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On January 10, the FTC announced that it entered into two settlement agreements: one with a call center and two individuals, and one with an additional individual (together, “the settling defendants”) that it claims made illegal robocalls to consumers as part of a cruise line’s telemarketing operation allegedly aimed at marketing free cruise packages to consumers. According to the two settlements (see here and here), the settling defendants “participated in unfair acts or practices in violation of . . . the FTC Act, and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule [(TSR)]” by “(a) placing telemarketing calls to consumers that delivered prerecorded messages; (b) placing telemarketing calls to consumers whose telephone numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry; and (c) transmitting inaccurate caller ID numbers and names with their telemarketing calls.” The defendants are permanently banned from making telemarketing robocalls, and have been levied judgments totaling $7.8 million, all but $2,500 of which has been suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
Also on January 10, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida against the remaining six defendants allegedly involved in the telemarketing operation, for violations of the FTC Act and TSR based on the same actions alleged against the settling defendants.
On December 26, the CFPB denied a petition by a student loan relief company to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau last October. According to the company’s petition, the CID requested information as part of an investigation into the company’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. As previously covered by InfoBytes, stipulated orders were entered against the company by the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the company being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services. In its petition, the company argued that the CFPB’s requests were duplicative of the FTC’s earlier investigation. The company also argued that the documents and materials sought in the CID were overly burdensome and the time frame to respond was too short. Furthermore, the company stated that until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Seila Law v. CFPB on whether the Bureau’s structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, the CID should either be withdrawn or stayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Bureau’s ability to proceed with enforcement actions.
The Bureau denied the petition, arguing that “the administrative CID petition process is not the proper forum for raising and deciding constitutional challenges to provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” The Bureau also noted that the company failed to show that it engaged with Bureau staff on ways to alleviate undue burden, such as proposing modifications to the substance of the requests, and that even though the Bureau proposed an extension to the CID deadline, the company did not seek such an extension.
On January 13, fifteen Democratic Senators, led by Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board calling for an investigation into the CFPB’s restitution penalties levied against companies accused of wrongdoing. The Senators claim that the Bureau’s restitution approach “creates a perverse incentive for companies to violate the law by allowing them to retain all or nearly all of the funds they illegally obtain from consumers.” The letter asks the Inspector General to investigate four recent settlements to examine how the Bureau determines restitution awards and whether the applied standard for restitution differs from the standard applied by courts and in prior CFPB settlements.
Included among the examples of actions for which consumers were provided limited to zero restitution is a recent settlement with a debt collector accused of engaging in improper debt collection tactics. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company agreed to pay $36,878 in redress to harmed consumers, limiting the restitution to “only those consumers who affirmatively ‘complained about a false threat or misrepresentation’” by the company, the Senators wrote. Specifically, the Senators seek to determine the number of consumers who may have been excluded from the settlement because they did not affirmatively complain about the company’s behavior. A second example highlights an action taken against a group of payday lenders that allegedly, among other things, misrepresented to consumers an obligation to repay loan amounts that were voided because the loan violated state licensing or usury laws. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, the settlement “dropped the requests for restitution and other relief for victimized consumers.” The letter also references a report released last October by the House Financial Services Committee (covered by InfoBytes here) following an investigation into these particular settlements, in which the Bureau responded “that it did not seek restitution in these cases because it could not determine ‘with certainty’ which consumers had been harmed or the amount of the harm.”
On January 7, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced the release of its 2020 Examination Priorities. The annual release of exam priorities provides transparency into the risk-based examination process and lists areas that pose current and potential risks to investors. OCIE’s 2020 examination priorities include:
- Retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE places particular emphasis on disclosures and recommendations provided to investors.
- Information security. In addition to cybersecurity, top areas of focus include: risk management, vendor management, online and mobile account access controls, data loss prevention, appropriate training, and incident response.
- Fintech and innovation, digital assets and electronic investment advice. OCIE notes that the rapid pace of technology development, as well as new uses of alternative data, presents new risks and will focus attention on the effectiveness of compliance programs.
- Investment advisers, investment companies, broker-dealers, and municipal advisers. Risk-based exams will continue for each of these types of entities, with an emphasis on new registered investment advisers (RIA) and RIAs that have not been examined. Other themes in exams of these entities include board oversight, trading practices, advice to investors, RIA activities, disclosures of conflicts of interest, and fiduciary obligations.
- Anti-money laundering. Importance will be placed on beneficial ownership, customer identification and due diligence, and policies and procedures to identify suspicious activity.
- Market infrastructure. Particular attention will be directed to clearing agencies, national securities exchanges and alternative trading systems, and transfer agents.
- FINRA and MSRB. OCIE exams will emphasize regulatory programs, exams of broker-dealers and municipal advisers, as well as policies, procedures and controls.
On January 9, the CFPB and the Utah attorney general’s office announced that the first of the American Consumer Financial Innovation Network’s (ACFIN) joint office hours will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah on January 30. The CFPB’s announcement states that the office hours are intended to “provide innovators with the opportunity to discuss issues such as financial technology, innovative products or services, regulatory sandboxes, no action letters, and other matters related to financial innovation with officials from the CFPB and state partners.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB, along with a number of state regulators, established ACFIN in September with the aim of reducing “regulatory burdens” and increasing “regulatory certainty for innovative financial products and services.” Members of ACFIN currently include state AGs from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah; and state financial regulators from Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee. ACFIN membership is open to any state and federal partners interested in joining.
On January 10, the CFPB issued its second no-action letter (NAL) under the agency’s revised NAL Policy that was issued last September. The new NAL Policy’s goal is to streamline the review process to “focus[ ] on the consumer benefits and risks of the product or service in question.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued its first NAL under the revised policy in response to a request by HUD on behalf of more than 1,600 housing counseling agencies (HCAs) that participate in HUD’s housing counseling program.
A national bank is the recipient of the most recent NAL regarding the bank’s funding arrangements with HCAs certified by HUD. The NAL states that the Bureau will not take supervisory or enforcement actions against the bank under RESPA or UDAAP for entering into certain arrangements with HCAs for pre-purchase housing counseling services conditioned on the consumer applying for a loan from the bank, even if that activity could be construed as a referral, as long as the level of payment for the services is no more than a level that is commensurate with the services provided and is reasonable and customary for the area. The Bureau noted that the bank submitted its application to facilitate funding arrangements with HCAs through the HUD NAL application, which was made public last year.
On January 9, the Federal Reserve Board announced that it entered into a cease and desist order on December 30 with a Texas state-chartered bank due to “significant deficiencies” in the bank’s Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and anti-money laundering (AML) compliance program that were discovered in its latest examination of the bank. The requirements set out for the bank in the order include:
- Board oversight. The bank must submit a board-approved, written plan to improve oversight of BSA/AML requirements.
- BSA/AML compliance program. The bank must submit a written BSA/AML compliance program that includes BSA/AML training; independent testing of the compliance program; management of the program by a qualified compliance officer with adequate staffing support; BSA/AML compliance internal controls; and a BSA/AML risk assessment of the bank, its products and services, and its customers.
- Customer due diligence. The bank must submit a revised customer due diligence program that includes policies and procedures to ensure accurate client account information; a plan to bring existing accounts into compliance with due diligence requirements; a method to assign risk ratings to account holders; policies and procedures to ensure proper customer information is obtained according to the risk of the account holder; and risk-based monitoring procedures and updates to accounts.
- Suspicious activity monitoring and reporting. The bank must submit a written suspicious activity monitoring and reporting program that includes a documented process for establishing monitoring rules; policies and procedures for review of monitoring rules; customer and transaction monitoring; and policies and procedures for the review of suspicious activity.
On January 7, Representatives Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) and Gregory Meeks D-NY) sent a letter to nine federal financial regulators urging them to strengthen their financial infrastructures against possible cyber-attacks in the wake of recent threats against the U.S. from Iran and its allies following the killing of Iranian official Qasem Soleimani. The letter also requests that the regulators coordinate with law enforcement and regulated entities to increase information sharing surrounding cyber threats, and “communicate a strategy to further mitigate existing cyber vulnerabilities within [the U.S.] financial infrastructure by March.” The letter was sent to the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury Department, SEC, FDIC, CFPB, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, National Credit Union Administration, and the OCC.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, NYDFS separately issued an Industry Letter on January 4 warning regulated entities about the “heightened risk” of cyber-attacks by hackers affiliated with the Iranian government. The letter provides recommendations for ensuring quick responses to any suspected cyber incidents, and reminds entities they must inform NYDFS “as promptly as possible but in no event later than 72 hours’ after a material cybersecurity event.”
On January 9, the CFPB announced that it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a mortgage lender, a mortgage brokerage, and several student loan debt relief companies (collectively, “the defendants”), for allegedly violating the FCRA, TSR, and FDCPA. In the complaint, the CFPB alleges that the defendants violated the FCRA by, among other things, illegally obtaining consumer reports from a credit reporting agency for millions of consumers with student loans by representing that the reports would be used to “make firm offers of credit for mortgage loans” and to market mortgage products. The Bureau asserts that the reports of more than 7 million student loan borrowers were actually resold or provided to companies engaged in marketing student loan debt relief services.
According to the complaint, “using or obtaining prescreened lists to send solicitations marketing debt-relief services is not a permissible purpose under FCRA.” The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the TSR by charging and collecting advance fees before first “renegotiat[ing], settl[ing], reduc[ing], or otherwise alter[ing] the terms of at least one debt pursuant to a settlement agreement, debt-management plan, or other such valid contractual agreement executed by the customer,” and prior to “the customer ma[king] at least one payment pursuant to that settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other valid contractual agreement between the customer and the creditor or debt collector.” The CFPB further alleges that the defendants violated the TSR and the CFPA when they used telemarketing sales calls and direct mail to encourage consumers to consolidate their loans, and falsely represented that consolidation could lower student loan interest rates, improve borrowers’ credit scores, and change their servicer to the Department of Education.
The Bureau is seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the defendants from committing future violations of the FCRA, TSR, and CFPA, as well as an award of damages and other monetary relief, civil money penalties, and “disgorgement of ill-gotten funds.”
On January 7, HUD published its proposed replacement for the 2015 version of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. According to HUD, the proposed AFFH rule will provide state and local government participants with more straightforward advice “to help them improve affordable housing choices in their community.”
In August of 2018, HUD suspended requirements under the 2015 rule for HUD grant recipient communities to submit assessments of fair housing. Additionally, as previously covered in InfoBytes, HUD solicited comments on amendments to the 2015 AFFH regulations, which, according to the agency, “proved ineffective, highly prescriptive, and effectively discouraged the production of affordable housing.” The proposed rule suggests a change to the definition of AFFH to “advancing fair housing choice within the program participant’s control or influence,” and seeks to move the focus away from anti-segregation planning and toward creation of affordable housing options.
According to the proposed rule, fair housing choice includes (i) “[p]rotected choice, meaning absence of discrimination”; (ii) “[a]ctual choice, meaning not only that affordable housing options exist,” but that state and local governments are encouraged to educate the public on their rights; and (iii) “[q]uality choice, meaning that the available and affordable housing is decent, safe, and sanitary, and, for persons with disabilities, accessible as required under civil rights laws.” The proposed rule will be available for public comment at an undetermined date.
- Daniel P. Stipano to moderate "Washington update" at the Puerto Rican Symposium of Anti Money Laundering
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Private flood insurance updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Servicing Solutions Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker and H Joshua Kotin to discuss regulatory compliance issues in the fintech industry at Protiviti's Risk & Compliance Innovation Roundtable
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: CFL overview
- Amanda R. Lawrence and Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss "California privacy rule" on an NAFCU webinar
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "MLA & SCRA" on a NAFCU webinar
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Pathway of the SARs: Tracking trajectories of suspicious activity reports from alerts to prosecution" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Which bud’s for you? A deep-dive into evolving marijuana laws" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA 8 (TRID applied compliance)" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- John P. Kromer to discuss "Navigating the multi-state fintech regulatory regime" at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Critique of direct examination; Questions and answers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Hank Asbill to discuss "What judges want from trial lawyers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Steven R. vonBerg to speak at the "Conference super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference