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On August 22, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California recently issued a temporary restraining order against a business opportunity operation for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices. According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation made claims in violation of the FTC Act, the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, and the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 by, among other things; (i) making false claims that they offered a “venture capital-backed” and “artificial intelligence-integrated” e-commerce business opportunity for consumers to buy into; (ii) falsely promoting themselves as e-commerce experts and self-made millionaires who have assisted others in generating tens of millions of dollars; (iii) relying on false business projections, including that customers would make a “$4k-$6k consistently monthly net profit”; (iv) false claims about the use of AI tools to maximize revenues; and (v) false endorsements, including false claims of success on social media by an affiliate marketer. The court’s temporary restraining order prohibited the operation from conducting business, froze its assets, appointed a temporary receiver, and required the operation to turn over business records to the FTC. Beyond the temporary restraining order, the FTC is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, monetary relief, and additional relief as determined by the court. The FTC also highlighted that its ability to provide these refunds would not be possible if the action hadn't predated the 2021 Supreme Court ruling (covered by InfoBytes here) that the FTC lacks authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act to seek monetary relief in federal court. The FTC used the opportunity to encourage Congress to restore its ability to seek monetary relief in federal court.
On August 21, the FTC announced it has stopped California-based scammers (defendants) who allegedly preyed on students seeking debt relief by pretending to be affiliated with the Department of Education. According to the August 14 complaint, since at least 2019, the defendants allegedly targeted students and illegally collected $8.8 million in advance fees in exchange for student loan debt relief services that did not exist. The 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, using names like "Biden Loan Forgiveness," that does not correspond to any actual government program. For instance, one consumer was asked to pay $375 for a processing fee to have up to $20,000 in loans forgiven because of a Pell Grant. Another was told they would get a $10,000 reduction in their loan balance and a new repayment plan with six $250 monthly payments under the “student loan forgiveness program.” The FTC alleges violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive acts or practices, TCPA, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. The complaint also alleges that the defendants used such misrepresentations to illegally obtain consumers’ banking information, and typically collected hundreds of dollars in unlawful advance fees—sometimes through remotely created checks in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The U.S. District Court of the Central District of California filed a temporary restraining order, resulting in an asset freeze, among other things. The FTC seeks preliminary, and permanent injunctive relief, monetary relief, and other relief.
On August 22, the CFPB announced it is suing a lending company and its subsidiaries that provide installment loans as a refinance option to consumers who have difficulty paying their existing loans. According to the complaint, the Bureau claims that through an array of underwriting, sales, and servicing practices, the company would encourage consumers with limited loan options to repeatedly refinance their existing loans, securing fees with each successful round of refinancing. The CFPB alleges the company and its subsidiaries generated over 40 percent of its net revenue through the loan costs and fees it derived from “churning” consumers in repeated refinances. The complaint includes details of the sales tactics, and how a district supervisor “plainly tells their employees that if they don’t refinance their delinquent customers, they’re not going to meet their monthly growth goals.” In addition, the company allegedly marketed the option to refinance existing loans as a “fresh start” and “solution” to their problems. The Bureau alleges that the company violated CFPA and engaged in unfair and abusive acts and practices.
The Bureau seeks redress for consumers, injunctive relief, and a civil money penalty.
On August 17, the Federal Reserve Board, the FDIC, the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs’ Division of Financial Institutions, the NCUA, and the OCC issued a joint interagency statement covering supervisory practices for financial institutions affected by the Hawaiian wildfires. The agencies announced that, among other things, the regulators would expedite requests made by institutions for temporary operating facilities. The regulators noted that in most cases, “telephone notice to the primary federal and/or state regulator will suffice” for such requests. The agencies also encouraged financial institutions to work with borrowers in affected communities, explaining that “prudent efforts” to adjust terms on existing loans should not be subject to examiner criticism, in light of the unusual circumstances faced by the financial institutions.
Further, the agencies announced that they understood that damage caused by the wildfires may affect the ability of institutions to comply with publishing requirements for branch closings, relocations, or temporary locations, and instructed institutions experiencing such difficulties to contact their primary federal and/or state regulator. The agencies additionally instructed institutions that face difficulty meeting reporting requirements due to the wildfires to contact their primary federal and/or state regulator, explaining that the agencies “do not expect to assess penalties or take other supervisory action” against institutions that take reasonable steps to comply with reporting requirements. The agencies also announced that financial institutions may receive CRA consideration for loans, investments, or services that revitalize or stabilize federally designated disaster areas. Finally, the agencies encouraged financial institutions to monitor any municipal securities and loans affected by the Hawaii wildfires.
On August 18, members of the House and the Senate issued a letter to the FTC with various inquiries related to the FTC’s preservation of agency records. The letter notes that the FTC “has struggled to comply” with the Federal Records Act citing a February 2022 memo from the FTC Inspector General issuing two recommendations for improving records management. The letter further indicates that the FTC has not provided explanations for instances of document deletion and have asked for responses by the end of the month to identify (i) what records have been deleted and why; (ii) how the FTC is working to company with retention requirements; (iii) whether it has notified National Archives and Records Administration of any deleted records; and (iv) how it has addressed prior recommendations.
Key Takeaways from the CFPB’s First Public Enforcement Action Alleging Violations of RESPA Section 8 Since 2017
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a consent order to a residential mortgage loan originator to resolve allegations that it provided illegal incentives to real estate brokers and agents in exchange for mortgage loan referrals. This is the CFPB’s first public enforcement action alleging violations of RESPA Section 8 since 2017.
The CFPB issued a parallel consent order against a real estate brokerage firm for accepting the incentives in exchange for referrals.
Allegations Against the Lender
The consent order against the lender alleges that the lender paid for several subscription services – for example, to a service that provided information concerning property reports, comparable sales and foreclosure data – and then provided free access to such services to real estate agents and brokers, which the CFPB determined to be a thing of value. According to the consent order, the agents and brokers who received access to the subscription services also referred mortgage business to the lender, which the CFPB alleges was in exchange for the free services and therefore violated RESPA Section 8(a).
The consent order also alleges that the lender hosted and subsidized events, including paying for food, beverages and entertainment, for the benefit of real estate agents and brokers. The consent order further alleges that the lender gave real estate agents and brokers free tickets to sporting events, charity galas and other events where the real estate agents and brokers would have otherwise needed to pay for their own admission, food, and alcohol. The CFPB alleges that these events frequently cost the lender several thousand dollars or more. The CFPB asserts that the lender’s contributions to these events constituted a thing of value to the real estate agents and brokers and were given to create, maintain and strengthen mortgage referral relationships, in violation of RESPA Section 8(a).
Finally, the CFPB alleges that the lender had marketing services agreements (“MSAs”) with numerous real estate brokerages, and that many of the compensable services were either performed by the lender itself rather than the brokerages or, based on the Bureau’s allegations against the broker, were not performed by the brokerages.
Also, the consent order noted that the MSAs required the real estate brokers to promote the lender to the broker’s own agents rather than to consumers. The lender also encouraged its MSA partners to use a third-party smartphone app. The real estate agents shared the app with their clients. The app featured a photo of the lender’s loan officer and the lender’s logo and included buttons where consumers could contact the lender’s loan officer for assistance. As a result, the CFPB alleges that the payments the lender made to the brokerages were structured and implemented to generate referrals, rather than to compensate the brokerages for any marketing services they actually performed.
Allegations Against the Real Estate Broker
The consent order against the broker alleges that the broker’s real estate agents and brokers accepted the subscription services and subsidized events. It also alleges that the broker received payments in connection with an MSA that was primarily focused on the lender getting referrals from the broker’s brokers and agents rather than the broker marketing the lender to the public, and that the broker failed to perform many of the marketing tasks required by the MSA but received payments anyway. For example, the consent order alleges that the MSA required the broker to send 15,000 marketing emails a month while allocating 50% of the content to the lender, display video advertisements for the lender at its physical locations and create a number of property websites displaying the lender’s content. However, the broker allegedly failed to perform any of these marketing services.
We note several key takeaways from these consent orders:
- Taken at face value, none of the conduct alleged to violate RESPA Section 8(a) is novel or particularly notable. The crux of the alleged violations involved paying for obvious things of value in exchange for referrals and entering into MSAs where the contemplated marketing services were either not provided or directed to potential referral sources and not consumers. The consent orders, therefore, are largely consistent with prior RESPA enforcement actions involving lenders and real estate brokers.
- This is the first public CFPB enforcement action alleging violations of RESPA Section 8 since 2017, which makes clear that although the CFPB’s focus on RESPA Section 8 may have waned somewhat from the Cordray era, it is still monitoring for RESPA Section 8 violations and will bring public enforcement actions when violations are discovered. Coupled with February’s Advisory Opinion on Digital Mortgage Comparison Shopping Platforms, the CFPB is clearly still engaged in RESPA compliance.
- The reference to the mobile app with a loan officer’s photo and the lender’s logo, and the ability for the consumer to reach out to the lender directly, is in accord with longstanding CFPB and HUD guidance that exclusivity is indicative of a referral to the extent that it “affirmatively influences” a consumer to select a particular provider of settlement services. This viewpoint was recently espoused in the CFPB’s Advisory Opinion on Digital Mortgage Comparison Shopping Platforms, and it appears that the CFPB views this principle as generally applicable.
In addition to agreeing to cease engaging in the conduct alleged, the lender was ordered to pay a civil monetary penalty of $1.75 million and also agreed to implement a compliance program designed to prevent any future violations should the lender resume retail mortgage operations. The lender also agreed to meet certain recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
In addition to agreeing to cease engaging in the conduct alleged, the broker was ordered to pay a civil monetary penalty of $200,000 and meet certain recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
In agreeing to enter into the consent orders, the lender and broker did not admit or deny any findings of fact or conclusions of law related to the violations alleged by the CFPB.
On August 16, the Small Business Administration (SBA) announced the availability of low-interest disaster loans available to businesses and residents across the nation.
- Mississippi – In light of damage from severe storms, straight-line winds, and flooding that occurred between June 14-19, certain private non-profit businesses (PNP) that do not provide critical services of a governmental nature are eligible to apply for low-interest disaster loans. PNP organizations may borrow up to $2 million with an interest rate of 2.375% to repair or replace damage. SBA is also offering economic injury disaster loans to help meet the needs of PNP organizations. The filing deadline is Oct 11, and the deadline to submit economic injury applications is May 13, 2024.
- Illinois – Following the announcement of the presidential disaster declaration due to severe storms and flooding June 29-July 2, SBA is offering affected businesses and residents in Illinois low-interest loans. SBA detailed that disaster loans up to $500,000 are available to homeowners to replace or repair damage, and “[i]nterest rates are as low as 4% for businesses, 2.375% for nonprofit organizations, and 2.5% for homeowners and renters, with terms up to 30 years.” The filing deadline is Oct 16, and the deadline to submit economic injury applications is May 13, 2024.
- New Jersey – In light of damage from severe storms and flooding that occurred June 14-19, certain PNP organizations that do not provide critical services of a governmental nature are eligible to apply for low-interest disaster loans. PNP organizations may borrow up to $2 million with an interest rate of 2.375% with terms up of to 30 years to repair or replace damage. SBA is also offering economic injury disaster loans to help meet the needs of PNP organizations. The filing deadline is Oct 10, and the deadline to submit economic injury applications is May 13, 2024.
- Oklahoma – SBA is making low-interest federal disaster loans available for certain PNP organizations in certain counties following the announcement of the presidential disaster declaration. PNP organizations may borrow up to $2 million with an interest rate of 2.375% with terms of up to 30 years to repair or replace damage. “SBA can also lend additional funds to help with the cost of improvements to protect, prevent or minimize the same type of disaster damage from occurring in the future.”
On August 14, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan dismissed without prejudice a lawsuit filed against the federal government aimed at blocking the Biden administration’s effort to provide debt relief to student borrowers (covered by InfoBytes here). U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington held that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they failed to plausibly demonstrate how the government’s plans would impact their efforts to recruit participants as qualified employers under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The court detailed that “[Plaintiffs] merely make vague and conclusory statements that some ‘undisclosed’ number of borrowers will receive credit toward loan forgiveness for some periods of forbearance” but “do not allege that any current employee received Adjustment credit.” Furthermore, any such “hypothetical injur[y]” would be traceable to “Plaintiffs’ own employees or prospective employees, not the Adjustment.” Because there was no standing, the court dismissed the complaint without prejudice and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction as moot.
On August 15, the FDIC issued FIL-36-2023 to provide regulatory relief to financial institutions and help facilitate recovery in areas of Mississippi affected by severe storms, straight-line winds, and tornadoes from June 14 - June 19. The FDIC acknowledged the serious impact of the inclement weather faced by affected institutions and encouraged those institutions to work with impacted borrowers to adjust and alter terms on existing loans, provided the measures are done “in a manner consistent with sound banking practices.” Additionally, the FDIC noted that institutions “may receive favorable Community Reinvestment Act consideration for community development loans, investments, and services in support of disaster recovery.” The FDIC will also consider regulatory relief from certain filing and publishing requirements and instructed institutions to contact the Dallas Regional Office if they expect delays in making filings or are experiencing difficulties in complying with publishing or other requirements.
On August 15, the OCC released an annual update to its Bank Accounting Advisory Series (BAAS) which is intended to address a variety of accounting topics and promote consistent application of accounting standards and regulatory reporting among OCC-supervised banks. The BAAS reflects updates to clarify the accounting standards issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board related to, among other things, the elimination of recognition and the measurement of troubled debt restructurings by creditors, loan modifications, and credit losses. The August 2023 edition also includes answers to frequently asked questions from industry and bank examiners. Additionally, the OCC notes that the BAAS does not represent OCC rules or regulations but rather “represents the Office of the Chief Accountant’s interpretations of generally accepted accounting principles and regulatory guidance based on the facts and circumstances presented.”