses to downgrade to the lower-priced product. The FTC also stated that the company’s upgrade policy, in contrast, is notably simple compared to its downgrade policy, and consumers’ “data seamlessly moves to the more expensive product instantly.” The FTC also claimed that the company’s “file for free” advertisements are deceptive because not all consumers’ tax situations are eligible for the free service.

    This action follows the FTC’s action against another tax preparation software provider last month (covered by InfoBytes here).

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Unfair Deceptive FTC Act Consumer Protection

  • FTC provides its 2023 ECOA activities to CFPB

    Federal Issues

    On February 12, the FTC provided the CFPB with an annual summary of its 2023 enforcement, research and policy development, and educational-related initiatives on ECOA, as Dodd-Frank allows the Commission to enforce ECOA and any CFPB rules applicable to entities within the FTC’s jurisdiction. The letter emphasized the commitment of each agency to enforce laws protecting civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection, and equal opportunity in the development and use of automated systems and artificial intelligence. Additionally, the letter stated the FTC continued its involvement in initiatives such as military outreach and participation in interagency task forces on fair lending. Its initiatives focused on consumer and business education regarding issues related to Regulation B and guiding fair lending practices. The Commission also highlighted (1) an enforcement action against a group of auto dealerships alleging ECOA and its implementing Regulation B violations in connection with the sale of add-on products; (2) refund checks sent as a result of the settlement of two enforcement actions against auto dealerships in which it was alleged that the dealerships violated ECOA and Regulation B by discrimination against Black and Latino consumers by charging them higher financing costs; and (3) an amicus brief submitted to an appeals court in support of the CFPB’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit of the lower court’s decision regarding the applicability of ECOA to individuals other than “applicants.” 

    Federal Issues FTC CFPB ECOA Dodd-Frank Enforcement

  • FTC encourages potential defendants to sign tolling agreements to avoid "undue delay"

    Federal Issues

    On February 20, Samuel Levine, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in an FTC blog post, that although the FTC welcomes open dialogue with parties in open investigations, the Commission is prepared to quickly pivot to litigation in cases should companies cause “undue delay” to redress for consumers. In light of a 2021 Supreme Court ruling in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC, the FTC can no longer pursue monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which lacks a statute of limitations. Instead, the FTC said, it frequently turns to Section 19, 15 U.S.C. § 57b, which allows courts to order defendants to provide redress only if violations occurred within three years of the Commission’s action. To facilitate timely productive discussions, the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection often requests tolling agreements from potential defendants to provide time for information gathering and dialogue while preserving the possibility of a pre-litigation settlement or closing the investigation in appropriate cases. Parties are encouraged to sign these agreements, as refusal may impact extension requests and meeting opportunities. If necessary, the FTC will recommend litigation to protect consumer interests.

    Federal Issues FTC FTC Act Litigation Enforcement

  • FTC proposes two actions to combat AI impersonation fraud

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On February 15, the FTC announced its supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking relating to the protection of consumers from impersonation fraud, especially from any impersonations of government entities. The first action from the FTC was a final rule that prohibited the impersonation of government, business, and their officials or agents in interstate commerce. The second action was a notice seeking public comment on a supplemental proposed rulemaking that would revise the first action and add a prohibition on, and penalties for, the impersonation of individuals for entities who provide goods and services (with the knowledge or reason to know that those goods or services will be used in impersonations) that are unlawful. In tandem, these actions sought to prohibit the impersonation of government and business officials.

    The FTC notes that these two actions come from “surging complaints” on impersonation fraud, specifically from artificial intelligence-generated deep fakes. The final rule will expand the remedies and provide monetary relief, whereas the FTC stated this rule will provide a “shorter, faster and more efficient path” for injured consumers to recover money. The rule would enable the FTC to seek monetary relief from scammers that use government seals or business logos, spoof government and business emails, and impersonate a government official or falsely imply a business affiliation.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance FTC Artificial Intelligence Fraud NPR

  • FTC, DFPI win MSJ against a fraudulent mortgage relief operation

    Federal Issues

    On February 13, the FTC and California Department of Financial Protection (DFPI) announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted their motion for summary judgment against several companies and owners that the agencies alleged were operating a fraudulent mortgage relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and DFPI filed a joint complaint against the defendants in September 2022 alleging that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the FTC’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (the MARS Rule or Regulation O), the Telemarking Sales Rule, the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act, and the California Consumer Financial Protection Law. In granting the motion for summary judgment, the court found the defendants violated all five laws. According to the motion, the defendants falsely represented that they could lower homeowners’ interest rates and reduce the principal balances, but, after taking the payment upfront, rarely delivered any agreed-upon services. The defendants also allegedly made misleading claims during telemarketing calls with homeowners regarding home foreclosure and mortgage payments, among other claims, including with homeowners with numbers on the national Do Not Call registry.

    The court ordered the defendants to pay approximately $16 million in restitution and $3 million in civil penalties. Further, the court ordered that the defendants are subject to a (i) permanent ban on advertising, promoting, offering for sale, or selling, or assisting others in those acts, any debt relief product or service and all telemarketing; and (ii) prohibition against making misrepresentations or unsubstantiated claims regarding products or services.

    Federal Issues FTC DFPI FTC Act Enforcement Telemarketing Sales Rule Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act California Consumer Financial Protection Law Civil Money Penalties

  • FTC bans student loan “scammers” from debt relief industry

    Federal Issues

    On February 6, the FTC announced two orders (here and here) that will ban a group of student loan debt relief “scammers” (defendants) from the debt relief industry. As previously covered by InfoBytes, defendants allegedly misled consumers by charging them for services that are free through the Department of Education, claiming consumers needed to pay fees or make payments to access federal student loan forgiveness. As a consequence, the FTC filed a temporary restraining order resulting in an asset freeze, among other things.  

    As a result of the FTC’s action, and subject to court approval, defendants are banned from operating in the debt relief industry, as well as prohibited from making false statements about financial products or services and from using deceptive tactics to gather consumers’ financial information. Moreover, the proposed orders include a monetary judgment of $7.4 million, with a significant portion suspended due to financial constraints. Defendants must surrender personal and business assets, and if any of them materially misrepresent their finances, the entire monetary judgment will become immediately payable.   

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Junk Fees Student Loans Consumer Protection FTC Act Department of Education

  • FTC orders tax filing software company to cease and desist following ALJ decision

    Federal Issues

    On January 22, the FTC issued an opinion and order against the maker of a popular tax filing software.  The FTC found that the company engaged in unfair and deceptive acts or practices by marketing the software as “free” when it was not available as free to more than two-thirds of consumers and ordered the company to “cease and desist making the deceptive claims.”

    The FTC’s opinion and order were issued after its de novo review following the September 2023 ruling from an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), in the FTC’s March 2022 administrative complaint against the company (previously reported by InfoBytes here), in which the ALJ found that the company engaged in deceptive advertising. 

    The company is a publicly traded corporation that offers a variety of software programs. The software in question is a program that assists customers with preparing and filing their taxes. The FTC alleged that since 2016 the company marketed its tax filing software in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act through television and online ads, stating consumers could file their taxes for free when less than one-third of taxpayers were eligible for the company’s free edition of the software.

    The FTC took issue with the company’s claim that the software was “free” when it restricted its eligibility for the free version to those with “simple tax returns.” While the definition of “simple tax returns” has changed over time, in 2022 it was limited to filed returns that included a Form 1040 with limited attached schedules. However, the FTC alleged most taxpayers do not have “simple tax returns” as defined by the company, including those with mortgage or property income, investment income, or charitable donations over $300.

    According to the FTC, from 2016 to 2022, the company ran “dozens” of unique ads through television, radio, the internet, social media, and other advertising channels, that garnered “billions of impressions.” The company and its ad agency understood that advertising its product as free would be a “powerful” lure to entice new customers, stating “Lead with [f]ree to raise heads and drive traffic and acquisition[.]” Although disclaimers are present in the ads, the FTC alleged the company’s disclaimers are inadequate to “cure the misrepresentations” faced by the consumer.

    The company continued to market its products as free for three years after multiple lawsuits were filed by the Los Angeles City Attorney and the County Counsel for the County of Santa Clara, California, alleging unfair and deceptive marketing of free versions of the software. Various state Attorneys General opened subsequent investigations that led the company to enter into a settlement agreement with all fifty states pursuant to which the company agreed to pay $141 million and submit to restrictions on its advertising and marketing of the software. Among other restrictions, the FTC’s final order prohibits the company from making any misrepresentations of the cost of its products and services, or the requirement that a consumer use its paid products or services in order to accurately file their taxes online or claim a credit or deduction. Additionally, the order imposes record-keeping and reporting requirements that will remain effective for a period of twenty years after the issuance date of the order.

    Federal Issues FTC Cease and Desist ALJ FTC Act

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