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  • FTC bans mortgage relief defendant from future debt relief activities

    Federal Issues

    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.

    Federal Issues FTC Debt Relief Mortgages Mortgage Modification Foreclosure

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  • Court approves $12 million settlement between FTC and student debt relief company

    Courts

    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.

    Courts Consumer Finance FTC Federal Issues Enforcement Student Lending Debt Relief

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  • District Court grants preliminary injunction in FTC search engine suit

    Courts

    On June 6, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the FTC’s request for preliminary injunction against an individual defendant and the company he owns and manages (stipulating defendants) for allegedly violating the FTC Act by making robocalls to small business owners claiming they represented a global search engine and could guarantee top search result placements. The stipulating defendants are part of a larger group of Florida-based companies, affiliates, and representatives (defendants) identified in the FTC’s 2018 complaint. According to the FTC’s May 23 press release, the defendants—who allegedly have no relationship with the search engine—threatened to remove companies from the search engine’s results or label them as “permanently closed” unless they accepted the robocall and paid a fee to participate in the defendants’ program. The complaint also claimed that the defendants—who lost the ability to accept payments by credit card after their merchant account was closed due to high chargeback rates—allegedly “took money, usually $100, from at least 250 of their prior or existing customers’ checking accounts without those customers’ advance knowledge, consent, or authorization, and with no apparent reason or justification.”

    In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that there exists “good cause” to believe the FTC’s allegations against the stipulating defendants, and that the FTC is “likely to prevail on the merits of this action.” The injunction, among other things, blocks the stipulating defendants from continuing with their business, freezes their assets and records, and orders the appointment of a receiver to take control over those assets. A temporary restraining order was also issued against all defendants on May 8.

    Courts FTC Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Act

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  • 11th Circuit vacates FTC data security cease and desist order issued against medical testing laboratory

    Courts

    On June 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated an FTC cease and desist order (Order) that directed a Georgia-based medical testing laboratory to overhaul its data security program, ruling that the Order was unenforceable because it lacked specifics on how the overhaul should be accomplished. In 2013, the FTC claimed that the laboratory’s violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act constituted an “unfair act or practice” by allegedly failing to implement and provide reasonable and appropriate data security for patient information. The now defunct laboratory argued, among other things, that the FTC did not have the authority under Section 5 to regulate how it handled its data security measures. But the three-judge panel chose not to rule on the broader question about the scope of the FTC’s Section 5 data security authority, choosing to focus its decision on the Order. As previously covered in InfoBytes, in 2016 the FTC reversed an Administrative Law Judge’s Initial Decision to dismiss the 2013 FTC complaint, ordering the laboratory to, among other things, employ reasonable security practices that complied with FTC standards.

    After the Order was issued, the laboratory asked the 11th Circuit to decide whether the FTC’s Order was “unenforceable because it does not direct it to cease committing an unfair ‘act or practice’ within the meaning of Section 5(a).” The 11th Circuit agreed to stay enforcement of the Order and ultimately permanently vacated it. “In the case at hand, the cease and desist order contains no prohibitions,” the panel wrote. “It does not instruct [the laboratory] to stop committing a specific act or practice. Rather, it commands [the laboratory] to overhaul and replace its data security program to meet an indeterminable standard of reasonableness. This command is unenforceable.” The court concluded that “[t]his is a scheme that Congress could not have envisioned.”

    Courts FTC Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Eleventh Circuit Appellate FTC Act

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  • FTC files complaint against two operations allegedly responsible for making billions of illegal robocalls

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    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.

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Robocalls FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act

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  • FTC reports on certain 2017 enforcement activities to the CFPB

    Federal Issues

    On May 17, in response to a request from the CFPB, the FTC transmitted a letter summarizing its 2017 enforcement activities related to Regulation Z (TILA), Regulation M (Consumer Leasing Act), and Regulation E (Electronic Fund Transfer Act) for the CFPB’s use in preparing its 2017 Annual Report to Congress. The FTC highlighted numerous activities related to the enforcement of the pertinent regulations, including:

    • Payday Lending. The FTC acknowledged the continued litigation against two Kansas-based operations and their owner for allegedly selling lists of counterfeit payday loan debt portfolios to debt collectors in violation of the FTC Act, previously covered by InfoBytes here.
    • Military Protection. The FTC identified the July 2017 military consumer financial workshop and the launch of the new Military Task Force (previously covered by InfoBytes here and here) among the activities the agency engaged in related to protecting the finances of current and former members of the military. The FTC also noted continued participation in the interagency group working with the Department of Defense on amendments to its rule implementing the Military Lending Act.
    • “Negative Option.” For actions under the Regulation E/EFTA, the FTC highlighted numerous “negative option” enforcement actions, in which the consumer agrees to receive goods or services from a company for a free trial option, but if the consumer does not cancel before the trial period ends, the consumer will incur recurring charges for continued goods or services. Among the actions highlighted is a case in which the FTC imposed a $179 million judgment (suspended upon the payment of $6.4 million) settling allegations that the online marketers’ offers of “free” and “risk free” monthly programs for certain weight loss and other products were deceptive.
    • Auto Loans. The letter highlighted, among others, the FTC action against a Southern California-based group of auto dealerships that allegedly violated a prior consent order with the FTC by misrepresenting the cost to finance or lease a vehicle, previously covered by InfoBytes here.

    Federal Issues FTC Act Payday Lending FTC Auto Finance Enforcement Military Lending Act Department of Defense CFPB TILA Consumer Leasing Act EFTA Congress

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  • District Court holds that FTC investigation and initiation of enforcement proceedings do not qualify as final agency actions subject to judicial review

    Courts

    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.

    Courts FTC Enforcement FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule Administrative Procedures Act

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  • FTC settles with two student loan debt relief companies

    Federal Issues

    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.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance FTC Debt Relief Enforcement Student Lending

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  • District of Columbia mayor passes bill to make code consistent with FTC, federal court interpretations of unfair or deceptive trade practices

    State Issues

    On May 21, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed B22-0185/D.C. Act 22-367 to, among other things, update portions of the District of Columbia’s Official Code concerning the term “unfair or deceptive trade practice” to make it consistent with interpretations made by the FTC and federal courts. Language under the Consumer Protection Clarification and Enhancement Amendment Act of 2018, has been amended to read as follows: “It shall be a violation of this chapter for any person to engage in an unfair or deceptive trade practice, whether or not any consumer is in fact misled, deceived, or damaged thereby.” The amendments also increase the civil penalty for first violations of the act to not more than $5,000 per violation, and to not more than $10,000 for repeat violations. The act will take effect following a 30-day congressional review period.

    State Issues State Legislation Consumer Protection FTC

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  • D.C. Circuit rejects challenge to FTC’s 2016 staff letter on soundboard technology

    Courts

    On April 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed a challenge to a November 2016 FTC staff letter, which announced the FTC would treat calls using soundboard technology as robocalls. According to the D.C. Circuit opinion, the FTC’s 2016 staff letter rescinded a 2009 staff letter, which reached the conclusion that soundboard technology was not subject to robocall regulation. The Soundboard Association filed suit, seeking to enjoin the rescission of the 2009 letter, arguing that the 2016 staff letter violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by issuing a legislative rule without notice and comment and that it unconstitutionally restricted speech in violation of the First Amendment. The lower court granted summary judgment for the FTC holding that the 2016 letter did not violate the First Amendment and that the letter was an interpretive rule and therefore not subject to the notice and comment requirements of the APA. Upon appeal, the D.C. Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and dismissed the action in its entirety, holding that the 2016 letter was not a “final agency action” and therefore, the plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action under the APA.

    Courts D.C. Circuit Appellate FTC Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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