Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
Court grants summary judgment in favor of FTC and Florida State Attorney General in debt relief scam case
On December 10, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted the FTC and the Florida Attorney General’s motion for summary judgment against an individual accused of participating in a scheme that allegedly targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. According to a 2016 complaint, several interrelated companies and the founder of such companies (defendants), among other things, allegedly violated the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act by (i) claiming to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates; (ii) charging up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services; and (iii) pitching credit card debt-elimination services, claiming the defendants could access money from a government fund to pay off consumers’ credit card debt in 18 months, when in actuality, no such government fund existed. In some cases, the defendants instructed consumers to stop paying their credit-card bills, resulting in “significant harm in the form of reduced creditworthiness, higher interest rates on their existing credit-card debt, and higher overall credit-card debt due to the accrual of late fees and interest charges.”
The court entered a permanent injunction ordering the defendant founder of the companies involved to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief. The order also permanently restrains and enjoins such defendant from, among other things, participating—whether directly or indirectly—in (i) telemarketing; (ii) advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or (iii) misrepresenting material facts.
On December 11, the FTC entered into a proposed settlement with an Arizona-based company and its officer (defendants) relating to an allegedly deceptive credit card telemarketing operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the defendants—as part of a larger group of 12 defendants comprised of an independent sales organization, sales agents, payment processors, and identified principals—violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by assisting a telemarketing company in masking its identity by processing the company’s credit card payments and laundering credit card transactions on behalf of multiple fictitious companies. The proposed settlement, among other things, prohibits the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering and bans them from telemarketing, processing payments, or acting as an independent sales organization or sales agent. The order also stipulates a judgment of $5.7 million, which will be suspended unless it is determined that the financial statements submitted by the defendants contain any inaccuracies.
In March 2018, the FTC reached settlements with two of the other defendants (see InfoBytes coverage here). Litigation continues against the remaining defendants.
On December 7, as part of Operation Game of Loans—a coordinated effort between the FTC and state law enforcement—the FTC announced settlements with operators of two student loan debt relief operations to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by, among others (i) charging consumers who purchased the debt relief services illegal upfront fees; and (ii) falsely promising to assist consumers in enrolling in government programs that would reduce or forgive their student loan debt.
Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief product or service—or from assisting others in doing the same. Combined, the settlements total more than $36 million, though judgments have been partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
FTC settles with one student loan debt relief operation; seeks separate permanent injunction against another
On November 20, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a student loan debt relief operation to resolve allegations that the defendants defrauded consumers through programs offering mortgage assistance and student debt relief. Regarding the student debt operations, the FTC alleged that the defendants falsely offered student borrowers reduced monthly payments or loan forgiveness by falsely claiming to be affiliated with the Department of Education. In a 2017 complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants also falsely promised foreclosure prevention and mortgage relief to distressed homeowners, but instead collected advance fees in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule. Among other things, the settlement includes a judgment of more than $9 million—which will be partially suspended once the defendants turn over all assets worth approximately $305,000 because of their inability to pay—and bans the defendants from participating in debt relief and telemarketing activities in the future.
The same day, the FTC also announced it was charging a separate student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the TSR for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, the operators of the scheme—which include a recidivist scammer previously banned from participating in debt relief activities—allegedly “promoted a 96 percent success rate in reducing consumers’ student loan payments.” However, the FTC stated that consumers who purchased the debt relief services and often paid illegal upfront fees “often did not receive any debt relief and lost hundreds of dollars.” On November 13, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze at the FTC’s request. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the 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.”
On November 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has granted a temporary restraining order against the operators of an international real estate investment development, which the FTC claims is the “largest overseas real estate investment scam [it] has ever targeted.” According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC contends that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased the lots outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, and paid monthly homeowners association fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than to invest in the development. In addition, the FTC asserts that, while the defendants falsely promised consumers that their lots would include luxury amenities, be completed soon, and result in property values that would “rapidly appreciate,” “consumers either have lost, or will lose, some or all of their investments.” The FTC’s press release also announces the filing of charges against a Belizean bank for allegedly assisting and facilitating the investment scam, as well as contempt motions against several of the individual defendants. The FTC is seeking information from affected consumers.
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 July 31, the FTC announced that it had successfully halted a $3 million telemarketing scheme, which falsely promised to obtain grants for consumers in exchange for the upfront payment of fees. The FTC alleges the Arizona-based defendants charged consumers upfront fees ranging from $295 to $4,995 and promised to obtain $10,000 or more in government, corporate, or private grants that could help the consumers pay off personal expenses such as medical bills. However, “most, if not all,” consumers ultimately received nothing in return and the defendants often changed the company name once they received consumer complaints or state attorney general notices, or once they lost merchant accounts.
On July 16, the FTC filed a now-unsealed complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. The FTC simultaneously sought a temporary restraining order (TRO), which the court granted the following day. Among other things, the TRO prohibits the defendants from: (i) conducting similar business activities; (ii) violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule; and (iii) using or disseminating consumer information obtained through the fraudulent activities. Additionally, the TRO freezes the defendants’ assets and places the companies in receivership until relief is determined.
FTC files complaint against two operations allegedly responsible for making billions of illegal robocalls
On June 5, the FTC announced charges filed against two individuals and their related operations (defendants) for allegedly facilitating billions of robocalls to consumers across the country through a telephone dialing platform in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the alleged misconduct—dating back to 2001—centered around the principal and owner of a group of companies that operated and developed a computer-based telephone dialing platform, and a second individual defendant and his group of call center businesses that paid for the development and use of software designed to make autodial telephone calls and deliver prerecorded messages. The FTC alleged that for many years the two individual defendants jointly owned and operated businesses that resold access to a “bundle of services”—referred to as a “one-stop-shop for illegal telemarketers”—that provided, among other things, (i) servers to host the autodialing software, as well as the physical space housing the servers; and (ii) the ability to make calls using “spoofed” caller ID numbers, which made it look as if the calls came from a consumer’s local area code. According to the FTC, this “bundle of services” became so widely used within the industry that it has been named in at least eight other FTC lawsuits centered on the facilitation of unlawful calls. Among other things, the charges against the defendants include assisting with illegal robocalls, calling with prerecorded messages, calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, calling with spoofed caller IDs, and abandoning calls. The FTC seeks civil monetary penalties, a permanent injunction against the defendants to prevent future violations, and reimbursement of costs for bringing the action.
District Court holds that FTC investigation and initiation of enforcement proceedings do not qualify as final agency actions subject to judicial review
On May 29, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the FTC’s motion to dismiss a declaratory-judgment action filed by several California-based companies that provide student loan processing services, along with their CEO/primary shareholder (plaintiffs). In August 2017, having allegedly learned that the FTC “was in the final process of gathering information to file a lawsuit against one or more of [the] [p]laintiffs on the purported and factually unsupportable basis that the [c]ompanies made misrepresentations to consumers” and violated the TSR’s debt relief service provision, the plaintiffs filed for instant declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act, seeking a declaration that the Telemarketing Sales Rule’s (TSR) debt relief provisions did not apply to them or, alternatively, that they were in compliance with the provisions. In February 2018, the FTC filed an enforcement action against the plaintiffs alleging that their collection of fees in advance of providing services violated the FTC Act and the TSR, and seeking injunctive and equitable relief. The FTC also moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ declaratory judgment for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
According to the order granting the FTC’s motion, the court agreed with the FTC that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)—not the Declaratory Judgment Act—is the exclusive, proper vehicle to obtain judicial review of a federal agency’s action. The court then held that the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the two prerequisites for judicial review under the APA, that (i) the agency’s actions constitute as a “final” agency action, and (ii) there exists no other adequate remedy in court. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the FTC’s “investigation into the lawfulness of the [plaintiffs’] actions and initiation of enforcement proceedings” qualified as a “final” agency action subject, and that the plaintiffs’ alternative “adequate remedy” was to be had in the enforcement action brought against them by the FTC, where they would be able to present all of the same defenses and arguments they sought to advance in their declaratory judgment action.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Trends in regulatory enforcement" at the American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Meeting
- Jessica L. Pollet to discuss "Your career is impacting your life..." at the Ark Group Women Legal Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Successors in interest updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo