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On November 1, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri ordered a Missouri-based company to pay a $30,000 civil money penalty to resolve allegations that it used district-attorney letterhead to threaten consumers with criminal prosecution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the company claiming it allegedly engaged in deceptive and otherwise unlawful debt collection acts and practices in the course of operating “bad-check pretrial-diversion programs on behalf of more than 90 district attorneys’ offices throughout the United States.” The complaint claimed that the company not only failed to include required FDCPA disclosures in the letters it sent to consumers, it also failed to identify itself in the letters and did not inform consumers that it was a debt collector and not a district attorney. Moreover, in most cases the company did not refer cases for prosecution, even if the check writer failed to respond to the collection letter, did not pay the alleged outstanding debt and fees, or failed to complete the financial-education course. Under the terms of the settlement, the company is, among other things, permanently banned from engaging in debt collection activities and is prohibited from disclosing, using, or benefiting from customer information obtained before the order’s effective date in connection with a Pre-Trial Bad Check Diversion Program. Additionally, the company may not “attempt to collect, sell, assign, or otherwise transfer any right to collect payment from any consumer who purchased or agreed to purchase services or products in connection” with the company’s program. The company is ordered to pay more than $1.4 million in redress to harmed consumers; however, full payment of this amount is suspended upon satisfaction of certain obligations due to the company’s financial condition. The $30,000 penalty also reflects the company’s limited ability to pay.
On October 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland entered a stipulated final judgment and order against defendants (a debt collection entity, its subsidiaries, and their owner) in an action alleging FCRA and FDCPA violations. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint against the defendants in 2019 with alleged violations that included, among other things, the defendants’ failure to ensure accurate reporting to consumer-reporting agencies (CRAs), failure to conduct reasonable investigations and review relevant information when handling indirect disputes, and failure to conduct investigations into the accuracy of information after receiving identity theft reports before furnishing such information to CRAs. The Bureau separately alleged that the FCRA violations constitute violations of the CFPA, and that the defendants violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect on debts without a reasonable basis to believe that consumers owed those debts.
Under the terms of the order, the defendants—who neither admitted nor denied any of the allegations except as specified in the order—are required to, among other things, (i) update existing policies and procedures to ensure information is accurate before it is furnished to a CRA or before commencing collections on an account; (ii) ensure policies and procedures are designed to address trends in disputes; and (iii) hire an independent consultant, subject to the CFPB Enforcement Director’s non-objection, to conduct a review to ensure management-level oversight and FCRA and FDCPA compliance. The defendants must also submit a compliance plan and pay an $850,000 civil money penalty.
Recently, the Connecticut Department of Banking entered into a consent order with a North Carolina-based company resolving allegations that it violated Connecticut collection practices laws and regulations by allegedly using a name other than the company’s legal name when collecting unpaid debts without a Connecticut consumer collection agency license. The Department’s investigation stemmed from a newspaper article in which a Connecticut resident complained that he received bills from a company in an attempt to collect $314 for a Covid-19 test. The company responded to the Department’s inquiry by stating that a collection agency license was not required because the collections were made by an in-house division of the company, and not on behalf of a third party. The company also cited cases in which federal courts dismissed similar allegations under the federal FDCPA. After an investigation, the Department alleged that the company constituted as a “creditor” and by using a different name, was in violation of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, “which prohibits the use of any business, company or organization name other than the true name of the creditor’s organization.” The consent order requires that the company pay a civil money penalty of $10,000 and that the company cease and desist from using any name other than its true legal name to collect debts.
On October 19, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied a defendant’s motion for judgment without prejudice concerning allegations that it knowingly ignored cease-and-desist letters sent by an individual while the individual had a pending bankruptcy petition. The plaintiff allegedly incurred a debt that was placed with the defendant for collection. After, the plaintiff sought protection under the Bankruptcy Code. During the bankruptcy case, the defendant allegedly sent the plaintiff text messages to collect the debt, the plaintiff responded with a cease-and-desist letter, and then the defendant sent the plaintiff a collection letter. The plaintiff sent another cease and desist letter and the defendant sent four more collection letters. Based on the defendant’s post-petition actions, the plaintiff sued for FDCPA and Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act violations. The defendant argued that the plaintiff failed to disclose this lawsuit in her bankruptcy case, which would result in the FDCPA case being dismissed on judicial estoppel grounds. However, the court found that while the plaintiff omitted the name and specific circumstances of her claims against the defendant, she “put the Bankruptcy Court, trustee, and creditors on notice she had a claim against a creditor and properly sought approval from the Bankruptcy Court before retaining counsel to pursue it.” The court went on to state that if the plaintiff “intended to deceive creditors or others in bankruptcy, filing the Application strayed from that intent,” and that “the filing mitigates any prejudice claimed by [the defendant].”
On October 20, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia entered a default judgment and order against five participants in an allegedly illegal debt collection scheme involving certain payment processors and a telephone broadcast service provider (collectively, “default defendants”) for their role in the operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed claims brought by the CFPB against the default defendants. (See additional InfoBytes coverage here.) According to a complaint filed in 2015, the defendants “knew, or should have known” that the debt collectors were contacting millions of consumers in an attempt to collect debt that consumers did not owe or that the collectors were not authorized to collect by using threats, intimidation, and deceptive techniques in violation of the CFPA and the FDCPA.
The court entered a $5.1 million judgment against the default defendants, who are jointly and severally liable with the non-default defendants. The default defendants must pay civil monetary penalties ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 to the Bureau. The judgment also, among other things, permanently bans the default defendants from attempting collections on any consumer financial product or service and from selling any debt-relief service.
On October 20, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved a settlement with two non-parties in an action brought by the CFPB, the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney, alleging a student loan debt relief operation deceived thousands of student-loan borrowers and charged more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the complaint asserted that the defendants violated the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and various state laws. Amended complaints (see here and here) also added new defendants and included claims for avoidance of fraudulent transfers under the FDCPA and California’s Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, among other things. A stipulated final judgment and order was entered against the named defendant in July (covered by InfoBytes here), which required the payment of more than $35 million in redress to affected consumers, a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau, and $5,000 in civil money penalties to each of the three states. The court also previously entered final judgments against several of the defendants, as well as a default judgment and order against two other defendants (covered by InfoBytes here, here, here, and here). The most recent settlement resolves a dispute between a court-appointed receiver and the two non-parties. The settlement requires the non-parties to pay $675,000 to the receiver.
On October 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted plaintiff’s motion to remand a debt collection class action lawsuit back to state court. The plaintiff claimed the defendants violated the Illinois Collection Agency Act and FDCPA Section 1692c(b) by using a third-party mailing vendor to print and mail collection letters to class members. According to the plaintiff’s complaint filed in state court, conveying the information to the vendor—an allegedly unauthorized party—served as a communication under the FDCPA. The defendants removed the case to federal court, but on review, the court determined the plaintiff did not have Article III standing to sue because Congress did not intend to prevent debt collectors from using mail vendors when the FDCPA was enacted. Specifically, the court disagreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, which held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) In this case, the court stated it “is difficult to imagine Congress intended for the FDCPA to extend so far as to prevent debt collectors from enlisting the assistance of mailing vendors to perform ministerial duties, such as printing and stuffing the debt collectors’ letters, in effectuating the task entrusted to them by the creditors—especially when so much of the process is presumably automated in this day and age.” According to the court, “such a scenario runs afoul of the FDCPA’s intended purpose to prevent debt collectors from utilizing truly offensive means to collect a debt.”
On October 1, the CFPB released a set of FAQs discussing limited-content messages and the call frequency provisions under the Debt Collection Rule in Regulation F. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2020 the CFPB issued its final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, addressing debt collection communications and prohibitions on harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices. Among other things, the FAQs clarify: (i) the qualifications of a “limited-content message”; (ii) that debt collectors can utilize a pre-recorded voice message for limited-content messages; (iii) that the final rule “establishes a presumption of a violation of, and a presumption of compliance with, the prohibition against harassing, oppressive, or abusive conduct, based on the frequency of a debt collector’s telephone calls and conversations”; (iii) that the final rule “does not preempt a state law that affords greater protection to consumers, including, for example, by imposing limits or more restrictive presumptions related to telephone call frequency”; (iv) that seven days is the maximum time a consumer’s direct prior consent applies to additional telephone calls; and (v) the factors that may rebut the presumption of a violation.
On September 27, the FTC announced a settlement with a Georgia-based debt collection company and its owners (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in fraudulent debt collection practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed a complaint against the defendants alleging that they 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 U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted a temporary restraining order against the defendants in September 2020. Under the terms of the stipulated final order, the FTC ordered that the defendants are banned from the debt collection industry, prohibited from misrepresenting that they are attorneys or affiliated with a law firm or whether a consumer owes any kind of debt, and are prohibited from making misleading claims while selling a product or service. The order also requires the defendants to pay more than $266,000 to the Commission. A $3 million monetary judgment will be partially suspended upon completion of asset transfers from all financial institutions holding accounts in the defendants’ names.
On September 22, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) announced its first enforcement action against a California-based debt collector and debt buyer for allegedly violating the California Consumer Financial Protection Law (CCFPL) by threatening to sue consumers and furnishing negative information to a credit bureau without first notifying consumers about the alleged debt—a practice commonly known as “debt parking.” According to DFPI, consumers complained that their credit scores dropped significantly as a result. The respondent also, among other things, allegedly left voicemails that did not disclose the caller’s identity, threatened illegal lawsuits and wage garnishment (even though it never actually commenced any legal proceedings), and failed to notify consumers in writing within 30 days of transmitting negative information to the credit bureau. Under the order, the respondent is required to pay a $375,000 fine and must desist and refrain from unlawful acts or practices associated with the FDCPA, the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act.
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Section 1071: Small business data collection & fair lending” at the American Bar Association Consumer Financial Services Winter Meeting 2022
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Getting your company ready: Managing fair lending for IMBs” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Lauren R. Randell to discuss “Significant legal developments in the Northeast” at the 37th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where it is heading?” at the Consumer Bankers Association Live program