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FTC settles with one student loan debt relief operation; seeks separate permanent injunction against another
On November 20, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a student loan debt relief operation to resolve allegations that the defendants defrauded consumers through programs offering mortgage assistance and student debt relief. Regarding the student debt operations, the FTC alleged that the defendants falsely offered student borrowers reduced monthly payments or loan forgiveness by falsely claiming to be affiliated with the Department of Education. In a 2017 complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants also falsely promised foreclosure prevention and mortgage relief to distressed homeowners, but instead collected advance fees in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule. Among other things, the settlement includes a judgment of more than $9 million—which will be partially suspended once the defendants turn over all assets worth approximately $305,000 because of their inability to pay—and bans the defendants from participating in debt relief and telemarketing activities in the future.
The same day, the FTC also announced it was charging a separate student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the TSR for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, the operators of the scheme—which include a recidivist scammer previously banned from participating in debt relief activities—allegedly “promoted a 96 percent success rate in reducing consumers’ student loan payments.” However, the FTC stated that consumers who purchased the debt relief services and often paid illegal upfront fees “often did not receive any debt relief and lost hundreds of dollars.” On November 13, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze at the FTC’s request. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants to prevent future violations, as well as redress for injured consumers through “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, and the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.”
On November 6, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative (officially referred to as Proposition 111) to reduce the maximum annual percentage rate that may be charged on deferred deposits or payday loans to 36 percent. In addition, Proposition 111 eliminates an alternative APR formula based on loan amount, prohibits lenders from charging origination and monthly maintenance fees, and amends the definition of an unfair or deceptive practice. The measure takes effect February 1, 2019.
Court orders judgement in favor of defendants in FCRA action based on limitations of Wisconsin “alternative-to-bankruptcy” statute
On October 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin denied a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and instead entered judgement in favor of two creditors and two consumer reporting agencies (collectively, “defendants”), holding that the debtor failed to show a factual inaccuracy in the credit reporting of a debt. According to the opinion, the debtor successfully completed an amortization plan under Section 128.21 of the Wisconsin Statues, an “alternative to bankruptcy” law that allows debtors to file an action that establishes “a personal receivership wherein, much like in a federal Chapter 13 ‘wage earners’ bankruptcy, a person may amortize problem debts through a deliberate and scheduled repayment plan.” Subsequently, the debtor submitted disputes to two consumer reporting agencies that still showed balances due on the credit lines for both creditors. In response, the creditors argued that the debtor understated the balances owed to them during the Section 128.21 proceeding and as a result, a balance still existed. The debtor filed suit against the defendants alleging multiple violations of the FCRA. In response, the defendants argued that the state court order dismissing the debtor’s Section 128.21 action only covers the amount of the debt submitted by the debtor in the Section 128.21 proceeding and does not cover the interest and late charges the debtor failed to include in the claim. The district court agreed and dismissed the action, determining that the Wisconsin statute applies only to claims included in the plan and does not dismiss debts in their entirety. The court concluded, “as a result, unless and until a proper tribunal concludes the [Section 128.21] proceeding eliminated the debts in their entirety or that the plan precludes the accrual of post-filing interest and other penalties, [debtor] cannot establish the reported information is factually inaccurate,” and therefore, the debtor’s FCRA claims failed as a matter of law.
On November 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has granted a temporary restraining order against the operators of an international real estate investment development, which the FTC claims is the “largest overseas real estate investment scam [it] has ever targeted.” According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC contends that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased the lots outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, and paid monthly homeowners association fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than to invest in the development. In addition, the FTC asserts that, while the defendants falsely promised consumers that their lots would include luxury amenities, be completed soon, and result in property values that would “rapidly appreciate,” “consumers either have lost, or will lose, some or all of their investments.” The FTC’s press release also announces the filing of charges against a Belizean bank for allegedly assisting and facilitating the investment scam, as well as contempt motions against several of the individual defendants. The FTC is seeking information from affected consumers.
On October 22, the Pennsylvania Attorney General announced a request for mortgage borrowers and home-loan applicants who believe they may be victims of redlining to file complaints with that office. The announcement states that the Attorney General is investigating evidence of redlining by financial institutions in Philadelphia neighborhoods where lenders either refused to make loans due to the applicant’s race or dissuaded minorities from applying for mortgage loans. The investigation is in response to an investigative article identifying a pattern of racial discrimination in mortgage lending in the Philadelphia area.
On October 23, the CFPB released its Complaint snapshot: 50 state report, which covers complaints received by the Bureau from January 2015 through June 2018. According to the report, the Bureau has received more complaints from consumers in California than any other state, followed by Florida and Texas. Other highlights of the report include: (i) issues related to credit reporting received the most complaints in 2017, comprising 31 percent of all submitted complaints; (ii) the Bureau averaged over 27,000 complaints per month from January 2017 through June 2018; and (iii) complaints about prepaid cards trended upward the beginning half of 2018, while student loan, payday loan, credit repair, and money transfer complaints all trended lower.
On October 17, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard spoke at the “FinTech, Financial Inclusion—and the Potential to Transform Financial Services” conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program to discuss ways in which fintech can improve financial access for underserved families and small businesses. Brainard argued that, although new technologies can lower transaction costs, access to accounts and credit—while beneficial—does not, by itself, overcome the barriers to financial inclusion. Brainard stressed that continued progress toward financial inclusion is likely to require solutions designed with an understanding of issues the underserved face, such as examining why many unbanked or underbanked people intentionally choose not to maintain a bank account and recognizing the need to support faster payment systems for those living paycheck to paycheck. Brainard cautioned, however, that new fintech products may create consumer data security and privacy issues, and that fintech may struggle to reach communities lacking the infrastructure for digital service delivery. The challenge as regulators, she stated, “is to ensure trust in financial products and services by maintaining the focus on consumer protection, while supporting responsible innovation that provides social benefits.”
On October 16, the FTC announced that it reached a settlement with a Texas-based company over allegations that it violated the FCRA by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of tenant-screening information furnished to landlords and property managers. The FTC alleges that the company compiled screening reports through an automated system using broad criteria that incorrectly matched applicants to criminal records. Additionally, the company allegedly lacked policies or procedures to assess the accuracy of those results, which led to some renters being turned down for housing. The settlement requires the company to pay $3 million—the largest civil penalty ever assessed by the FTC against a background screening company. In addition, the company must maintain reasonable procedures to ensure consumer reports contain the maximum possible accuracy of information and is subject to compliance, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements.
On October 18, the FTC released a report to Congress outlining the agency’s comprehensive efforts to protect older consumers in the marketplace from fraud, identity theft, imposter scams, deceptive credit schemes, and other unlawful practices. The report, Protecting Older Consumers 2017-2018: A Report of the Federal Trade Commission, discusses (i) scams that target older consumers, including technical support scams; business imposter scams; prizes, sweepstakes, and lottery scams; and family or friend imposter scams; (ii) key FTC enforcement actions taken against companies that allegedly engaged in deceptive schemes that targeted or affected older consumers; and (iii) outreach and education efforts, including fraud prevention campaigns and resources for older consumers. Specifically, the report contains analysis of consumer complaint data from 2017, which revealed that older consumers (especially those over 80) were more likely to report fraud than younger people, and that when they reported losing money to fraud, they lost significantly more money than consumers in their twenties. (See previously InfoBytes coverage here on the FTC’s annual summary of consumer complaints received in 2017).
On October 16, the FTC announced the launch of a new interactive online format that will release aggregated consumer complaint data on a quarterly basis. The interactive dashboards explore aggregated statistics about fraud, identity theft, and other consumer protection problems, and also provide a state-by-state breakdown of issues. As part of the new initiative, the FTC’s Consumer Protection Data Spotlight focuses on the rise in consumer complaints concerning gift card scams, which are now the most reported method of payment for imposter scams. According to the FTC, fraud report payments using gift and reload cards experienced a 270 percent increase (from 7 percent up to 26 percent), which can be attributed to quick access to cash, largely irreversible transactions, and anonymity. As of September 2018, the FTC reports that reported losses involving the use of gift and reload cards has already reached $53 million.
- Buckley Webcast: The next consumer litigation frontier? Assessing the consumer privacy litigation and enforcement landscape in 2019 and beyond
- Buckley Webcast: The CFPB’s proposed debt collection rule
- Buckley Webcast: Trends in e-discovery technology and case law
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "What the flood? Don’t get washed away by a flood of changes" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mitigating the risks of banking high risk customers" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano, Kari K. Hall, Brandy A. Hood, and H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Regulations that matter in a deregulatory environment" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference Power Hour
- Buckley Webcast: Data breach litigation and biometric legislation
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Navigating the challenges of the latest data protection regulations and proven protocols for breach prevention and response" at the ACI National Forum on Consumer Finance Class Actions and Government Enforcement
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Douglas F. Gansler to discuss "Role of state AGs in consumer protection" at a George Mason University Law & Economics Center symposium