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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

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  • FTC temporarily halts unlawful debt collection operation

    Federal Issues

    On October 15, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted a temporary restraining order against a debt collection operation for allegedly engaging in fraudulent debt collection practices. According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation violated the FTC Act and the FDCPA by, among other things, (i) posing as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, mediators, investigators, or process servers when calling consumers to collect debts; (ii) using profane language and threatening consumers with arrest or serious legal consequences if debts were not immediately paid; (iii) threatening to garnish wages, suspend Social Security payments, revoke drivers’ licenses, or lower credit scores; (iv) attempting to collect debts that were either never owed or were no longer owed; (v) unlawfully contacting third parties, such as family members or employers; and (vi) adding unauthorized or impermissible charges or fees to consumers’ debts. The complaint asserts that the operation also refused to provide written verification about the alleged debts as required by the FDCPA. Beyond the temporary restraining order, the FTC is seeking a permanent injunction, contract rescission or reformation, restitution, disgorgement, the appointment of a receiver, immediate access to business premises, an asset freeze, and other equitable relief.

    The action is part of the FTC’s “Operation Corrupt Collector”—a nationwide enforcement and outreach effort established last month by the FTC, CFPB, and more than 50 federal and state law enforcement partners to address illegal debt collection practices. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)

    Federal Issues FTC Debt Collection Enforcement FTC Act FDCPA

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  • Debt collector settles with CFPB for $15 million

    Federal Issues

    On October 15, the CFPB announced a proposed settlement with the largest U.S. debt collector and debt buyer and its subsidiaries (collectively, “defendants”), resolving allegations that the defendants violated the terms of a 2015 consent order related to their debt collection practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed an action against the defendants in September alleging that they collected more than $300 million from consumers by violating the terms of the 2015 consent order—and again violating the FDCPA and CFPA—by, among other things, (i) filing lawsuits without possessing certain original account-level documentation (OALD) or first providing the required disclosures; (ii) failing to provide debtors with OALD within 30 days of the debtor’s request; (iii) filing lawsuits to collect on time-barred debt; and (iv) failing to disclose that debtors may incur international-transaction fees when making payments to foreign countries, which “effectively den[ied] consumers the opportunity to make informed choices of their preferred payment methods.” 

    The stipulated final judgment, if entered by the court, would require the defendants to pay nearly $80,000 in consumer redress and a $15 million civil money penalty. Moreover, among other things, the defendants are subject to a five-year extension of certain conduct provisions of the 2015 consent order and must disclose to consumers the potential for international-transaction fees and that the fees can be avoided by using alternative payment methods.   

    Federal Issues CFPB Settlement Debt Collection Debt Buyer CFPA FDCPA Enforcement

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  • 7th Circuit: No FDCPA liability when collection letter leaves future ambiguity

    Courts

    On October 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of an FDCPA action, concluding that itemized breakdowns in collection letters that include zero balances for interest and other charges would not confuse or mislead the reasonable “unsophisticated consumer” to believe that future interest or other charges would be incurred if the debt is not settled. A creditor charged-off a consumer’s credit card debt and informed the consumer that it would no longer charge interest or fees on the account. The debt was reassigned to a collection agency.  Consistent with the original creditor’s communication with the consumer, the collection agency sent a collection letter to the consumer that included an itemized breakdown reflecting a zero balance for “interest” and “other charges.” The “balance due at charge-off” and “current balance” were both listed as $425.86. The letter offered to resolve the debt and stated that no interest would be added to the account balance through the course of collection efforts. The consumer filed a putative class action alleging that the collection letter implied that the original creditor would begin to add interest and fees to the charged-off debt if the collection agency stopped its collection efforts in the future and, therefore, the debt collector violated the FDCPA by using false, deceptive and misleading representations to collect a debt, and failed to disclose the amount of the debt in a clear and unambiguous fashion. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that the collection letter accurately disclosed the amount of the debt.

    On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court. Specifically, according to the opinion, the appellate court concluded that the breakdown of charges in the letter “cannot be construed as forward looking,” rejecting the consumer’s argument that including zero balances implies that future interest or charges could be incurred if he did not accept the collector’s offer. Moreover, the appellate court noted that when a collection letter “only makes explicit representations about the present that are true, a plaintiff may not establish liability on the basis that it leaves ambiguity about the future.” The statement in the letter that no interest would accrue while the collector pursued the debt is not misleading because it “makes no suggestion regarding the possibility that interest will or will not be assessed in the future if [the debt collector] ends its collection efforts.” 

    Courts Debt Collection Appellate Seventh Circuit FDCPA

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  • District court: Debt collector must disclose partial payment or promise to pay will restart statute of limitations

    Courts

    On September 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment in an FDCPA action, ruling that a debt collector (defendant) was required to disclose that a partial payment or new promise to pay would restart the statute of limitations under state law. The plaintiff received a dunning letter from the defendant seeking to collect time-barred credit card debt. A disclaimer included in the letter, which presented several options to resolve the debt, stated: “The law limits how long you can be sued on a debt and how long a debt can appear on your credit report. Due to the age of this debt, we will not sue you for it or report payment or non-payment of it to a credit bureau. In addition, we will not restart the statute of limitations on the debt if you make a payment.” The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging violations of Sections 1692e and 1692f of the FDCPA, claiming that the disclosure language was misleading and deceptive because it failed to disclose (i) “the effect of partial payment on the statute of limitations”; (ii) “that the statute of limitations on the debt had run”; and (iii) “that no information about the debt could be reported to credit bureaus.” The defendant countered that the first two sentences of the disclosure were included pursuant to a consent order with the CFPB and “that its policy is to continue treating a time-barred debt as expired even if a consumer makes a partial payment.” The defendant further argued that there was “no potential ‘pitfall’ to partial payment” because of its policy not to restart the statute of limitations when a partial payment was made, and that its “explicit promise that it will not sue even if Plaintiff makes a payment dispels any potential confusion.”

    The court disagreed, finding that the defendant’s promise not to restart the statute of limitations without disclosing that a partial payment or a promise to pay would restart the statute was “misleading and deceptive” under Illinois law. The court also ruled that the plaintiff “is not expected to know [the defendant’s] internal policies regarding suing on debts where the statute of limitations has run or rely on its promises to not pursue a debt collectible in court after the statute of limitations protection has been forfeited.” The defendant’s policy, the court stated, does not obviate the “need to explain the mechanics of reviving the statute of limitations under Illinois law.”

    Courts Debt Collection FDCPA Time-Barred Debt

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  • New York AG takes action against debt collection operation

    State Issues

    On September 25, the New York attorney general announced a temporary restraining order was granted against a debt collection operation (consisting of a leader and at least six other individuals and entities) for allegedly contacting consumers using deceptive and abusive collection tactics. According to the press release, the operation allegedly contacted consumers by spoofing phone numbers to appear associated with the local court house or sheriff’s office in order to impersonate government officials and threaten the consumers with false legal action in order to collect debts, in violation of the state laws, the FDCPA, and the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009. The temporary restraining order prohibits the operation from engaging in debt collection practices and freezes the corporate defendants’ assets. The operations’ leader is also allegedly in breach of a 2014 Assurance of Discontinuance with the AG for previous violations of the FDCPA.

    The AG is seeking a permanent injunction, disgorgement, restitution, and civil penalties.

    State Issues State Attorney General Debt Collection Spoofing FDCPA

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  • 2nd Circuit: No bona fide error defense without written policies to avoid the error

    Courts

    On September 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part a summary judgment ruling in favor of a debt collector, concluding that the debt collector was not entitled to the FDCPA’s bona fide error defense as a matter of law when it erroneously sent communications to a consumer with the same name as the actual debtor. According to the opinion, a debt collector sent collection notices to a consumer with the same first name, middle initial, and last name as the actual debtor. The consumer informed the debt collector that he was not the debtor and provided the last two digits of his social security number, which were different than the debtor’s social security number on file with the debt collector. The debt collector continued to send communications, including a subpoena duces tecum, to the consumer and the consumer filed suit, alleging various violations of the FDCPA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the debt collector, concluding that the debt collector did not violate certain provisions of the FDCPA and noting that while it violated others, the FDCPA’s bona fide error defense applied making the debt collector not liable for the violations.

    On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court that the debt collector did not violate Section 1692e(5) or Section 1692f of the FDCPA because it did not intend to send the communications to a non-debtor, nor did the debt collector’s actions constitute “unfair or unconscionable means” of collection because the consumer was not forced to respond to the information subpoena or attend a debtor’s examination. However, the appellate court determined that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the bona fide error defense because a reasonable jury could conclude that the debt collector “did not maintain procedures reasonably adapted to avoid its error.” The appellate court also noted that the debt collector was “in possession of more than enough evidence” that the consumer was not the debtor, including different social security numbers and birth years, and a reasonable jury could conclude the mistake “was not made in good faith.” Additionally, the appellate court emphasized that the debt collector had “no written policies” to address situations in which employees are uncertain about whether a debtor may live at a particular address. Thus, the debt collector was not entitled to summary judgment on the outstanding FDCPA claims, and the appellate court remanded the case to the district court.

    Courts Second Circuit Appellate Debt Collection FDCPA Bona Fide Error

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  • CFPB alleges debt collection, debt buying companies violated 2015 consent order

    Federal Issues

    On September 8, the CFPB filed a complaint against the largest U.S. debt collector and debt buyer and its subsidiaries (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly violating the terms of a 2015 consent order related to their debt collection practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the defendants allegedly engaged in robo-signing, sued (or threatened to sue) on stale debt, made inaccurate statements to consumers, and engaged in other illegal collection practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), FDCPA, and FCRA. According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the defendants have collected more than $300 million from consumers using practices that did not comply with the 2015 consent order. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants violated the terms of the consent order—and again violated the FDCPA and CFPA—by (i) filing lawsuits without possessing certain original account-level documentation (OALD) or first providing required disclosures; (ii) failing to provide consumers with OALD within 30 days of the consumer’s request; (iii) filing lawsuits to collect on time-barred debt; and (iv) failing to disclose that consumers may incur international-transaction fees when making payments to foreign countries, which “effectively den[ied] consumers the opportunity to make informed choices of their preferred payment methods.” The Bureau seeks injunctive relief, damages, consumer redress, disgorgement, and civil money penalties. In addition, the Bureau asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from committing future violations of the CFPA or FDCPA.

    Federal Issues CFPB Enforcement Debt Collection Debt Buying CFPA FDCPA

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  • CFPB and New York AG take action against debt collection operation

    Federal Issues

    On September 8, the CFPB and the New York attorney general jointly filed a lawsuit against a debt collection operation based near Buffalo, New York. The defendants include five companies, two of their owners, and two of their managers (collectively, “defendants”). According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, FDCPA, and various New York laws by using illegal tactics to induce consumer payments, such as (i) threatening arrest and imprisonment; (ii) claiming consumers owed more debt than they actually did; (iii) threatening to contact employers about the existence of the debt; (iv) harassing consumers and third parties by using “intimidating, menacing, or belittling language”; and (v) failing to provide debt verification notices.

    The lawsuit seeks consumer redress, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief against the defendants.

    Federal Issues CFPB State Issues State Attorney General Debt Collection FDCPA CFPA

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  • FTC takes action against debt collection schemes

    Courts

    On August 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina lifted the temporary seal of two FTC complaints (available here and here) filed against two groups of debt collection companies and their owners (collectively, “defendants”), alleging that the defendants’ debt collection practices violated the FTC Act and the FDCPA. According to both complaints, which were filed on July 13, the FTC alleges that the defendants engaged in a scheme to collect payments from consumers for debts that they did not actually owe or that the defendants had no authority to collect. Specifically, the defendants used a “two-step collection process,” in which they used robocalls with prerecorded messages to tell consumers they were subject to “an audit or other proceeding.” After the consumers contacted the defendants about the information in the robocalls, the defendants “falsely represent[ed] that they are representatives of a law firm or a mediation company” and falsely alleged that the consumers would be subject to legal action, including arrest, on a delinquent debt if it was not paid. The FTC asserts that the defendants collected over $17 million from the alleged scheme and is seeking, among other things, restitution, injunctions, and asset freezes.

    Courts FTC Debt Collection Enforcement FTC Act FDCPA Robocalls

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  • District court certifies class in a lawsuit against an unlicensed debt collector

    Courts

    On August 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah certified two classes related to a debt collector’s efforts to pursue judgments on defaulted debts without being appropriately registered with the state. The order certified two classes: one for class claims arising under the FDCPA, and another for class claims brought under the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act (UCSPA). The court certified the UCSPA class for liability purposes only, as the statute does not allow a plaintiff to seek statutory damages on behalf of a class, leaving “issues related to what relief may be available for which class members to subsequent proceedings.” According to the order, the lead plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant after it attempted to collect unpaid medical debt. The defendant obtained a judgment but was not registered as a debt collector in the state when it filed the action. The defendant argued that Utah’s registration requirement did not apply to it and filed a motion for summary judgment, but the court disagreed and allowed the plaintiff to seek certification for two classes of individuals who had debt collection lawsuits filed against them in Utah by the defendant while it was unlicensed. Among other things, the defendant argued that the plaintiff’s proposed class included individuals without an underlying consumer debt, which destroyed commonality under Rule 23. The court agreed and limited the proposed FDCPA class to individuals who were sued for a “debt” as defined by 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(5). However, the court stated that the need for individualized determinations concerning each class member’s debt did not upset Rule 23’s predominance requirement, and concluded that the issue does not predominate over the question of whether the failure to register as a debt collector was a violation of the FDCPA and UCSPA. The court also disagreed with the defendant’s res judicata argument to defeat the certification request, ruling that even though the defendant ultimately obtained a judgment against the lead plaintiff—which it also allegedly did for at least 645 other members of the class—that was not enough to prove a conflict existed between the lead plaintiff and the other unaffected members of the class.

    Courts Debt Collection Class Action FDCPA State Issues Licensing

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