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On September 28, as part of Operation Game of Loans, a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement, the FTC announced settlements with several individuals and their associated companies (defendants), accused of violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule when marketing and selling student debt relief services. According to the FTC, the defendants, among other claims: allegedly (i) misrepresented to consumers that they were affiliated with the Department of Education or a borrower’s loan servicer; (ii) claimed that consumers who paid an up-front fee—as much as $1,000 according to the FTC’s complaint—would qualify for or be approved to receive permanently reduced monthly payments or have their student loans forgiven or discharged; and (iii) engaged in deceptive advertising practices through social media, falsely claiming they could qualify, establish eligibility for, approve, or enroll consumers in loan forgiveness programs.
Under the terms of the settlements, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief products or services—or from assisting others to do the same. The defendants also are prohibited from making misrepresentations related to financial products and services. Combined, the settlements total more than $19 million in monetary judgments, all of which have been partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay the entire amount of their respective judgments. The more than $5 million in unsuspended amounts may be used for equitable relief, including consumer redress.
On September 20, the New York Attorney General announced a lawsuit against nine student loan debt relief companies, along with their financing company, and two individuals (collectively, “defendants”), alleging that the defendants fraudulently, deceptively, and illegally marketed, sold, and financed student debt relief services to consumers nationwide. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants (i) sent direct mail solicitations to consumers that deceptively appeared to be from a governmental agency or an entity affiliated with a government agency; (ii) misrepresented that they would apply fees paid by borrowers to student loan balances; (iii) charged consumers over $1,000 for services that were available for free; (iv) requested upfront payments in violation of federal and state credit repair and debt relief laws; (v) charged usurious interest rates; and (vi) provided consumers with “incomplete and harmful advice,” such as counseling borrowers to consolidate federal student loans without explaining that in certain circumstances borrowers could “lose months or years of loan payments they had already made that would qualify toward forgiveness of their loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.” The New York Attorney General maintains that these practices violated several federal and state consumer protection statutes, including the Telemarketing Sales Rule, New York General Business Law, the state’s usury cap on interest rates as covered by New York Banking Law and New York General Obligations Law, disclosure requirements under the Truth in Lending Act, and the Federal Credit Repair Organization Act.
On June 7, the FTC announced a settlement with an individual who allegedly operated a mortgage relief scheme, which charged distressed homeowners thousands in upfront fees while falsely promising foreclosure prevention or payment modifications. According to the FTC, the defendant, operating through multiple company names, falsely suggested the businesses were endorsed by the federal government and encouraged consumers not to communicate with their mortgage company and to stop making monthly mortgage payments. The settlement order imposes a judgment of more than $15.5 million but suspends the judgment due to the individual’s inability to pay. The settlement prohibits the individual from, among other things, (i) advertising, marketing, promoting, offering, or selling debt relief services or products; and (ii) misrepresenting, or assisting others in misrepresenting information relating to the offering of financial products and services. Additionally, the settlement bars the individual from disclosing or benefitting from the information collected from the consumers through the business operations.
On June 8, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved an order requiring an owner and his multiple student debt relief companies (defendants) to pay almost $12 million to settle allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act and Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) when marketing and selling student debt relief services. As part of a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement called Operation Game of Loans, the FTC filed a complaint in September 2017 alleging the defendants, among other things, charged upfront and monthly fees to enroll students in free government programs to manage student loan debt, but did not perform any services. Additionally, the FTC alleged that the defendants marketed themselves as associated with the Department of Education and called consumers listed on the Do Not Call Registry. Under the settlement order, in addition to the nearly $12 million fine, the defendants are permanently banned from: (i) advertising, marketing, promoting, offering, or selling debt relief or credit repair products or services, or assisting others in such activities; (ii) misrepresenting or assisting others in misrepresenting information relating to any products or services and, specifically, financial products or services; (iii) making any misleading or unsubstantiated representation or assisting others in making any such representation about the benefits, performance, or result of any financial product or service; and (iv) engaging in any unlawful telemarketing practices. The defendants neither admit nor deny any of the FTC’s allegations.
On May 31, as part of a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement called Operation Game of Loans, the FTC announced settlements with two student loan debt relief companies. According to the FTC, the settlements resolve claims that the companies violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by illegally charging consumers upfront fees and falsely promising to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt. The first settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed by the FTC in 2017, alleging that the company would enroll consumers in debt relief programs with an upfront fee and subsequent monthly payments, but would not fulfill promises to apply the payments to the consumers’ student loans. In addition to a $17 million fine, which will be partially suspended if the defendants turn over substantially all assets worth more than $4 million, the settlement bars the defendants from debt relief and credit repair activities in the future.
The second settlement also results from a 2017 complaint by the FTC alleging that a Los Angeles-based company defrauded consumers through programs offering mortgage assistance and student debt relief. According to the FTC, the company falsely promised distressed homeowners assistance in preventing foreclosure and promised student borrowers reduced monthly payments or loan forgiveness purportedly through the Department of Education. The $9 million settlement, which will be partially suspended once defendants turn over all assets worth $54,000 because of their inability to pay, also bans defendants from participating in debt relief and telemarketing activities in the future.
For more InfoBytes coverage on Operation Game of Loans see here.
On May 22, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland entered a default judgment, in favor of the CFPB, against two debt relief companies, their service provider, and their owners (defendants) for allegedly misleading consumers about their debt validation program. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint in October 2017 against the defendants for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by, among other things, purportedly claiming to be affiliated with the federal government and misrepresenting the abilities of their services. In granting the CFPB’s request for default judgment, the court held that the defendants failed to defend the action and ordered they pay almost $5 million in restitution, as well as $16 million in civil money penalties. In addition to the fines, the defendants are prohibited from engaging in telemarketing, debt relief and credit repair activities in the future.
On March 22, the Washington governor signed HB 1169, which establishes the student opportunity, assistance, and relief act to address student loan debt. Among other things, HB 1169 (i) repeals certain statutes allowing the suspension of a professional license or certificate due to student loan default; (ii) changes the judgment interest rate for unpaid private student loan debt to two percentage points above the prime rate, unless the judgment interest rate is specified in the contract; (iii) defines “private student loan,” and outlines exclusions, such as “an extension of credit made under an open-end consumer credit plan, a reverse mortgage transaction, a residential mortgage transaction, or any other loan that is secured by real property or a dwelling”; and (iv) outlines provisions and exemptions for bank account and wage garnishment. The act takes effect June 7.
As previously covered in InfoBytes, earlier in March the Washington governor established the “Washington student education loan bill of rights” to outline licensing requirements and responsibilities for student loan servicers.
On February 7, the FTC announced it was charging a student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, defendants contacted consumers through personalized mailers that falsely claimed borrowers had pre-qualified for federal loan assistance programs that would reduce their monthly debt payments to a fixed payment or result in total loan forgiveness. However, the FTC asserted that monthly payments under federal income-driven repayment programs vary from year to year due to fluctuations in income, and that most consumers do not meet the programs’ strict eligibility requirements. Among other things, defendants allegedly charged illegal up-front fees to purportedly enroll consumers in programs, accepted monthly payments that were not applied towards student loans, and collected monthly fees that consumers believed were being applied to their loans but instead were going towards unrelated “financial education” programs. According to the FTC, defendants have collected over $28 million since 2014. In connection with the telemarketing of student loan debt relief services, the FTC also charged defendants with TSR violations for allegedly collecting illegal upfront fees and misrepresenting “material aspects of their debt relief services.” The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction against defendants to prevent future violations, as well as redress for injured consumers through “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, and the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.”
This action is part of the FTC’s enforcement initiative, Operation Game of Loans, which targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
On December 14, state attorneys general from California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York, filed lawsuits (see here and here) against the U.S. Department of Education (Department) in federal courts in California and Washington, D.C., accusing the Department of withholding student loan debt relief to tens of thousands of borrowers determined to have been defrauded by a now-defunct chain of for-profit colleges. According to the complaints, the Department promised borrowers expedited discharges of their federal student loans, reimbursements of previously paid amounts, and, according to the California complaint, “streamlined review procedures” to quickly process relief. However, the attorneys general made a variety of claims, including asserting that the Department has (i) since January 20, 2017, delayed approval of all pending borrower-defense claims; (ii) pursued unlawful debt-collection actions against borrowers, such as seizing students’ tax refunds and garnishing their wages in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act; and (iii) failed to justify the “disparate and unequal treatment of similarly situated claimants.” In addition to a request that the court vacate denials of covered borrower-defense claims, the attorneys general seek, among other things, that the Department (i) resume discharging the loans of affected borrowers; (ii) cease the alleged unlawful collections; and (iii) according to the Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York lawsuit, provide ancillary relief “including refunding amounts already seized from . . . borrowers pursuant to the unlawful certification for offset or administrative wage garnishment.”
The lawsuits follow other challenges and proposals of state attorneys general to the Department related to its oversight of federal student loans (see previous InfoBytes coverage here, here, and here).
On October 13, in partnership with 11 states and the District of Columbia, the FTC announced a federal-state law enforcement initiative to combat deceptive student loan debt relief scams. According to the FTC, “Operation Game of Loans” targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers, such as allegedly (i) charging illegal upfront fees; (ii) making false or misleading statements promising, among other things, debt relief, loan forgiveness, reduced interest rates, and credit repair services; (iii) pretending to be affiliated with the government or loan servicers; (iv) engaging in deceptive marketing practices; (v) pocketing consumer fees rather than applying the money towards student loan balances; and (vi) charging consumers for document preparation services that are readily available to consumers for free. According to a press release issued by the FTC, the initiative “encompasses 36 actions by the FTC and state attorneys general against scammers alleged to have used deception and false promises of relief to take more than $95 million in illegal upfront fees from American consumers over a number of years.”
That same day, as part of “Operation Game of Loans,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a lawsuit against a pair of entities (defendants) accused of allegedly violating Illinois law by charging upfront fees for services guaranteed to “lower monthly student loan payments, improve credit scores, get students out of default, and negotiate tax and student loan debt adjustments.” The complaint further alleges that not only do the defendants lack the ability to provide the advertised services, they also allegedly impersonate students to gain access to students’ Federal Student Aid IDs (the federal government prohibits entities from accessing federal student aid websites even if authorized by the borrower), and fail to refund consumers—as promised—if they fail to provide debt relief. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, restitution, and civil penalties.
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