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  • FTC reaches settlements with student debt relief operators

    Consumer Finance

    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.

    Consumer Finance Student Lending Debt Relief FTC FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule

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  • Department of Commerce requests comments on new federal approach to consumer privacy rules

    Federal Issues

    On September 26, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) published a notice and request for comments on behalf of the Department of Commerce seeking input from stakeholders on ways to address consumer privacy concerns while protecting prosperity and innovation. The NTIA’s notice seeks comments on a proposed set of “user-centric privacy outcomes” to be addressed by future federal action on consumer privacy policy, along with a set of high-level goals that would establish the outlines for the direction these protections should take. Among other things, the NTIA also seeks feedback on ways to (i) increase harmonization across the regulatory landscape; (ii) ensure a balance between legal clarity, flexibility for innovation, and consumer privacy; (iii) prevent a fragmented regulatory approach by ensuring that any law is applied equally to all businesses not covered by sectoral laws; (iv) develop a regulatory framework “consistent with the international norms and frameworks”; and (v) provide the FTC with the necessary tools and resources to effectively enforce such rules.

    The NTIA’s proposal follows the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was implemented this past summer, and the recently enacted and amended California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). Comments on the notice must be received by October 26.

    Federal Issues Department of Commerce Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security GDPR FTC

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  • FTC announces settlements with website operators over the sale of fake documents allegedly used for fraud and identity theft

    Consumer Finance

    On September 18, the FTC announced three proposed settlements with the operators of websites who allegedly violated the FTC Act’s prohibition against unfair practices by selling fake financial documents used to facilitate identity theft and other frauds, including loan and tax fraud. As previously covered in InfoBytes, identity theft was the second largest category of consumer complaints reported in 2017 according to the FTC. The FTC brought charges against the first defendant, alleging the defendant engaged in the sale of fake pay stubs, bank statements, and profit-and-loss statements, as well as providing a product that allowed customers to edit existing (and authentic) bank statements. The second defendant’s charges include the alleged sale of fake pay stubs, auto insurance cards, and utility and cable bills, while the allegations against the third defendant also include the sale of fake tax forms, bank statements, and verifications of employment. While the defendants’ websites claimed that the fake documents were sold for “‘novelty’ and ‘entertainment’ purposes,” the FTC asserts that the defendants “failed to clearly and prominently mark such documents as being for such purposes and did not state on the documents themselves that they were fake.”

    Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreements (see here, here, and here), monetary judgments are imposed against the defendants, who also are permanently prohibited from advertising, marketing, or selling similar fake documents.

    Consumer Finance FTC Identity Theft Fraud Consumer Complaints Settlement FTC Act

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  • FTC and NYAG settle with debt collectors who falsely threatened consumers

    Federal Issues

    On September 21, the FTC announced settlements with multiple New York debt collection operations and their principals (defendants) for unlawful debt collection practices. The settlements are a result of 2015 joint lawsuits by the FTC and the New York Attorney General, alleging the defendants unlawfully used threats and abusive language, including false threats that consumers would be arrested, to collect more than $45 million in supposed debts (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The settlement orders ban the defendants from the business of debt collection and prohibit the defendants from (i) misrepresenting information related to financial products and services; (ii) disclosing, using, or benefitting from the consumer information obtained through the course of the debt collection activities; and (iii) failing to disclose of such personal information properly. The two orders (located here and here) impose a $22.5 million judgment against one set of defendants, and a judgment of $4.4 million against other defendants. The judgments are suspended as to some of the defendants due to inability to pay.

    Federal Issues FTC Debt Collection Enforcement Settlement State Attorney General State Issues

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  • Free security freezes available nationwide

    Federal Issues

    On September 21, the FTC announced the nationwide availability of free security freezes and one-year fraud alerts, which were authorized under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA). Specifically, Section 301 of EGRRCPA prohibits a national credit reporting agency from charging a fee to place, remove, or temporarily lift a security freeze. The law also allows parents to obtain a free credit freeze for any of their children who are under 16, and guardians, conservators, and those with a valid power of attorney can obtain a free freeze for the person for whom they have legal authority to act. Additionally, Section 301 extends the duration of the free fraud alert from 90 days to one year. Consumers are required to contact all three nationwide credit reporting agencies to place the security freeze, but only are required to contact one of the three for the fraud alert, as each bureau is obligated to notify the others of a fraud alert.

    Federal Issues FTC Security Freeze Fraud Credit Reporting Agency EGRRCPA S. 2155 Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • FTC settles with debt collection operators for alleged fraudulent collections

    Federal Issues

    On September 7, the FTC announced a series of settlements with the operators of a Georgia-based debt collection business for allegedly violating the FTC Act by making false, or misleading claims and threats during debt collection. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in November 2017, the FTC filed a complaint alleging that the defendants threatened legal action, garnishment, and imprisonment if purported debts were not paid, and in other instances, attempted to collect debts after consumers provided proof that the debt was paid off. Each settlement order (available here, here, and here) imposes a $3.4 million penalty against the defendants, which, after surrendering certain assets, will be partially suspended due to the inability to pay. The settlement orders ban the defendants from the business of debt collection, and prohibit the defendants from (i) misrepresenting information related to financial products and services, and (ii) disclosing, using, or benefitting from the consumer information obtained through the course of the debt collection activities.

    Federal Issues FTC Consumer Finance Debt Collection Enforcement FTC Act

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  • 29 bipartisan state Attorneys General respond to FTC's consumer protection hearing announcement

    Federal Issues

    On August 20, a bipartisan coalition of 29 state Attorneys General, led by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, submitted a comment letter to the FTC regarding the agency’s June announcement of public hearings on “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century.” The letter requests that the state Attorneys General be included in the discussions regarding consumer protection during the agency’s hearing process, which intends to address “whether broad-based changes in the economy, evolving business practices, new technologies, or international developments might require adjustments to competition and consumer protection enforcement law, enforcement priorities, and policy.” The letter emphasizes the states’ “long history of protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive practices” under each state’s consumer protection authority and offers specific comment on three areas of the FTC request: (i) privacy and big data; (ii) communication and media technology; and (iii) algorithmic decision tools and other artificial intelligence. Specifically, the Attorneys General note consumers’ concerns over personal information and data security, stating the “[i]ndustry must place privacy and security front and center in its research and development of products and services.” The letter concludes with a request that the agency take into account the “important role” the Attorneys General have in consumer protection and include their offices in the hearing process.

    Federal Issues State Issues State Attorney General FTC Consumer Protection

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  • FTC seeks comments on possible adjustments to privacy and data security rulemaking authority

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On August 6, the FTC published a request for comments in the Federal Register—in advance of a series of 15 to 20 public hearings scheduled to start this September—on whether the agency should make adjustments to competition and consumer protection law, enforcement priorities, and policy in light of evolving technologies and market developments. The hearings will cover a range of consumer-related issues, including the agency’s “remedial authority to deter unfair and deceptive conduct in privacy and data security matters” and the “interpretation and harmonization of state and federal statutes and regulations that prohibit [such conduct].” According to testimony presented by FTC Chairman Joseph Simons at a July 18 House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection hearing, there exists a need for expanded rulemaking and civil penalty authority. Specifically, Simons discussed Section 5 of the FTC Act, which he stated is too limited to address all of the privacy and security concerns in the marketplace and does not provide for civil penalties. Comments on the hearing topics must be received by August 20.

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Federal Register FTC Act

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  • FTC announces charges against auto dealerships for falsifying consumer information on auto financing documents

    Lending

    On August 1, the FTC announced charges against a group of four auto dealers (defendants) with locations in Arizona and New Mexico near the Navajo Nation’s border alleging, among other things, that the defendants advertised misleading discounts and incentives through their vehicle advertisements, and falsely inflated consumers’ income and down payment information on certain financing applications. The charges brought against the defendants allege violations of the FTC Act, the Truth in Lending Act, and the Consumer Leasing Act. According to the complaint, by allegedly falsifying the customers’ income and down payments, the defendants “inaccurately made consumers appear more creditworthy” on the false financing applications. Moreover, the FTC claims the defendants often prevented consumers from reviewing the falsified information provide in the financing applications prior to signing. As a result, credit was extended to consumers—many of whom are members of the Navajo Nation—who then subsequently “defaulted at a higher rate than properly qualified buyers.” Furthermore, the complaint asserts that the defendants’ deceptive advertising practices concealed the true nature and terms of the financing or leasing offers, and were in violation of federal law for failing to disclose the required terms. The complaint seeks, among other remedies, a permanent injunction to prevent future violations, restitution, and disgorgement.

    Lending Consumer Finance FTC Auto Finance FTC Act TILA Consumer Leasing Act

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  • FTC halts fraudulent telemarketing scheme in Arizona

    Consumer Finance

    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.

    Consumer Finance FTC Federal Issues Courts Telemarketing Sales Rule

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