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CFPB announces settlement with companies that allegedly delayed transfer of consumer payments to debt buyers
On October 4, the CFPB announced a settlement with a group of Minnesota-based companies that allegedly violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act when consumers made payments on debts that the companies had already sold to third parties, and the companies improperly delayed the forwarding of some of those payments to debt buyers. According to the consent order, the companies—whose practices include the purchasing, servicing, collection, and furnishing consumer-report information on consumer loans—partnered with third-party banks to sell merchandise on closed-end or open-end revolving credit. Within a few days, banks originated the loans and sold the receivables to the companies. The companies subsequently serviced the debts and sold the receivables to a third party. For defaulted accounts, the companies charged off the accounts and sold them to third-party debt buyers. According to the Bureau, the companies allegedly failed to notify consumers when their accounts were sold, failed to inform them who now owned the debt, and continued to accept direct pays from consumers. The Bureau contends that between 2013 and 2016, the companies delayed forwarding direct pays for more than 31 days in 18,000 instances, and in 3,500 of those instances, the companies did not forward the payments for more than a year. Moreover, the Bureau asserts that these delays led to misleading collection efforts, including collection activity on accounts consumers had completely paid off. The order requires the companies to pay a civil money penalty of $200,000, and improve their policies and procedures to prevent further violations.
On June 1, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper enacted legislation (SB 17-216) executing recommendations from the Department of Regulatory Agencies’ 2016 Sunset Report, and extending the Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Act) an additional 11 years through September 1, 2028. The Act was originally set to be repealed on July 1, 2017. Specifically, the legislation will implement the following points:
- defines a “debt buyer” as an individual who “engages in the business of purchasing delinquent or defaulted debt for collection purposes,” regardless of whether the debt is collected by the debt buyer, a third-party, or through litigation. The Act applies to debt buyers who purchase consumer debts sold or resold on or after January 1, 2018;
- states that debt collectors or collection agencies that bring legal actions on debts must follow outlined requirements;
- defines collection agency expectations for the purchase, sale or attempted collection of a purchased debt;
- sets the statute of limitations for public actions brought by the administrator of the Act to two years and sets the limit to one year for private actions;
- requires the administrator to prepare a biannual report to address enforcement actions, complaint processing statistics, and significant legal filings, among other things, in addition to hosting biannual meetings to disseminate the findings.
SB 17-216 went into effect June 1, 2017 with the exception of certain provisions governing debt buyers, documentation for legal actions, and Uniform Consumer Credit Code Administrator reporting requirements that take effect January 1, 2018.
On September 22, the Massachusetts Division of Banks (the Division) and AG Healey’s office will host an informational session to discuss the current state of debt collection and industry regulation in Massachusetts. The Division and AG Healey seek responses to questions regarding how the debt collection industry has changed in recent years; the industry’s organizational structure; licensing requirements for debt collectors and debt buyers; law firm involvement in debt collection activities; notification requirements regarding whether a debt has been sold; debt collection issues, including litigation-related problems, that consumers and industry members face; and how changes in federal laws and regulations governing debt collection practices should be reflected in Massachusetts’s regulations. Written responses and comments to the Division are due by October 21, 2016.
On July 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded a decision from the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, concluding that the district court had erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims under Section 1681s-2(b) of the FCRA. Hinkle v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc. et al., No. 15-10398 (11th Cir. July 11, 2016). Pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b), after receiving notice of a dispute, furnishers of information are required to either verify disputed information via investigation or to notify the credit reporting agencies (CRAs) that the disputed information cannot be verified. At issue in Hinkle was whether the debt buyer’s search of its internal records was a reasonable investigation to verify debt accounts when the plaintiff disputed their validity. The debt buyer argued that, “once it compared the information the CRAs possessed with its own internal records and confirmed a match, it was entitled to report the accounts as having been ‘verified.’” The plaintiff maintained that, without obtaining account-level information beyond its internal records, the debt buyer should have reported the results of its reinvestigation to the CRAs as “cannot be verified.” The court agreed with the plaintiff, determining that a reasonable jury could find that the debt buyer’s failure to attempt to consult account-level documentation to confirm that it was seeking to collect the debts from the right person, was an unreasonable investigation on the facts of this case.
On June 27, the United State Supreme Court denied a debt buyer’s petition for certiorari in a Second Circuit case that raises the issue of whether New York’s state usury law is preempted by the National Bank Act (NBA) when a national bank-originated debt is purchased by a nonbank. Midland v. Madden, No. 15-610 (U.S. June 27, 2017). As previously covered in InfoBytes, the nonbank debt buyer was assigned debt owed by a New York consumer. The debt carried an interest rate in excess of that permitted by New York law but which was permitted by the law of the bank’s home state, which the bank lawfully “exported.” Facing a usury challenge, the debt buyer argued that it was able to continue charging the valid rate made by the national bank and that it did not have to abide by the consumer debtor’s state usury laws. The Second Circuit rejected the debt buyer’s argument, reasoning that the NBA did not apply to the debt buyer because it was not acting on the national bank’s behalf. The Supreme Court did not grant the debt buyer’s petition for certiorari, leaving the Second Circuit ruling in effect. Notably, at the request of the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General and the OCC filed a brief stating the position of the United States as to whether the Supreme Court should grant the petition for certiorari. Although the brief advised that the Court not grant certiorari, the Government’s brief sharply criticized the Second Circuit’s decision.
NYDFS Announces First Settlements to Provide Restitution to Consumers Affected by Alleged Unlawful Payday Lending Practices
The NYDFS recently announced that it entered into consent orders with two debt buyers, one based out of Kansas and the other out of Virginia. According to the Department, the debt buyers “improperly purchased and collected on illegal payday loans from New York consumers,” with the Kansas-based debt buyer allegedly attempting to collect on more than 7,000 payday loan debts of New York consumers and collecting payments on more than 4,000 of those debts between 2007 and 2014. The NYDFS’s press statement further alleges that the Kansas-based debt buyer repeatedly called New York consumers at work and at home, threatened to call consumers’ employers, and called family members to pressure consumers into paying their alleged payday loan debts. Pursuant to the consent order with the Kansas company, the debt buyer will (i) discharge more than $2.26 million in consumers’ payday loan debts; (ii) contact credit reporting bureaus and request that they remove any negative information that it previously provided associated with New Yorkers’ payday loan accounts; (iii) move to vacate judgments it obtained on New Yorkers’ payday loan accounts; and (iv) release pending garnishments, levies, liens, restraining notices, or attachments associated with judgments on New York consumers’ payday loan accounts. The Kansas debt buyer will issue almost $725,000 in refunds to more than 3,000 New Yorkers.
The Virginia-based debt buyer will provide refunds totaling more than $66,000 to 52 New Yorkers allegedly affected by its lending practices, and discharge almost $53,000 in payday loan debts to 106 New Yorkers. The two settlements are the first NYDFS settlements to provide consumer restitution to New Yorkers affected by payday loans.
On September 9, the CFPB ordered the two largest U.S. debt buyers and collectors to pay a combined total of nearly $80 million in civil penalties and consumer restitution related to their debt collection practices. The CFPB alleged that both companies, among other things, 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 particular, the CFPB criticized the practice of purchasing debts without obtaining important documentation or information about the debt, or verifying to ensure the debts were accurate and enforceable before commencing collection activities. Under the consent orders, one company agreed to provide up to $42 million in consumer refunds, pay a $10 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a portfolio of consumer debt with a face value of over $125 million. The other company agreed to provide $19 million in restitution, pay an $8 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a consumer debt portfolio with a face value of over $3 million. In addition, both companies are also generally prohibited from reselling consumer debt. In prepared remarks announcing the enforcement action, CFPB Director Richard Cordray noted, “the terms of the orders will help reform and improve the tactics and approaches” within the debt collection market. The CFPB’s action comes as the industry anticipates the CFPB’s issuance of new debt collection rules.
CFPB, 47 State AGs, and District of Columbia Announce $216 Million Settlement to Resolve Credit Card Debt-Buying Investigation
On July 8, the CFPB along with 47 state attorneys general and DC announced an agreement with a major bank to resolve allegations that it sold faulty credit card “zombie debts” to third-party debt buyers, which included accounts with unlawfully obtained judgments, inaccurate or paid-off balances, and debts owed by deceased borrowers. The federal and state investigators also claimed that the bank filed deceptive debt-collection lawsuits against borrowers using robo-signed or illegally sworn affidavits to obtain false or inaccurate judgments for unverified debts. Under terms of the consent order, the bank agreed to, among other things, pay (i) $106 million to 47 state attorneys general, (ii) a $30 million civil money penalty to the CFPB, and (iii) provide at least $50 million in restitution to affected borrowers. The bank also agreed to cease collections on more than 528,000 accounts, and require that third-party debt buyers be prohibited from reselling debts purchased from the bank, unless they are sold back to the bank.
In a related announcement, the OCC imposed a $30 million civil money penalty over allegedly illegal non-home debt collection litigation practices and Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) compliance practices. The OCC’s action stems from the bank’s practices related to the preparation and notarization of sworn documents used in debt litigation proceedings, and inadequate policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the SCRA.
On August 4, the OCC issued Bulletin 2014-37, which provides new guidance on the application of consumer protection requirements and safe and sound banking practices to consumer debt-sale arrangements with third parties—e.g. debt buyers—that intend to pursue collection of the underlying obligations. The guidance goes well beyond the set of “best practices” the OCC provided last summer as an attachment to written testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate committee. For example, the new guidance establishes requirements to: (i) notify the consumer that a debt has been sold, the dollar amount of the debt transferred, and the name and address of the debt buyer; (ii) perform due diligence on the debt buyer down to the consumer complaint level; and (iii) provide the debt buyer with the signed debt contract and a detailed payment history. The bulletin also requires sale contracts to include limitations on the debt buyer’s ability to litigate on an account and “minimum-service-level agreements” that apply whether or not debt buyers conduct the collection activities or employ other collection agents. The Bulletin specifies that certain types of debt are “not appropriate for sale,” such as: (i) debt of borrowers who have sought or are seeking bankruptcy protection; (ii) accounts eligible for Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections; (iii) accounts in disaster areas; and (iv) accounts close to the statute of limitations.
On May 8, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman announced that two debt buyers agreed to resolve allegations that they engaged in improper collection of untimely debt against New York consumers. The AG claims that the companies purchased unpaid consumer debt—largely credit card debt—from original creditors and then sought to collect on that debt by suing debtors and obtaining uncontested default judgments against those who failed to respond to lawsuits, even though the underlying claims were outside of the applicable statute of limitations. The applicable statute of limitations is determined based on the state of the original creditor’s residence and may be shorter than New York’s six-year statute of limitations. According to the AG, obtaining or collecting on a judgment based on such untimely claims is unlawful under New York law. Together, the companies allegedly obtained nearly three thousand improper judgments, totaling approximately $16 million. The companies will pay civil penalties and costs of $300,000 and $175,000 and agreed to vacate the allegedly improper judgments and cease any further collection activities on the judgments. The companies also agreed to adjust their debt collection practices by (i) disclosing in any written or oral communication with a consumer about a time-barred debt that the company will not sue to collect on the debt; (ii) disclosing in any written or oral communication with a consumer about a debt that is outside the date for reporting the debt provided for by FCRA that, because of the age of the debt, the company will not report the debt to any credit reporting agency; (iii) alleging certain information relevant to the statute of limitations in any debt collection complaint, “including the name of the original creditor of the debt, the complete chain of title of the debt, and the date of the consumer’s last payment on the debt”; and (iv) submitting an affidavit with any application for a default judgment that "attests that after reasonable inquiry, the company or its counsel has reason to believe that the applicable statute of limitations has not expired.”