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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.
On December 4, the Illinois Attorney General announced a $17.25 million settlement with a national bank resolving allegations of misconduct in the marketing and sale of residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) dating back to before the 2008 mortgage crisis. According to the announcement, the bank’s $17.25 million settlement will be distributed to the Teachers Retirement System of the State of Illinois, the State Universities Retirement System of Illinois, and the Illinois State Board of Investment. Additional details on the settlement have not been made available by the state.
Coalition of state Attorneys General announce settlement to resolve allegations concerning debt buyers’ collection and litigation practices
On December 4, the North Carolina Attorney General, along with 41 other state Attorneys General and the District of Columbia, announced a $6 million settlement with a national group of debt buyers to resolve allegations concerning the debt buyers’ collection and litigation practices. According to the press release, the debt buyers allegedly engaged in robo-signing practices by signing and filing large quantities of affidavits in state courts without first verifying the provided information. Under the terms of the settlement, the debt buyers have agreed to (i) completely eliminate or reduce the judgment balances for affected consumers in the participating states; (ii) reform their business practices by carefully verifying the information in affidavits for the courts and present accurate documents in court proceedings; (iii) review original account documents and provide substantiating documentation to consumers free of charge when a consumer disputes a debt; (iv) “maintain proper oversight and training over its employees and the law firms that it uses”; and (v) refrain from reselling debt for two years.
New York Attorney General reaches largest ever COPPA settlement to resolve violations of children’s privacy
On December 4, the New York Attorney General announced the largest Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) settlement in U.S. history—totaling approximately $6 million —to resolve allegations with a subsidiary of a telecommunications company that allegedly conducted billions of auctions for ad space on hundreds of websites it knew were directed to children under the age of 13. According to the Attorney General’s office, the subsidiary collected and disclosed personal data on children through auctions for ad space, allowing advertisers to track and serve targeted ads to children without parental consent. Under COPPA, operators of websites and other online services are prohibited from collecting or sharing the information of children under the age of 13 unless they give notice and have express parental consent. Among other things, the subsidiary also allegedly placed ads on other exchanges that possessed the capability to auction ad space on child-directed websites, but that when it won ad space on COPPA-covered websites, the subsidiary treated the space as it would any other and collected user information to serve targeted ads.
Under the terms of the settlement, the subsidiary must (i) create a comprehensive COPPA compliance program, which requires annual COPPA training for staff, regular compliance monitoring, and the retention of service providers that can comply with COPPA, as well as a third party who will assess the privacy controls; (ii) enable website operators that sell ad inventory to indicate what portion of a website is subject to COPPA; and (iii) destroy the personal data it collected on children.
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.”
Auto lender pays $11.8 million to resolve investigation into add-on product and loan extension program
On November 20, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based auto lender to resolve allegations that the lender violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act by deceptively marketing an auto-loan guaranteed asset protection (GAP) add-on product and misrepresenting the impact on consumers of obtaining a loan extension. Regarding the GAP add-on product, which was intended to cover a “gap” between the consumer’s primary auto insurance payout and the consumer’s outstanding loan balance in the event of a total vehicle loss, the CFPB alleged that the lender failed to disclose to consumers that if their loan-to-value was greater than 125 percent, they would not receive the “true full coverage” advertised with the GAP add-on product. Regarding extensions of auto loans, the CFPB alleged, among other things, that the lender failed to “clearly and prominently” disclose that interest accrued during a loan extension would be paid before principal when the consumer resumed making payments on the extended loan. Under the order, the lender must, among other things, (i) pay $9.29 million in consumer restitution; (ii) clearly and prominently disclose the terms of the GAP add-on product and loan extension; and (iii) pay $2.5 million in a civil money penalty.
On November 19, the Federal Reserve Board, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), DOJ, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and NYDFS announced that a French bank agreed to pay approximately $1.34 billion in total penalties to resolve federal and state investigations into the bank’s allegedly intentional violation of U.S. sanctions laws and other federal and New York state laws from approximately 2003 to 2013.
The bank entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York to settle charges of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Cuba by “structuring, conducting, and concealing U.S. dollar transactions using the U.S. financial system.” The DPA requires the bank to forfeit more than $717 million. The bank also agreed to “accept responsibility for its conduct by stipulating to the accuracy of an extensive Statement of Facts, pay penalties totaling [$1.34 billion] to federal and state prosecutors and regulators, refrain from all future criminal conduct, and implement remedial measures as required by its regulators.” According to the DOJ, the bank “admitted its willful violations of U.S. sanctions laws—and longtime concealment of those violations—which resulted in billions of dollars of illicit funds flowing through the U.S. financial system.” As factors mitigating the penalty, the DPA acknowledges the bank’s efforts to collect and produce “voluminous evidence located in other countries to the full extent permitted under applicable laws and regulations, and its enhancement of its compliance program and sanctions-related internal controls both before and after it became the subject of a U.S. law enforcement investigation.” Among other factors, the bank’s willingness to enter into the terms of the DPA, outweighed its “failure to self-report all of its violations of [U.S.] sanctions laws in a timely manner.”
The bank also entered into agreements to pay almost $163 million to the New York County District Attorney’s Office, nearly $54 million to OFAC, approximately $81 million to the Federal Reserve Board, and $325 million to NYDFS. Among other things, NYDFS noted that branch employees “responsible for originating USD transactions outside of the U.S. had a minimal understanding of U.S. sanctions laws and regulations as they related to Sudan, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, or other U.S. sanctions targets.”
Separate from the resolution of alleged sanctions violations, NYDFS imposed an additional $95 million penalty to resolve findings that the bank’s New York branch allegedly failed to “implement and maintain an effective Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering Law compliance program and transaction monitoring system.”
According to a bank statement issued the same day, the bank acknowledges and regrets the identified shortcomings, and “has already taken a number of significant steps in recent years and dedicated substantial resources to enhance its sanctions and AML compliance programs.”
On November 8, the SEC announced its first enforcement action settlement with a digital currency platform for allegedly operating as an unregistered national securities exchange. According to the cease-and-desist order, the founder of the digital currency exchange, who has since sold the exchange to foreign buyers, allegedly violated federal securities laws by providing an online platform for secondary market trading of digital assets, including ERC20 tokens, without registering with the Commission or operating pursuant to a registration exemption. ERC20 tokens are digital assets issued and distributed on the Ethereum Blockchain using the ERC20 protocol, which, according to the SEC, is the standard coding protocol currently used by a significant majority of issuers in initial coin offerings. The order emphasizes that 92 percent of the trades on the exchange took place after the SEC released its Report of Investigation Pursuant To Section 21(a) Of The Securities Exchange Act of 1934: The DAO (the DAO Report) in July 2017, advising that non-exempt digital currency exchanges must register with the Commission. Without admitting or denying the findings, the founder agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement plus interest and a $75,000 penalty.
On November 7, the SEC announced a settlement with a financial services firm to resolve allegations that the firm mishandled the pre-release of American Depositary Receipts (ADRs)—U.S. securities that represent shares in foreign companies. The SEC noted in its press release that ADRs can be pre-released without the deposit of foreign shares only if: (i) the brokers receiving the ADRs have an agreement with a depository bank; and (ii) the broker or the broker's customer owns the number of foreign shares that corresponds to the number of shares the ADR represents. The SEC alleged that the firm improperly provided thousands of ADRs where neither the broker nor its customers possessed the required shares. According to the SEC’s order, the firm’s alleged practice of allowing pre-released ADRs, that were in many instances not backed by ordinary shares, violated the Securities Act of 1933. The firm has neither admitted nor denied the SEC’s allegations, but has agreed to pay more than $25.1 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest, along with a $13.5 million penalty. The SEC’s order further acknowledges the firm’s cooperation in the investigation.
- 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