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CFPB asks for comments on alternative disclosures for construction loans
On February 27, the CFPB announced it is in the final stages of reviewing an application for alternative mortgage disclosures for construction loans submitted by a trade group representing small U.S. banks. The applicant maintains that it is not uncommon for first-time homebuyers in rural communities to build their home instead of purchasing an existing home due to the scarcity of “existing affordable ‘starter’ homes.” The applicant seeks to adjust existing mortgage disclosures to facilitate the offering of loans that finance both the construction phase and the permanent purchase of a home. According to the applicant, a consumer’s understanding of construction loans would be improved if disclosures are more specifically tailored to these types of transactions. The Bureau stated that should it approve this “template” application, individual lenders will be able to apply for enrollment in an in-market testing pilot. However, the Bureau noted that, as indicated in its Policy to Encourage Trial Disclosure Programs (covered by InfoBytes here), the mere approval of a template neither permits a lender to unilaterally conduct a trial disclosure program without further approval by the CFPB, nor does it “bind the CFPB to grant individual applications.”
The disclosure of the application comes as a result of efforts undertaken by the Bureau to be more open and transparent when adjusting regulations for new business models. The Bureau stated that in addition to publicly releasing the application, it is seeking input from stakeholders who have experience with construction loans. Comments will be accepted through March 29.
CFPB shutters mortgage lender, alleging deceptive advertising
On February 27, the CFPB entered a consent order against a California-based mortgage lender (respondent) for alleged repeat violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, TILA (Regulation Z), and the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (Regulation N), in relation to a 2015 consent order. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2015, the Bureau claimed the respondent (which is licensed in at least 30 states and Puerto Rico and originates consumer mortgages guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and mortgages insured by the FHA) allegedly led consumers to believe it was affiliated with the U.S. government. Specifically, respondent allegedly used the names and logos of the VA and FHA in its advertisements, described loan products as part of a “distinctive program offered by the U.S. government,” and instructed consumers to call the “VA Interest Rate Reduction Department” at a phone number belonging to the mortgage lender, thus implying that the mailings were sent by government agencies. The 2015 consent order required the respondent to abide by several prohibitions and imposed a $250,000 civil money penalty.
The Bureau contends, however, that after the 2015 consent order went into effect, the respondent continued to send millions of mortgage advertisements that allegedly made deceptive representations or contained inadequate or impermissible disclosures, including that the respondent was affiliated with the VA or the FHA. Additionally, the Bureau alleges that the respondent misrepresented interest rates, key terms, and the amount of monthly payments, and falsely represented that benefits available to qualifying borrowers were time limited. Many of these alleged misrepresentations, the Bureau claims, were expressly prohibited by the 2015 consent order.
The 2023 consent order permanently bans the respondent from engaging in any mortgage lending activities, or from “otherwise participating in or receiving remuneration from mortgage lending, or assisting others in doing so.” The respondent, which neither admits nor denies the allegations, is also required pay a $1 million civil money penalty.
FTC says fraud cost consumers $8.8 billion in 2022
On February 23, the FTC released data showing 2.4 million consumers reported losing a total of nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022—a more than 30 percent increase from the prior year. Investment scam losses totaled more than $3.8 billion (the most of any category in 2022 and double the amount of investment scam losses reported in 2021). Imposter scam losses came in at $2.6 billion, up from $2.4 billion in 2021. The FTC reported receiving more than 5.1 million reports directly from consumers, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the Better Business Bureau, industry members, and non-profit organizations. In addition to fraud reports, the FTC received identity theft reports and complaints related to issues concerning problems with credit bureaus, banks, and lenders. Reports received through the FTC’s database serve as the starting point for many of the FTC’s enforcement investigations, the agency said, adding that reports are also shared with federal, state, local, and international law enforcement professionals. Full coverage of the reports received in 2022 can be accessed here.
CFPB orders nonbank title lender to pay $15 million for numerous violations
On February 23, the CFPB entered a consent order against a Georgia-based nonbank auto title lender (respondent) for alleged violations of the Military Lending Act (MLA), the Truth in Lending Act, and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the Bureau, the respondent allegedly charged nearly three times the MLA’s 36 percent annual interest rate cap on auto title loans made to military families. The respondent also allegedly changed military borrowers’ personal information in an attempt to hide their protected status, included mandatory arbitration clauses and unreasonable notice provisions in its loans, and charged fees for an insurance product that provided no benefit to the borrower. The Bureau noted that the respondent has been under a consent order since 2016 for allegedly engaging in unfair and abusive acts related to its lending and debt collection practices (covered by InfoBytes here). While neither admitting nor denying any of the allegations, the respondent has agreed to pay $5.05 million in consumer redress and a $10 million penalty. The respondent must also implement robust measures to prevent future violations.
FHA reduces mortgage insurance premiums to improve home affordability
On February 22, FHA announced a 30 basis point reduction in the annual premium charged to mortgage borrowers, resulting in mortgage insurance premiums of 0.55 percent for most borrowers seeking FHA-insured mortgages (down from 0.85 percent). (See also Mortgagee Letter 2023-05.) The reduction will apply to nearly all FHA-insured Single Family Title II forward mortgages, and is applicable to all eligible property types including single family homes, condominiums, and manufactured homes, all eligible loan-to-value ratios, and all eligible base loan amounts. According to the announcement, the reduction is intended to build on steps taken by the Biden administration to make homeownership more affordable and accessible, particularly for households of color, and could save an estimated 850,000 borrowers an average of $800 annually. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last September HUD modified FHA’s underwriting policies to allow lenders to consider a first-time homebuyer’s positive rental payment history as an additional factor in determining eligibility for an FHA-insured mortgage, and in March, the Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity Task Force outlined steps for addressing alleged racial bias in home appraisals (covered by InfoBytes here). Additional actions taken by HUD to improve homeownership accessibility can be found here.
VA reduces funding fee for certain loans
On February 14, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a funding fee charge update for loans closed on or after April 7, 2023. According to Circular 26-23-06, funding fees are charged on VA transactions involving a home loan where a borrower does not qualify for a fee waiver. A reduced funding fee also applies to borrowers purchasing or constructing a home with a five or 10 percent down payment. The VA explained that lenders are to continue charging non-exempt veterans the current funding fee percentage for loans closed prior to April 7 (fee rates are listed here). For loans closed on or after April 7, lenders must charge the new funding fee percentage (fee rates are listed here).
District Court says undated collection letter is misleading
On February 9, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion to dismiss an action alleging an undated collection letter violated various provisions of the FDCPA. Plaintiff received a collection letter from the defendant providing information on the amount of outstanding debt and instructions on how to dispute the debt, as well as a timeframe for doing so. However, the letter sent to the plaintiff was undated, and the plaintiff asserted that it was impossible for him to determine what “today” meant when the letter said “‘[b]etween December 31, 2021 and today[,]’” or what “now” referred to in the context of “[t]otal amount of the debt now.” He argued that by withholding this necessary information, the letter appeared to be illegitimate and misleading, and ultimately caused him to spend time and money to mitigate the risk of future financial harm. The defendant moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, maintaining that the letter “fully and accurately stated the amount of the debt and otherwise complied with all requirements of the [statute].” The defendant further argued that the letter “conforms exactly to” the debt collection model form letter provided by the CFPB, and insisted that, because it complied with 12 C.F.R. § 1006.34(d)(2), it fell within the safe harbor provided by Bureau regulations to debt collectors that use the model form letter. The defendant contended that, even if it did not qualify for the safe harbor provision, it is not a violation of the FDCPA for a debt collection letter to be undated. The plaintiff asked the court to ignore the Bureau’s safe harbor provision and find that the undated letter is sufficient to state a plausible FDCPA claims.
In dismissing one of plaintiff’s claims, the court agreed with the defendant that the plaintiff failed to provide any factual or plausible allegations demonstrating “harass[ment], oppress[ion], or abuse” by the defendant (a requirement for alleging a violation of 15 U.S.C. section 1692d). “An undated letter, with little else, is not ‘the type of coercion and delving into the personal lives of debtors that [section] 1692d in particular was designed to address,” the court wrote.
However, the court determined that the plaintiff’s other three claims survive the motion to dismiss. First, the court held that the defendant’s reliance on the model form letter “overstates both the meaning and scope of the regulatory safe harbor provided by the CFPB.” Specifically, the plaintiff did not allege that the defendant violated any CFPB regulations—he alleged violations of the FDCPA, and the court explained that nowhere does the Bureau state that using the model form letter “suffices as compliance with the corresponding statutory requirements of [FDCPA] section 1692g.” Moreover, while use of the model form might provide a safe harbor from some of the statute’s requirements, “a safe harbor for the form of provided information is different from a safe harbor for the substance of that information,” the court said, adding that using the model form letter alone does not bar plaintiff’s claims. Additionally, the court determined that under the “least-sophisticated consumer” standard, the plaintiff alleged plausible claims for relief based on the omission of the date in the letter. Among other things, the undated letter could be interpreted as not stating the full amount of the debt, nor does the letter provide a means for plaintiff to assess how the debt might increase in the future if he did not make a prompt payment. With respect to whether the defendant used “unfair or unconscionable means to collect” the debt, the court determined that the undated letter’s misleading nature as to the full amount of the debt might “be ‘unfair or unconscionable’ to the least-sophisticated consumer.”
Illinois announces new consumer protections for digital assets, proposes new money transmitter licensing provisions
On February 21, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) announced several legislative initiatives to establish consumer protections for cryptocurrencies and other digital assets and provide regulatory oversight of the broader digital asset marketplace. The Fintech-Digital Asset Bill (see HB 3479) would create the Uniform Money Transmission Modernization Act and provide for the regulation of digital asset businesses and modernize regulations for money transmission in the state. Among other things, the Fintech-Digital Asset Bill would require digital asset exchanges and other digital asset businesses to obtain a license from IDFPR to operate in the state. The bill also establishes various requirements for businesses, including investment disclosures, customer asset safeguards, and customer service standards. Companies would also be required to implement cybersecurity measures, as well as procedures for addressing business continuity, fraud, and money laundering. Notably, the Fintech-Digital Asset Bill replaces and supersedes the Transmitters of Money Act (see 205 ILCS 657) with the Money Transmission Modernization Act, in order to harmonize the licensing, regulation, and supervision of money transmitters operating across state lines. Provisions also amend the Corporate Fiduciary Act to allow for the creation of trust companies for the special purpose of acting as a fiduciary to safeguard customers’ digital assets, the announcement noted.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bill (see HB 3483) would grant the IDFPR authority to enforce the Fintech-Digital Asset Bill and strengthen the department’s authority and resources for enforcing existing consumer financial protections. Modeled after the Dodd-Frank Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Bill empowers the IDFPR with the ability to target unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by unlicensed financial services providers. The bill creates the Consumer Financial Protection Law and the Financial Protection Fund, and establishes provisions related to supervision, registration requirements, consumer protection, cybersecurity, anti-fraud and anti-money laundering, enforcement, procedures, and rulemaking. The Consumer Financial Protection Bill also includes provisions concerning court orders, penalty of perjury, character and fitness of licensees, and consent orders and settlement agreements, and makes amendments to various application, license, and examination fees. The bill does so by amending the Collection Agency Act, Currency Exchange Act, Sales Finance Agency Act, Debt Management Service Act, Consumer Installment Loan Act, and Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act.
FTC, DOJ sue telemarketers of fake debt relief services
On February 16, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against several corporate and individual defendants for alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in connection with debt relief telemarketing campaigns that delivered millions of unwanted robocalls to consumers. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the defendants are interconnected platform providers, lead generators, telemarketers, and debt relief service sellers. Alleged violations include: (i) making misrepresentations about their debt relief services; (ii) initiating telemarketing calls to numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry, as well as calls in which telemarketers failed to disclose the identity of the seller and services being offered; (iii) initiating illegal robocalls without first obtaining consent; (iv) failing to make oral disclosures required by the TSR, including clearly and truthfully identifying the seller of the debt relief services; (v) misrepresenting material aspects of their debt relief services; and (vi) requesting and receiving payments from customers before renegotiating or otherwise altering the terms of those customers’ debts. The complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, civil penalties, and monetary damages. Two of the defendants (a debt relief lead generator and its owner) have agreed to a stipulated order that, if approved, would prohibit them from further violations and impose a monetary judgment of $3.38 million, partially suspended to $7,500 to go towards consumer redress due to their inability to pay.
DFPI launches crypto scam tracker
On February 16, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) launched a database to help consumers in the state spot and avoid crypto scams. The Crypto Scam Tracker compiles details about apparent crypto scams identified through a review of public complaints submitted to the DFPI, and is searchable by company name, scam type, or keywords. “Through the new Crypto Scam Tracker, combined with rigorous enforcement efforts, the DFPI is committed to shining a light on these ruthless predators and protecting consumers and investors,” DFPI Commissioner Clothilde Hewlett said in the announcement.
- Keisha Whitehall Wolfe to discuss “Tips for successfully engaging your state regulator” at the MBA's State and Local Workshop
- Max Bonici to discuss “Enforcement risk and trends for crypto and digital assets (Part 2)” at ABA’s 2023 Business Law Section Hybrid Spring Meeting
- Jedd R. Bellman to present “An insider’s look at handling regulatory investigations” at the Maryland State Bar Association Legal Summit