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On December 4, the FTC announced that it charged two debt relief companies and five individuals with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in connection with their sale of “bogus” credit card interest rate reduction services. According to the complaint, the defendants contacted consumers using illegal robocalls and made false guarantees to “substantially and permanently” lower the consumers’ credit card interest rates and/or save the consumer thousands of dollars in interest payments. However, the scheme rarely obtained the promised results. In some instances where consumers did get lower interest rates, those rates were only temporary “teaser” rates that did not result in a permanent rate reduction. In addition, defendants failed to disclose the associated balance transfer fees that accompanied the lower teaser rates. The FTC also charged the defendants with TSR violations for (i) collecting illegal upfront fees; (ii) making illegal robocalls; (iii) contacting consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry; and (iv) not paying the required fees to the Registry. The FTC charged one additional individual defendant with substantially assisting the two debt relief operations with the allegedly illegal conduct. The FTC is seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the defendants, requesting the appointment of a receiver to control the two corporate entities, and an asset freeze to assist in potential consumer redress.
On November 9, the CFPB announced the filing of a complaint against the largest debt settlement provider in the country and its co-CEO for allegedly deceiving consumers about its debt settlement services. According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by:
- misleading consumers about the settlement provider’s ability to negotiate with creditors that the settlement provider knew maintained policies against working with settlement companies;
- instructing consumers to mislead creditors when asked about their participation in a debt settlement program;
- leading consumers to believe the defendants would negotiate on their behalf when, in fact, some consumers were only “coached” on how to negotiate settlements on their own;
- misleading consumers by charging them the full fee when creditors stop collection efforts without the defendants taking any action despite advertising that the fee is only charged if settlement is negotiated by the settlement provider and payments begin under the terms of a settlement; and
- failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose consumers’ rights to refunds from their deposit accounts if they leave the settlement program.
The CFPB is seeking monetary relief, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief against the defendants.
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.
On September 8, the FTC announced that, under separate stipulated final orders (here and here), two owners of a debt relief operation are permanently banned from the debt relief business for violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The FTC’s 2015 complaint alleged that the companies and the owners (collectively, defendants) convinced consumers with payday loan debts to enroll in their “Financial Hardship Program” (Program) by falsely promising to renegotiate the terms of their loans. Consumers were advised to stop making payments to their lenders and pay money to the Program instead, including enrollment and bi-weekly fees. According to the FTC, the defendants “failed to provide the consumers with the promised debt relief, and consumers ended up in deeper financial trouble, having paid hundreds of dollars for no reduction or settlement of their loans.” The stipulated final orders each impose monetary judgments of more than $23.7 million. The judgments will be partially suspended when the individually named owners pay $149,537 and approximately $8,037, respectively. In addition to barring the defendants from the debt relief operation business, the orders further prohibit them from “making representations about financial and other products and services, and from making unsubstantiated claims about any products or services,” and “from profiting from consumers’ personal information and failing to dispose of it properly.”
On March 30, the CFPB filed a consent order against a San Diego-based student debt relief operation for alleged violations of the CFPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and Regulation P. According to the CFPB, the company – marketing its services through outbound and inbound telemarketing and direct mail and falsely claiming to be affiliated with the Department of Education – charged consumers upfront fees up to $495 to enroll in federal student loan repayment programs, as well as a monthly maintenance fee of $39. The CFPB’s consent order requires the company to (i) cease all student debt relief operations; (ii) rescind all contracts entered into up to and including the date of the consent order and stop assessing fees pursuant such contracts; (iii) ensure that consumers enrolled in income-driven repayment or forgiveness plans with the Department of Education receive the paperwork necessary for annual recertification or renewal deadlines; and (iv) pay a civil money penalty of $50,000.
In light of the action, the CFPB reminded consumers of its December 2014 advisory notifying them to be mindful of companies “falsely claiming special expertise or a relationship with the Department of Education.”
Last week, a California federal district court entered a final judgment against a California-based debt settlement company to resolve the CFPB’s charges that the company violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the CFPA. Specifically, the CFPB alleged that the company disguised illegal advance fees for its debt relief services as fees for bankruptcy-related services and misrepresented its services by making consumers believe that they would become debt free when, in fact, “few, if any” consumers became debt free using the company’s services. The court’s final judgment orders the company, which has declared bankruptcy, to pay (i) more than $132 million in restitution to borrowers enrolled in the company’s program between October 27, 2010 and June 18, 2015; and (ii) a $40 million civil money penalty. The order comes after an October 2015 order against the company’s owner, which ordered him to pay $500,000 in consumer redress and permanently banned him from the debt relief industry.
On February 24, the FTC announced that it charged a debt relief operation and two individuals with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). According to the FTC, the named defendants misrepresented their ability to help financially distressed homeowners and student loan borrowers modify their loans. Additionally, one of the companies involved in the debt relief operation and its owner also were charged with violations of the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) rule/ Regulation O for (i) failing to provide homeowners with disclosures during the purported loan restructure process; (ii) charging upfront fees to consumers for mortgage assistance relief services; (iii) advising homeowners to cease communication with lenders or servicers; and (iv) misrepresenting material aspects of their mortgage assistance relief services. The FTC’s February 16 complaint seeks to permanently enjoin the named defendants from future violations of the FTC Act, the TSR, and the MARS Rule/Regulation O as well as obtain redress for injured consumers through rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, and the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.
On January 28, the CFPB released its monthly complaint report focusing on a number of financial services markets, including debt settlement, check cashing, tax refund anticipation checks, money order providers, and credit repair. The report states that, since July 19, 2014, the CFPB has handled approximately 2,700 complaints relating to these other types of financial services. According to the report, debt settlement and credit repair complaints are among the more common complaints, and over a quarter of these complaints mention student loans, with borrowers selecting fraud or scam as their primary issue. Additional findings highlighted in the snapshot include: (i) consumers being charged excessive fees, including upfront fees that are generally prohibited by law, for debt settlement and credit repair services; (ii) consumers encountering problems redeeming money orders, taking issue with the amount of time it took to resolve errors with customer service representatives; and (iii) consumers complaining they were victims of fraud when using money orders and travelers checks. The CFPB identified New York State and the New York metro area as its geographic spotlight in this issue, noting that, as of January 1, 2016, the CFPB has received 50,400 complaints from New York State consumers alone. Similar to past reports, mortgages remain the most complained-about product.
On September 15, the CFPB announced a preliminary injunction obtained against World Law Group and its senior leaders for allegedly running a debt-relief scheme that charged consumers costly and illegal upfront fees. According to the CFPB, “the debt-relief scheme falsely promised consumers a team of attorneys to help negotiate debt settlements with creditors, failed to provide legal representation, and rarely settled consumers’ debts.” Specifically, the complaint alleges that defendants charged consumers upfront fees before providing debt-relief services in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The complaint also alleges that World Law Group falsely promised legal representation to consumers who did not receive the promised legal representation. The underlying lawsuit remains pending following the granting of the preliminary injunction.
On December 4, the CFPB fined a New Jersey-based debt-settlement service provider $69,075 in civil monetary penalties for alleged violations of the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). The CFPB alleged that the firm charged upfront fees to consumers which are prohibited for debt-settlement services. Further, the CFPB charged that the firm failed to provide debt-settlement services to consumers which harmed their credit history. In addition to the civil money penalty, the consent order requires the firm submit a compliance plan that includes (i) written policies and procedures designed to prevent violations of the TSR; (ii) training programs addressing the TSR and Federal consumer financial laws; (iii) written compliance monitoring processes; (iv) consumer complaint monitoring process; and (v) specific deadlines for when the compliance plan will be completed.