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On April 17, Kathy Kraninger, Director of the CFPB, spoke before the Bipartisan Policy Center where she reiterated the Bureau’s focus on prevention of harm and announced a symposium that will explore the meaning of “abusive acts or practices” under Section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act. In her remarks, Kraninger touched on the four “tools” the Bureau has at its disposal to execute its mission: education, rulemaking, supervision, and enforcement.
- Education. The Bureau wants to help consumers protect their own interests and choose the right products and service to help themselves. Specifically, the Bureau is focusing on ensuring that American consumers learn to save to be able to absorb a financial shock.
- Rulemaking. The Bureau will comply with Congressional mandates to promulgate rules or address specific issues through rulemaking, but when the Bureau has discretion, it will focus on “preventing consumer harm by maximizing informed consumer choice, and prohibiting acts or practices which undermine the ability of consumers to choose the products and services that are best for them.” In the coming weeks, the Bureau will release its proposed rules to implement the FDCPA, which will include (i) bright line limits on the number of calls consumers can receive from debt collectors on a weekly basis; (ii) clarity on how collectors may communicate through new technology such as, email and text messages; and (iii) requiring more information at the outset of collection to help consumers better identify debts and understand payment and dispute options. Kraninger stated, “the CFPB must acknowledge that the costs imposed on regulated entities absolutely affect access to, and the availability of, credit to consumers.”
- Supervision. This tool is the “heart of the agency,” according to Kraninger, as it helps to prevent violations of laws and regulations from happening in the first place. The Bureau will keep in mind that it is not the only regulator examining most entities and will focus on coordination and collaboration with the other regulators so as not to impose unmanageable burdens in examinations.
- Enforcement. The Bureau will continue to enforce against bad actors that do not comply with the law, as enforcement is “an essential tool that Congress gave the Bureau.” The Bureau will have a “purposeful enforcement regime” to foster compliance and help prevent consumer wrongs. Kraninger is “committed to ensuring that enforcement investigations proceed carefully and purposefully to ensure a fair and thorough evaluation of the facts and law… [and ensuring they] move as expeditiously as possible to resolve enforcement matters, whether through public action or a determination that a particular investigation should be closed.”
Kraninger also touched on how the Bureau plans to measure success going forward. Kraninger noted that in the past, the Bureau touted its outgoing statistics as a measurement, such as amount of consumer redress and number of complaints handled. However, according to Kraninger, if the Bureau succeeds in fostering a goal of prevention of harm, certain outputs like meritorious complaints would actually be lower. Therefore, the Bureau’s success should be based on how it uses all of its tools. Lastly, Kraninger announced a symposia series that would convene to discuss consumer protections in “today’s dynamic financial services marketplace.” The first will explore the meaning of “abusive acts or practices” under Section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act, specifically, to address issues with the “reasonableness” standard. There are no additional details on the date for the symposium but Kraninger noted that this would be the next step in exploring future rulemaking on the issue. The series will also have future events discussing behavioral law and economics, small business loan data collection, disparate impact and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, cost-benefit analysis, and consumer authorized financial data sharing.
Additionally, on April 9, acting Deputy Director, Brian Johnson, spoke at the George Mason University Law & Economics Center's Ninth Annual Financial Services Symposium. In his prepared remarks, Johnson emphasized that regulatory rules should be “as simple as possible” when dealing with complex markets as they are easier for a greater portion of actors to understand and adapt to and also promote compliance, “which has the ancillary benefit of making it easier for consumers (not to mention regulators) to distinguish between good and bad actors.” Johnson argued that regulators should not try and dictate specific outcomes in rulemaking. Instead, Johnson stated that “financial regulators should recognize that complex market systems are not a means to accomplish their specific goals” and should “narrowly-tailor rules to address a discrete market failure.” Johnson also touched on the Bureau’s new Office of Innovation, noting that the Bureau’s proposed No Action Letter Program and Product Sandbox will offer firms “the opportunity to expand credit while still preserving important consumer protections,” while assisting the Bureau in learning about new technologies and potential consumer risks. As for the Bureau’s cost-benefit analysis, Johnson said that this activity will not be limited to future actions, but will also be used for “periodic retrospective analysis” because financial markets are “constantly changing, requiring constant reappraisal and verification of the rules that govern the system.”
On April 9, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) released responses to inquiries sent last month to the Federal Reserve Board, the OCC, and the CFPB, which expressed, among other things, concern about the level of response taken by a national bank regarding its auto-lending practices, as well as the bank’s remediation plans and compliance risk management efforts. In response, the regulators individually discussed the bank’s progress to satisfy its obligations under existing consent orders.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell wrote that the asset cap imposed on the bank will remain in place until the bank has implemented—to the Board’s satisfaction—remedies to address risk management breakdowns. Powell noted that the bank and the Board are comprehensively addressing the progress.
OCC Comptroller Joseph Otting emphasized that the agency continues “to monitor the bank’s work to remediate deficiencies” identified in previously issued orders, and commented that while the OCC is disappointed with the bank’s current corporate governance and risk management programs, it “is fully engaged and prepared to bring [the bank’s] matters to resolution.”
CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger stated that “while the Bureau is working with [the bank] to ensure its compliance with the consent order, I am not satisfied with the [b]ank’s progress to date and have instructed staff to take all appropriate actions to ensure the [b]ank complies with the consent order and [f]ederal consumer financial law.”
On April 15, Mark Calabria was sworn in as the new Director of the FHFA and stressed the importance of mortgage finance reform in his first remarks in the role. Calabria warned that the current mortgage finance system remains “vulnerable,” noting that “[a]fter years of strong house price growth, too many remain locked out of housing, while others are dangerously leveraged. We must not let this opportunity for reform pass.” Calabria also acknowledged the March memo released by the White House, outlining the Administration’s plan for federal housing finance reform (covered by InfoBytes here) which, among other things, directs the Secretary of the Treasury to develop a plan to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs). Calabria stated that he looks forward to working with the Administration on such reforms.
On April 11, acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Russel Vought, sent a memorandum to the heads of all executive agencies announcing that on May 11, agencies will be required to submit all regulatory guidance materials to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review prior to publication. The memo asserts that the Congressional Review Act (CRA) “applies to more than just notice-and-comment rules; it also encompasses a wide range of other regulatory actions, including, inter alia, guidance documents, general statements of policy and interpretive rules” and therefore, agencies should not publish a regulatory action in the Federal Register without first submitting the document to OIRA to determine whether it is considered a “major rule” under the CRA. The CRA defines a “major rule” as one having (i) an annual effect on the economy of at least $100 million; (ii) a major increase in costs or prices for consumers, individual industries, or federal and state governments; or (iii) significant adverse effects on competition, employment, and U.S.-based enterprises. Should OIRA consider the regulatory action to be a “major rule,” the rule will be submitted to Congress with OIRA’s report and will not become effective sooner than 60 days after its submission. The memo instructs agencies to provide OIRA a quantitative analysis, which includes costs, benefits, and transfer impacts relative to a baseline, “when reasonably possible.” Additionally, the agency’s analysis should include whether the regulatory action would impose a disproportionate cost on a particular group or place a significant burden on the economy.
FTC obtains $2.7 million judgment against “free samples” operation; settles deceptive marketing matter
On April 11, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered a New York-based office supply operation to pay $2.7 million to resolve allegations that the defendants targeted consumers, such as small businesses, hotels, municipalities, and charitable organizations, by deceptively misrepresenting the terms of their “free samples.” Specifically, the FTC alleged in 2017 that the defendants violated the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act (Telemarketing Act) and the Unordered Merchandise Statute by calling consumers with offers of free product and then billing the consumers after shipping the samples. In some instances, the FTC stated, consumers refused the offer of the free product, but the defendants sent it anyway. Once the samples were shipped, the FTC claimed the defendants sent follow-up invoices demanding payment for the product, and would then send dunning notices and place collection calls. Under the terms of the order, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of unordered merchandise, or from misrepresenting material facts, and are required to pay $2.7 million to be refunded to affected consumers.
Separately, on April 10, the FTC announced proposed settlements (see here and here) issued against twelve corporate and four individual defendants for allegedly claiming their “cognitive improvement” supplements increase brain power and performance. According to the complaint, the defendants’ deceptive acts and practices included using “sham news” websites to market false and misleading efficacy claims, such as fraudulent celebrity endorsements and fictitious clinical studies. Furthermore, the FTC alleged that, while the defendants claimed to offer a “100% Money Back Guarantee” on their supplements, consumers found it difficult or nearly impossible to get a refund, and that some consumers were allegedly charged for supplements they ordered but never received. The proposed settlements, among other things, prohibits the specified behavior and impose monetary judgments of $14,564,891 and $11,587,117, both of which will be partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
On April 11, the FTC announced that a payment processing company and its owner agreed to a $1.8 million settlement resolving allegations that the company repeatedly violated a 2009 court order. That order found that the payment processer knowingly or consciously avoided knowing that debit card transactions it processed, on behalf of an allegedly fraudulent enterprise, were not authorized by the consumers. The FTC alleged that the company violated the 2009 order by, among other things, (i) failing to engage in a reasonable investigation of prospective clients before processing payments on their behalf; (ii) failing to monitor clients’ transactions to ensure that clients were not engaged in illegal behavior; and (iii) failing to adhere to administrative requirements of the order, including submitting a written compliance report to the agency. In addition to the monetary penalty, the new settlement permanently bans the company from working as a payment processor and subjects the company to reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
On April 3, six Democratic Senators wrote to the CFPB seeking additional information on the Bureau’s oversight of student loan companies and servicers involved in the administration of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). In the letter, the Senators expressed concern that the Bureau’s leadership “has abandoned its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers.” The Senators noted that consumers owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. and that loan servicing companies under contract with the U.S. Department of Education (the “Department”) are “covered persons” under Title X of the Dodd Frank Act, which allows the Bureau “broad oversight authority over their actions.” The Senators cited to a number of lawsuits brought by private citizens and state authorities challenging student loan servicing companies’ actions with regard to PSLF, and requested the Bureau respond to a series of questions regarding its activities overseeing student loan servicers’ handling of PSLF since December 2017. Among other things, the Senators requested information regarding (i) the Bureau’s examinations of student loan servicers’ PSLF administration; (ii) the effect of the Department’s December 2017 guidance to loan servicing contractors not to produce documents directly to other government agencies; (iii) the status of the CFPB’s alleged investigation into a specific student loan servicer’s actions; and (iv) the status of information sharing with the Department since August 2017.
On April 3, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ordered a publisher and conference organizer and his three companies (defendants) to pay more than $50.1 million to resolve allegations that the defendants made deceptive claims about the nature of their scientific conferences and online journals, and failed to adequately disclose publication fees in violation of the FTC Act. Among other things, the FTC alleged, and the court agreed, that the defendants misrepresented that their online academic journals underwent rigorous peer reviews but defendants did not conduct or follow the scholarly journal industry’s standard review practices and often provided no edits to submitted materials. The court determined that the defendants also failed to disclose material fees for publishing authors work when soliciting authors and often did not disclose fees until the work had been accepted for publication. The court also found that the defendants falsely advertised the attendance and participation of various prominent academics and researchers at conferences without their permission or actual affiliation.
In addition to the monetary judgment, the final order grants injunctive relief and (i) prohibits the defendants from making misrepresentations regarding their publications and conferences; (ii) requires that the defendants clearly and conspicuously disclose all costs associated with publication in their journals; and (iii) requires the defendants to obtain express written consent from any individual the defendants represent as affiliated with their products or services.
On the same day, the FTC also announced a settlement with a subscription box snack service to resolve allegations that the company violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting customer reviews as independent and failing to adequately disclose key terms of its “free trial” programs. Specifically, the FTC alleged that the company provided customers with free products and other incentives in exchange for posting positive online reviews and misrepresented that independent customers made the reviews or posts. The company also allegedly offered “free trial” snack boxes without adequately disclosing key terms of the offer, including the stipulation that if the trial was not canceled on time, the customer would be automatically enrolled as a subscriber and charged the “total amount owed for six months of snack box shipments.” The proposed order, among other things, prohibits the specified behavior and requires the company to pay $100,000 in consumer redress.
On April 2, House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) spoke before the American Bankers Association’s Washington Summit to discuss several priorities and emerging issues, including comprehensive housing reform, diversity in financial services, fintech regulation, cannabis banking, and Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) reform.
- Housing finance reform. Waters discussed resolving the long-term status of GSEs and several core principles underlying housing finance reform including, among other things, (i) maintaining access to the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage; (ii) ensuring sufficient private capital is available to protect taxpayers; (iii) requiring transparency and standardization that ensures a level-playing field for all financial institutions especially community banks and credit unions; (iv) maintaining credit access for all qualified borrowers; and (v) ensuring access to affordable rental housing. “Many of the proposals for housing finance reform exclude small financial institutions from being able to access the secondary mortgage market. I believe that the inclusion of small financial institutions must be a critical part of any conversations about GSE reform,” Waters stated.
- Diversity in financial services. Waters discussed the newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee (previously covered by InfoBytes here) when noting that minority representation in financial services management positions remains underrepresented. The new subcommittee will examine diversity trends to promote inclusion. “Diverse representation in these institutions, and particularly at the management level, is essential to ensure that all consumers have fair access to credit, capital, and banking and financial services,” Waters stated.
- Fintech regulation. Waters commented that fintech regulation is a committee priority. Waters stated that it is important “we encourage responsible innovation with the appropriate safeguards in place to protect consumers and without displacing community banks.”
- Cannabis banking. Waters highlighted her committee's work last month in advancing HR 1595, which would create protections for financial institutions that provide services to state-sanctioned cannabis-related businesses. The bill would create a safe harbor for depository institutions that would bar federal banking regulators from terminating banks’ deposit insurance or otherwise penalize them if they provide services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider.
- BSA/AML reform. Waters discussed a hearing that was held to look at “common sense” improvements that could be made to the current BSA/AML framework. She further stated that the committee is considering beneficial ownership legislation, in addition to exploring ways to work with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network regarding BSA/AML reporting.
On April 2, the FTC announced that it joined the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in sending letters to three supplement companies warning them that making allegedly unsupported health and efficacy claims in their advertising may violate the FTC Act. According to the letters (available here, here, and here), the three companies advertise supplements they say contain cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD), and, allegedly, among other things, effectively treat diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, and neuropsychiatric disorders. The letters emphasize that it is unlawful under the FTC Act “to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.” The letters also note that the products constitute “new drugs” and cannot be introduced or delivered into interstate commerce without prior FDA approval. The letters appear related to the FTC’s initiative to target advertisers who make deceptive claims about their products. As previously covered by InfoBytes, FTC Chairman, Joseph Simons, spoke about this initiative at a recent conference, and cited several of the agency’s enforcement actions, including challenges to dietary supplement health benefit claims and deceptive environmental claims. Additionally, he stated the agency is prepared to “proceed in federal court as warranted.”
- APPROVED Webcast: Introducing Mogy — APPROVED’s licensing technology solution
- 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 "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management 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
- Christopher M. Witeck and Moorari K. Shah to discuss "The latest in vendor management regulations" at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Buckley Webcast: Hot topics in debt collection — An analysis of recent federal FDCPA litigation
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "How to succeed in law school" at the SEO Law DC Panel Discussions
- 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
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- 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