Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
CFPB announces $9 million settlement with bank on credit card servicing
On May 23, the CFPB announced a settlement to resolve allegations that a national bank violated TILA and its implementing Regulation Z, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Act. The Bureau sued the bank in 2020 (covered by InfoBytes here) claiming that, among other things, when servicing credit card accounts, the bank did not properly manage consumer billing disputes for unauthorized card use and billing errors, and did not properly credit refunds to consumer accounts resulting from such disputes. At the time, the bank issued a response stating that it self-identified the issues to the Bureau five years ago while simultaneously correcting any flawed processes.
The bank neither admitted nor denied the allegations but agreed under the terms of the stipulated final judgment and order filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island to pay a $9 million civil penalty. In addition to amending its credit card practices, the bank is prohibited from automatically denying billing error notices and claims of unauthorized use of cards should the customer fail to provide a fraud affidavit signed under penalty of perjury. The bank must also (i) credit reimbursable fees and finance charges to a customer’s account when unauthorized use and billing errors occur; (ii) provide required acknowledgement and denial notices to customers upon receipt or resolution of billion error notices; and (iii) provide customers who call its credit counseling hotline with at least three credit counseling referrals within the caller’s state. The bank must also maintain procedures to ensure customers are properly refunded any fees or finance charges identified by valid error notices and unauthorized use claims. The bank issued a statement following the announcement saying that while it “continues to disagree with the CFPB’s stance with respect to these long-resolved issues, which were self-identified and voluntarily addressed years ago,” it is pleased to resolve the matter.
CFPB examines high-cost financings that cover medical expenses
On May 4, the CFPB released a report examining high-cost alternative financing products targeted to patients as a way to cover medical expenses. Products offered by a growing number of financial institutions and fintech companies include medical credit cards and installment loans, which typically carry significantly higher interest rates than those associated with traditional consumer credit cards (26.99 percent annual percentage rate as compared to 16 percent), the Bureau found, adding that these products also often have deferred interest plans which can create significant financial burdens for patients. The report found that between 2018 and 2020, consumers used alternative financing products to pay for nearly $23 billion in healthcare expenses and paid $1 billion in deferred interest. The report further found that companies are primarily marketing their products directly to healthcare providers with promised incentives. While the companies service the credit cards and loans, the Bureau explained that the healthcare providers are responsible for offering the products to patients and disclosing terms and risks. Many of these healthcare providers are unable to adequately explain complex terms, such as deferred interest plans, leaving patients facing ballooned deferred interests and lawsuits, the Bureau warned. According to the Bureau’s announcement, “financing medical debt on a credit card may increase patients’ exposure to extraordinary credit actions that healthcare providers would typically not pursue,” as “there can be a greater incentive for creditors to pursue lawsuits because unlike many healthcare providers, creditors can pursue a debt’s principal plus interest and fees.”
FTC, DOJ sue payment processor for tech support scams
On April 17, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against several corporate and individual defendants for violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by allegedly engaging in credit card laundering for tech support scams. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, since at least 2016, the defendants—a payment processing company and several of its subsidiaries, along with the company’s CEO and chief strategy officer—worked with telemarketers who made misrepresentations to consumers about the performance and security of their computers through the use of deceptive pop ups in order to sell technical support scams. Defendants’ involvement included assisting and facilitating the illegal sales and laundering the credit card charges through their own merchant accounts (thus giving the scammers access to the U.S. credit card network) where defendants received a commission for each charge. The complaint maintained that the defendants “engaged in this activity even though it and its officers knew or consciously avoided knowing that its tech support clients were engaged in deceptive telemarketing practices.”
The proposed court orders (see here, here, and here) each impose monetary judgments of $16.5 million and (i) prohibit the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering through merchant accounts; (ii) require the defendants to screen and monitor any high-risk clients and take action if clients should charge consumers without authorization or violate the TSR; and (iii) prohibit the defendants from engaging in payment processing or assisting tech support companies that engage in false or unsubstantiated telemarketing or advertising. According to the DOJ’s announcement the defendants will be required to pay a combined total of $650,000 in consumer redress. This payment will result in the suspension of the total monetary judgment of $49.5 million due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
CFPB looks to increase card competition
On April 17, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said the Bureau is focused on finding ways to increase competition and reduce costs as credit card debt continues to rise and interest rates increase. Chopra discussed a proposal announced in February (comments are due May 3), which would ensure that late fees on credit cards accounts are “reasonable and proportional” to late payments as required under the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (covered by InfoBytes here). He also discussed updates made in March to the Bureau’s terms of credit card plans (TCCP) survey and database, which are intended to help consumers comparison shop for credit cards and find the best interest rates and products (covered by InfoBytes here). The refreshed TCCP survey allows issuers to voluntarily submit information about their credit card products and requires the top 25 credit card issuers to provide information on all their credit cards instead of just their most popular products, Chopra explained, stating that the initiative is designed to help smaller credit card issuers reach comparison shoppers and compete with bigger players in the market. Chopra also touched upon other initiatives, such as an ongoing review of the consumer credit card market and an examination focusing on large credit card issuers’ suppression of key data from consumer credit reports.
3rd Circuit: Card renewal notices not subject to TILA itemization requirements
On April 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of a putative class action suit claiming a national bank’s failure to itemize fees in its credit card renewal notices violated TILA and Regulation Z. Plaintiff alleged that his 2019 card renewal notice listed the annual membership fee as $525, but did not separate the fee into itemized amounts: $450 for the primary cardholder and $75 for an additional authorized user. Stating that the annual membership fee later appeared in his 2020 renewal notice as two separate fees, he claimed that he would have only paid the $450 fee for his own card if he had known it was an option in 2019. Plaintiff sued claiming the 2019 renewal notice violated TILA and Regulation Z, which require creditors to make disclosures before and during a creditor-borrower relationship, including the existence of any annual and periodic fees. The district court rejected the bank’s argument that the plaintiff lacked standing after finding that he suffered an economic injury by paying the full $525. However, the court granted the bank’s motion to dismiss after determining that the plaintiff failed to allege a TILA violation because neither the statute nor its implementing regulation expressly require banks to itemize fees in a renewal notice.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit issued a precedential opinion finding that while the plaintiff had standing, he failed to plead an actual TILA violation. “While there is an itemization requirement in the statutes and regulations governing periodic disclosures,” the court clarified that “the same requirement is not included in the statutes and regulations applicable to renewal notices.” The 3rd Circuit stated that “[r]enewal notices are not subject to the same disclosure requirements as solicitations and applications, which are provided to consumers before the parties have any relationship,” explaining that because “the creditor does not yet know whether the consumer will add an authorized user to the account” during the solicitation or application period, it “must disclose ‘optional’ additional card fees.” However, during the account renewal stage, TILA and Regulation Z only require creditors to “disclose terms ‘that would apply if the account were renewed.’”
FTC, Florida AG sue “chargeback mitigation” company
On April 12, the FTC and the Florida attorney general filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida alleging a “chargeback mitigation” company and its owners (collectively, “defendants”) used numerous unfair tactics to thwart consumers trying to dispute credit card charges through the chargeback process. The chargeback process allows consumers to contest unwanted, fraudulent, or incorrect credit card charges with their credit card companies. According to the complaint, the defendants regularly sent screenshots and statements on behalf of company clients to credit card companies allegedly showing that consumers had agreed to the disputed charges. However, the FTC claimed that in many instances, the misleading screenshots did not come from the merchant’s website where the consumer made the disputed purchase. The complaint further alleged that the defendants used a system that allowed company clients to run numerous small-value transactions via prepaid debit cards in order to raise the number of transactions, thus lowering the percentage of charges that were disputed by consumers. The service, the FTC maintained, “enabled fraudulent merchants to evade or delay chargeback monitoring programs, fines, and account terminations designed to protect consumers from fraud.”
The FTC noted that three of the defendants’ major clients (for which the defendants disputed tens of thousands of chargebacks on behalf of each of the companies) were previously sued by the FTC for engaging in deceptive negative-option marketing practices. The complaint accused the defendants of ignoring clear warning signs that the screenshots were misleading, including instances where the name of the product referenced in the screenshot did not match the product in the disputed purchase. The defendants also allegedly often overlooked company clients that opened and used a large number of different merchant accounts to process charges. Asserting violations of the FTC Act and the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the complaint seeks permanent injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
CFPB updates card survey to improve comparison shopping
On March 21, the CFPB announced updates to its terms of credit card plans (TCCP) survey. The updates are intended to “create a neutral data source” to help consumers comparison shop for credit cards and “find the best interest rates and products,” the Bureau explained. Previously, credit card data was compiled and made publicly available from the largest 25 issuers, as well as from a sample of at least 125 other issuers (as required by the Fair Credit and Charge Chard Disclosure Act of 1988). The refreshed TCCP survey will now allow issuers to voluntarily submit information about their credit card products to enable smaller credit card issuers to reach comparison shoppers and compete with bigger players. The TCCP survey will also include additional questions about credit card annual percentage rates, and will require issuers to report the minimum and maximum APR offered if it varies by credit score. According to the Bureau, allowing consumers to see the median APR for their credit score range will help them better compare products and estimate the potential cost of borrowing before applying. Additionally, the top 25 credit card issuers will have to provide information on all their credit cards instead of just their most popular products. Other issuers will be permitted to voluntarily submit information on multiple products. Expanded information reporting requirements include providing details on whether a product is a secured card or if it requires a deposit to open an account, as well as information about promotional terms of balance transfers, introductory rates, and cash advances.
House Republicans question CFPB’s card late-fee proposal
On March 1, several Republican House Financial Services Committee members sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra expressing concerns over the Bureau’s credit card late fee proposal. Among other things, the lawmakers claimed that last year the Bureau broke precedent by failing to address, for the first time, credit card late fees when the agency issued the annual fee adjustments as required under Regulation Z, which implements TILA (covered by InfoBytes here). “In prior years when the CFPB did not make inflation adjustments, because inflation was low, it explained the statistical basis for not indexing the fee,” the letter said. “However, the CFPB has yet to explain or justify why there was not an increase in the most recent annual adjustment announcement—a striking lack of transparency and accountability, and especially so in an era of outsized inflation.” The lawmakers also addressed the Bureau’s February notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend Regulation Z and its commentary. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau said the NPRM would lower the safe harbor dollar amount for first-time and subsequent-violation credit card late fees to $8, eliminate the automatic annual inflation adjustment, and cap late fees at 25 percent of the consumer’s required minimum payment. According to the lawmakers, the changes would disincentivize consumers to make timely payments and impact consumer behavior by shifting “delinquent payment costs to other, innocent, consumers who absorb the associated costs through higher rates or inability to further access unsecured credit that they may need to smooth their consumption.”
The lawmakers posed several questions to the Bureau, including asking why the agency failed to convene a panel as mandated by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 to advise on the rulemaking “[g]iven the broad applicability of this rule making to small institutions.” The Bureau was also asked to provide the data used to determine the dollar limits, as well as any communications the agency had with the Biden administration in the development of the NPRM.
CFPB proposal targets late fees on cards
On February 1, the CFPB issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend Regulation Z, which implements TILA, and its commentary to better ensure that late fees charged on credit card accounts are “reasonable and proportional” to the late payment as required under the statute, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The NPRM would (i) adjust the safe harbor dollar amount for late fees to $8 for any missed payment—issuers are currently able to charge late fees of up to $41—and eliminate a higher safe harbor dollar amount for late fees for subsequent violations of the same type (a company would be able to charge above the immunity provision provided it could prove the higher fee is necessary to cover the incurred collection costs); (ii) eliminate the automatic annual inflation adjustment for the immunity provision amount (the Bureau would instead monitor market conditions and make adjustments as necessary); and (iii) cap late fees at 25 percent of the consumer’s required minimum payment (issuers are currently able to potentially charge a late fee that is 100 percent of the cardholder’s minimum payment owed).
The NPRM also seeks feedback on other possible changes to the CARD Act regulations, including “whether the proposed changes should apply to all credit card penalty fees, whether the immunity provision should be eliminated altogether, whether consumers should be granted a 15-day courtesy period, after the due date, before late fees can be assessed, and whether issuers should be required to offer autopay in order to make use of the immunity provision.” Comments on the NPRM are due by April 3, or 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, whichever is later.
According to the CFPB, the Federal Reserve Board “created the immunity provisions to allow credit card companies to avoid scrutiny of whether their late fees met the reasonable and proportional standard.” As a result, the CFPB stated that immunity provisions have risen (due to inflation) to $30 for an initial late payment and $41 for subsequent late payments, resulting in consumers being charged approximately $12 billion in late fees in 2020. Based on CFPB estimates, the NPRM could reduce late fees by as much as $9 billion per year. CFPB Director Rohit Chopra issued a statement commenting that the current immunity provisions are not what Congress intended when it passed the CARD Act.
The Bureau also released an unofficial, informal redline of the NPRM to help stakeholders review the proposed changes, as well as a report titled Credit Card Late Fees: Revenue and Collection Costs at Large Bank Holding Companies, which documents findings on the relationship between late fee revenue and pre-charge-off collection costs for certain large credit card issuers. According to the report, “revenue from late fees has consistently far exceeded pre-charge-off collection costs over the last several years.”
The NPRM follows several actions initiated by the Bureau last year, including a request for comments on junk fees, a research report analyzing credit card late fees, and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking that solicited information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding credit card late fees and late payments, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses (previously covered by InfoBytes here and here).
CFPB seeks feedback on credit cards
On January 24, the CFPB issued a notice and request for information (RFI) seeking public feedback on several aspects of the consumer credit card market in accordance with Section 502(b) of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The CARD Act was enacted by Congress to establish fair and transparent practices related to the extension of credit within the credit card market, and requires the Bureau to undertake a biennial review of the industry to determine whether regulatory adjustments are needed. The Bureau said it plans to publish its report to Congress later in 2023.
The RFI covers several broad topics ranging from lending practices to the effectiveness of rate and fee disclosures, and seeks comments on the experiences of consumers and credit card issuers in the credit card market, as well as on the overall health of the credit card market. Specifically, the RFI requests feedback on issues related to:
- Credit card agreement terms and credit card issuer practices;
- The effectiveness of issuers’ disclosure of terms, fees, and other expenses of credit card plans;
- The adequacy of protections against unfair or deceptive acts or practices relating to credit card plans;
- The cost and availability of consumer credit cards;
- The safety and soundness of credit card issuers;
- The use of risk-based pricing for consumer credit cards; and
- Consumer credit card product innovation and competition
Comments on the RFI are due April 24. The Bureau noted in its announcement that it also issued market-monitoring orders to several major and specialized credit card issuers seeking information on various topics, including major credit card issuers’ practices related to, among other things, applications and approvals, debt collection, and digital account servicing.