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On April 8, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a bank, its employees, and the plaintiff’s former husband (collectively, “defendants”), concluding, among other things, that under the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) the defendants could not be considered “suppliers,” transactions with national banks are not covered, and bank employees were not considered “loan officers.” According to the opinion, a homeowner filed a lawsuit alleging the defendants fraudulently opened a home equity line of credit by allowing the plaintiff’s former husband to sign the homeowner’s name with the bank employees’ assistance in notarizing the signature. The homeowner alleged various claims, including that the defendants violated the OCSPA’s provision prohibiting a “supplier” from committing “an unfair or deceptive act or practice in connection with a consumer transaction.” The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The homeowner appealed, arguing that the bank employees were acting as “loan officers” and therefore, they qualified as “suppliers” under the OCSPA. The appellate court noted that while the term “supplier” does include “loan officer,” the statute explicitly states that “loan officer” does not include “an employee of a bank…organized under the laws of this state, another state, or the United States.” Moreover, the OCSPA provides that consumer transactions do not include transactions with financial institutions, except in certain circumstances, which are not applicable to the action. Therefore, the lower court did not err in its summary judgment ruling.
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 March 15, the FDIC announced a settlement with an accounting firm to resolve a professional negligence action stemming from allegations that the firm failed to detect a massive mortgage fraud in its audits of an Alabama-based bank that failed in 2009. According to a July 2018 order entered by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, the court originally ruled that the accounting firm owed more than $625 million in damages for negligent audits. The court’s findings, among other things, determined that the firm “did not design its audits to detect fraud,” which prevented it from detecting the mortgage fraud scheme.
One member of the FDIC Board, Martin J. Gruenberg, released a statement noting that he “voted against authorizing the settlement because the settlement did not include a written admission of liability” from the accounting firm.
On March 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a national bank’s motion to dismiss a former associate vice president/lending manager’s whistleblower claims that it violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting fraudulent claims and providing false information about loan applications to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The whistleblower alleged that the bank (i) knowingly submitted fraudulent claims for payment to the U.S. government; (ii) told Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the applications met underwriting standards; and (iii) later terminated his employment as retaliation for notifying his superiors about the alleged false statements. However, according to the court, the whistleblower failed to sufficiently plead that the bank actually submitted the false claims, did not provide enough specificity as to whom the bank sent the alleged false claims to, and failed to “allege specific facts that link [the bank’s] fraudulent conduct to a claim submitted to the government.” Moreover, the court stated that under the FCA’s public disclosure bar, a whistleblower cannot base his case on allegations raised in prior litigation or publically disclosed information, and identified several similarities between the whistleblower’s allegations and previously disclosed claims. Because the whistleblower’s FCA claims failed, the retaliation claims were also dismissed.
On March 5, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office and Division of Consumer Affairs filed a lawsuit against two auto dealerships and their owner for allegedly targeting financially vulnerable consumers through the use of predatory sales and loan practices. According to a March 7 press release issued by the New Jersey AG, the defendants allegedly targeted consumers who were unable to qualify for credit at more traditional auto dealerships by offering in-house loans on used vehicles with inflated prices, high interest rates, and terms that presented a high risk of default. When the consumers were unable to make the required payments, the defendants allegedly reclaimed the vehicles and restarted the “sell, finance, and repossess” churning cycle. The AG claims that the defendants’ practices violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, the Used Car Lemon Law, and the state’s motor vehicle advertising regulations. The complaint asks the court to permanently shut down the defendants’ operations and permanently enjoin the owner from owning, managing, and/or operating any business that advertises and/or sells motor vehicles in the state. The complaint also seeks restitution, civil penalties, and attorneys’ fees.
On March 7, the FTC announced a new legal action and a final settlement issued against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes that exploit elderly Americans. The actions are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with, among others, the FBI, the FTC, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Louisiana Attorney General, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—is the largest-ever coordinated nationwide elder fraud sweep, involving multiple cases, over 260 defendants, and more than two million allegedly victimized U.S. Citizens, most of whom are elderly.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the company used deceptive tactics to convince consumers, the majority of whom were older, that their computers were infected with viruses in order to sell expensive and unnecessary computer repair services in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Specifically, the company allegedly used internet ads to target consumers looking for email password assistance and once they contacted the consumers, the telemarketers would run phony “diagnostic” tests that falsely showed the consumer’s computer was in danger and needed software and services to be fixed. On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Utah, granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its founder.
The FTC also announced a proposed settlement with a sweepstake operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of tens of millions of dollars through personalized mailers that falsely implied that the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC announced the charges against the company in February 2018, alleging that consumers, most of whom were elderly, paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The final settlement not only requires the operation to turn over $30 million in assets and cash to provide redress to the victims, but also permanently bans the operators from similar prize promotions in the future. The proposed settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
On February 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an order granting a national bank’s motion to dismiss a multidistrict litigation complaint for failure to state a claim. Plaintiffs, in an attempt to recover losses from an internet phone service company’s pyramid scheme that ran from 2012 to 2014, alleged that the bank assisted the company’s pyramid scheme by, among other things, maintaining depository accounts for the company, receiving interest on funds held in the accounts, processing transactions, and receiving fees for wire transfers. However, the court found that the investors failed to adequately allege that the bank had any actual knowledge of the underlying fraud. “The complaint is devoid of any allegation that the fees, interest, and charges received by [the bank] were anything more than payments for banking services,” the court wrote, and thus “have failed to allege that they were ‘unjust.’”
On October 18, the FTC released a report to Congress outlining the agency’s comprehensive efforts to protect older consumers in the marketplace from fraud, identity theft, imposter scams, deceptive credit schemes, and other unlawful practices. The report, Protecting Older Consumers 2017-2018: A Report of the Federal Trade Commission, discusses (i) scams that target older consumers, including technical support scams; business imposter scams; prizes, sweepstakes, and lottery scams; and family or friend imposter scams; (ii) key FTC enforcement actions taken against companies that allegedly engaged in deceptive schemes that targeted or affected older consumers; and (iii) outreach and education efforts, including fraud prevention campaigns and resources for older consumers. Specifically, the report contains analysis of consumer complaint data from 2017, which revealed that older consumers (especially those over 80) were more likely to report fraud than younger people, and that when they reported losing money to fraud, they lost significantly more money than consumers in their twenties. (See previously InfoBytes coverage here on the FTC’s annual summary of consumer complaints received in 2017).
District Court concludes a small virtual currency is a “commodity” under the Commodities Exchange Act
On September 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied a virtual currency trading company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that smaller virtual currencies are commodities that may be regulated by the CFTC. In January, the CFTC bought an action alleging the company violated the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA) and CFTC Regulation 180.1(a) by making false or misleading statements and omitting material facts when offering the sale of their company’s virtual currency. For example, the complaint alleges that the company falsely stated that its virtual currency was backed by gold, could be used anywhere Mastercard was accepted, and was being actively traded on several currency exchanges. Moreover, while consumers who purchased the virtual currency could view their accounts, they were unable to trade it or withdraw funds from their accounts with the company. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the conduct did not involve a “commodity,” specifically one that underlies a futures contract, under the CEA. In denying the motion to dismiss, the court determined that Congress intended for the CEA to cover a certain “class” of items and specific items within that class are then “dealt in.” Because the company offered a type of “virtual currency” and it is “undisputed that there is futures trading in virtual currencies (specifically involving Bitcoin),” the court held that the CFTC sufficiently alleged the company’s product is a “commodity” under the CEA. The court also rejected the company’s other arguments, determining Regulation 180.1(a) was meant to combat the fraud alleged by the CFTC, notwithstanding its use of the term “market manipulation,” and the CFTC adequately pleaded the fraudulent claim under the regulation.
FTC announces settlements with website operators over the sale of fake documents allegedly used for fraud and identity theft
On September 18, the FTC announced three proposed settlements with the operators of websites who allegedly violated the FTC Act’s prohibition against unfair practices by selling fake financial documents used to facilitate identity theft and other frauds, including loan and tax fraud. As previously covered in InfoBytes, identity theft was the second largest category of consumer complaints reported in 2017 according to the FTC. The FTC brought charges against the first defendant, alleging the defendant engaged in the sale of fake pay stubs, bank statements, and profit-and-loss statements, as well as providing a product that allowed customers to edit existing (and authentic) bank statements. The second defendant’s charges include the alleged sale of fake pay stubs, auto insurance cards, and utility and cable bills, while the allegations against the third defendant also include the sale of fake tax forms, bank statements, and verifications of employment. While the defendants’ websites claimed that the fake documents were sold for “‘novelty’ and ‘entertainment’ purposes,” the FTC asserts that the defendants “failed to clearly and prominently mark such documents as being for such purposes and did not state on the documents themselves that they were fake.”
Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreements (see here, here, and here), monetary judgments are imposed against the defendants, who also are permanently prohibited from advertising, marketing, or selling similar fake documents.
- 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
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Summer Regulatory Compliance School
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss "CRA modernization" at the National Association of Industrial Bankers and the Utah Association of Financial Services Annual Convention
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Henry Asbill to discuss "Ethical guidance in conducting internal investigations – The intersection of Yates an Upjohn" at the American Bar Association Southeastern White Collar Crime Institute
- 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