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  • SEC Chairman Discusses Corporate Governance, States Enhanced Transparency Can Help Prevent Fraud, and Reveals First-Ever National Database of Barred Brokers and Advisors

    Securities

    On November 8, the Chairman of the SEC, Jay Clayton, spoke before the Practising Law Institute’s annual institute on securities regulation to discuss the role of corporate governance and how enhanced transparency can help prevent fraud. Clayton stated that the SEC would be streamlining and shortening its near-term agenda in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, and that the SEC also would apply this approach to its longer-term strategic plans as well.

    Clayton also commented on approaches to mitigate “misconduct” before an enforcement action would be required. Specifically, Clayton noted, “[l]ooking back at enforcement actions, a common theme emerges – where opacity exists, bad behavior tends to follow.” Clayton highlighted the following areas in which opacity may exist: (i) disclosures involving “hidden or inappropriate fees”; (ii) poor recordkeeping and lack of reliable information related to penny stocks; (iii) transaction processing related to unregistered securities; (iv) online platforms that manage initial coin offerings (ICOs); and (v) investor education.

    Concerning ICOs, Clayton commented that because “[t]here is a distinct lack of information about many online platforms that list and trade virtual coins or tokens offered and sold in . . . ICOs . . ., [t]rading of tokens on these platforms is susceptible to price manipulation and other fraudulent trading practices.” The SEC proposed enhanced clarity when listing tokens on these types of platforms, assigning value to tokens, and examining measures designed to protect investors and market integrity.

    Clayton further revealed that the SEC was creating a website that would publish, among other things, a searchable database of those individuals who have been barred or suspended as a result of federal securities law violations.  Clayton noted that this database would be “intended to make the prior actions of repeat offenders and fraudsters more visible to investors” and could be “particularly valuable when bad actors have shifted from the registered space for investment advisers and broker-dealers to the unregistered space.”

    Securities Initial Coin Offerings SEC Fraud

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  • FinCEN Warns of Fraudulent Disaster Relief Schemes

    Financial Crimes

    On October 31, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an advisory to financial institutions to warn of the potential for fraudulent activity related to recent disaster relief efforts. The advisory cautions financial institutions to pay particularly close attention to benefits fraud, charities fraud, and cyber-related fraud. Accordingly, it lists several red flags to assist in spotting these fraudulent schemes, including, among others:

    • The cashing or depositing of multiple emergency assistance checks by the same individual;
    • The payee organization having a name similar to, but not identical to, a well-known or reputable charity; or
    • The use of money transfer services to receive donations.

    The advisory also reminds financial institutions to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) if there is reason to believe any fraudulent activity may be taking place.

    Find more InfoBytes disaster relief coverage here.

    Financial Crimes Disaster Relief FinCEN Fraud SARs

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  • Alabama AG Announces Permanent Injunction Against Credit Repair Company

    State Issues

    On October 30, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced that a state court granted a permanent injunction against a credit repair company and its owner/operators for allegedly engaging in deceptive and illegal credit repair practices. According to the Office of the Attorney General, defendants allegedly (i) used deceptive advertising that guaranteed improved credit scores and made various false promises; (ii) charged consumers before services were completed or charged rates different from those that were advertised; (iii) failed to allow consumers to cancel the service within three days as required by federal law governing credit repair businesses; and (iv) indiscriminately disputed negative credit report items--a practice known as “jamming”—to create the illusion of improved credit and a temporary rise in credit score. The order permanently closes the company, bans the defendants from engaging in any credit repair or consumer finance activity, and prohibits defendants from owning or managing any business in Alabama or involving Alabama consumers.

    State Issues State AG Consumer Finance Credit Scores Fraud

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  • FTC Settles Suit Against Credit Score Site Schemers

    Courts

    On October 26, the FTC agreed to a settlement of $760,000 with two affiliate marketers of a credit score business who allegedly committed deceptive acts to lure consumers into signing up for their monthly credit monitoring service for $30.00.

    The settlement partly resolves a suit the FTC filed in January against the credit score company, the owner, and the company’s affiliate marketers. The FTC alleged that the defendants posted fake rental ads on Craigslist and required persons responding to the ads to obtain a purportedly “free” credit report from the company’s websites before viewing the property. The defendants, however, used the credit or debit card information consumers entered to obtain the credit report and enrolled consumers for a negative option credit monitoring service with a $30.00 monthly fee.

    The order suspended the balance of the total $6.8 million judgment on the condition that the affiliate marketers pay the FTC the settled amounts. The claims against the company and the owner are ongoing.

    Courts Consumer Finance FTC Fraud Settlement Litigation

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  • Former Guatemalan Soccer Executive and Judge Sentenced in Investigation

    Financial Crimes

    On October 25, Judge Chen of the U.S. District Court for the E.D.N.Y. sentenced the former general secretary of Guatemala’s soccer federation and a former judge to eight months in prison and ordered restitution of $415,000 and forfeiture of $175,000. His sentence comes after a guilty plea to wire fraud and conspiracy in June 2017. He was arrested in 2015 as part of the U.S. government’s investigation into corruption in a soccer association. His sentencing marks the first individual sentenced among a group of more than 40 individuals who have been indicted or pleaded guilty since 2015.

    This sentencing comes as part of the U.S. government’s ongoing investigation into corruption in international soccer which has been ongoing. Previous FCPA Scorecard coverage of the investigation can be found here.

    Financial Crimes Anti-Corruption Fraud

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  • California Bans Use of Arbitration Clauses in Fraudulently Created Financial Contracts

    State Issues

    On October 4, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law amendments to the state’s code of civil procedure that essentially eliminates the use of forced arbitration in cases of fraudulently created accounts. SB 33 prevents state or federally chartered depository institutions from enforcing arbitration agreements in existing consumer contracts to compel California customers to arbitrate disputes regarding other contracts created “fraudulently without the consumer’s consent or by unlawfully using the consumer’s personal identifying information.”

    The law comes at a time when, as previously discussed in InfoBytes, several financial industry groups issued a joint lawsuit challenging the Bureau’s arbitration rule, which prohibits the use of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in certain contracts for consumer financial products and services. The amendments take effect January 1, 2018.

    State Issues State Legislation Arbitration Fraud CFPB

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  • CFTC Files Anti-Fraud Enforcement Action Against New York-Based Corporation Concerning Bitcoin Investments

    Courts

    On September 21, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against a New York-based corporation and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly engaging in fraudulent acts and practices in violation of the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC Regulations by issuing false account statements in connection with Bitcoin investment solicitations. According to the complaint, the “Bitcoin Ponzi scheme” solicited more than $600,000 from approximately 80 customers to be placed in a pooled fund, executed by the defendants’ computer program called “Jigsaw,” which traded the virtual currency. The CFTC alleges that defendants’ strategy was fake and the “purported performance reports” were false in that they created the appearance of positive Bitcoin trading increases, but the gains were “illusory.” The CFTC further asserts that the “payouts of supposed profits to [pool participants] in actuality consisted of other customers’ misappropriated funds.” In addition, the CFTC alleges that defendants orchestrated a “fake computer ‘hack’” to conceal the scheme. The suit seeks, among other things, disgorgement of profits, civil monetary penalties, restitution, and a ban on commodities trading for the defendants.

    Courts Bitcoin Litigation Enforcement Virtual Currency Fraud CFTC

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  • House Financial Services Committee Issues Second Interim Report on Bureau’s Role in Fraudulent Accounts Scandal Investigation

    Federal Issues

    On September 19, the Majority Committee Staff of the House Financial Services Committee (Committee) released a second interim report and supporting documents on the investigation of the role the CFPB played in detecting and remedying a major national bank’s practice of opening unauthorized bank accounts. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the first interim report, issued June 6, accused Director Richard Cordray, among other things, of failing to cooperate with the Committee’s “comprehensive investigation.” The second interim report claims the CFPB and Director Cordray failed to comply with the Committee’s repeated requests for documents related to the investigation into the bank’s practices, never conducted its own independent investigation (but, instead, “relied primarily, if not exclusively,” on a third party report), and withheld a crucial Recommendation Memorandum from the Committee for over a year that disclosed analysis of the legal and factual components of the Bureau’s investigation, as well as an evaluation of whether to enter into a settlement. The Committee’s accusations also include claims that Director Cordray allegedly misled Congress about the agency's investigation into the bank’s illegal sales practices and may have “rushed” a settlement with the bank, which resulted in a $100 million fine when it was potentially liable for a statutory civil monetary penalty exceeding $10 billion. Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said in a press release that “[t]he premature suspension of its investigation means that the CFPB also potentially lost the opportunity to discover recently revealed instances of further consumer harm.”

    Federal Issues CFPB House Financial Services Committee Settlement Enforcement Fraud Investigations

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  • China Bans Commercial Trading of Initial Coin Offerings

    Securities

    On September 4, the People’s Bank of China and several Chinese regulators reportedly jointly announced plans to ban the commercial trading of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. This measure, announced in a statement issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People’s Republic of China, will outlaw all fundraising Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), and declares ICOs and the sale of virtual currency as unauthorized illegal financing behavior, suspected of illegal sale tokens, illegal securities issuance, and illegal fund-raising, including financial fraud, pyramid schemes and other criminal activities. The statement reportedly stresses that virtual currency in China will not be recognized as a legal form of currency and must not be circulated as currency when financing activities. Furthermore, going forward, all cryptocurrency trading platforms are prohibited in China from acting as central counterparties to facilitate the exchange of tokens for virtual currencies. Additionally, one of China’s bitcoin exchanges reportedly published an announcement on its website saying it will close its bitcoin currency trading platform in the country on September 30.

    The SEC recently released an investor bulletin about ICO investment risks and offered fraud prevention guidance. (See previous InfoBytes summary here.) ICO sales are often used to raise capital, and the SEC is monitoring companies who use this method for fraudulent purposes.

    Securities Fintech Initial Coin Offerings International Cryptocurrency Bitcoin Fraud Virtual Currency

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  • FTC Files Complaint Against Operators of Online Discount Clubs and Payment Processors for Allegedly Debiting More Than $40 Million from Consumers Without Their Consent

    Consumer Finance

    On August 16, the FTC issued a press release announcing charges against the operators of a group of marketing entities and payment processors (Defendants) for allegedly violating numerous laws when they enrolled consumers into online discount clubs and debited more than $40 million from consumers’ bank accounts for membership without their authorization. According to the August 15 complaint, several of the Defendants promoted their respective online discount club through websites and telemarking calls to offer services to consumers in need of payday, cash advance, or installment loans. Other Defendants then used “Remotely Created Payment Orders” and “Remotely Created Checks” without the consumers’ authorization to debit their bank accounts for the initial application fee as well as automatically-recurring monthly fees. Notably, during the period when one of the discount clubs was launched, several of the Defendants were facing contempt proceedings for allegedly violating a 2008 stipulated final order with the FTC in another deceptive debiting scam. The Defendants purportedly, among other things, (i) engaged in unfair billing practices; (ii) made false, misleading, and deceptive statements when they represented, “directly or indirectly,” to consumers seeking refunds that they were not entitled to a refund because the entities possessed personal and financial information, which served to confirm that the consumers agreed to “purchase the products or services” or authorize money to be debited from their bank accounts; and (iii) provided “substantial assistance or support” in the way of payment processing services while knowing—or “consciously avoiding knowing”—that the actions being supported were in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The FTC also claims that hundreds of thousands of consumers called to cancel their memberships and request refunds, with thousands more informing their banks about the unauthorized debits. Additionally, more than 99.5 percent of consumers enrolled in a discount clubs apparently never accessed a single coupon—“the only service for which they had supposedly paid.”

    Consumer Finance FTC Telemarketing Sales Rule Fraud UDAAP

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