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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.”
On November 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland has granted a temporary restraining order against the operators of an international real estate investment development, which the FTC claims is the “largest overseas real estate investment scam [it] has ever targeted.” According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC contends that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased the lots outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, and paid monthly homeowners association fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than to invest in the development. In addition, the FTC asserts that, while the defendants falsely promised consumers that their lots would include luxury amenities, be completed soon, and result in property values that would “rapidly appreciate,” “consumers either have lost, or will lose, some or all of their investments.” The FTC’s press release also announces the filing of charges against a Belizean bank for allegedly assisting and facilitating the investment scam, as well as contempt motions against several of the individual defendants. The FTC is seeking information from affected consumers.
On October 16, the FTC announced that it reached a settlement with a Texas-based company over allegations that it violated the FCRA by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of tenant-screening information furnished to landlords and property managers. The FTC alleges that the company compiled screening reports through an automated system using broad criteria that incorrectly matched applicants to criminal records. Additionally, the company allegedly lacked policies or procedures to assess the accuracy of those results, which led to some renters being turned down for housing. The settlement requires the company to pay $3 million—the largest civil penalty ever assessed by the FTC against a background screening company. In addition, the company must maintain reasonable procedures to ensure consumer reports contain the maximum possible accuracy of information and is subject to compliance, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements.
On October 16, the FTC announced the launch of a new interactive online format that will release aggregated consumer complaint data on a quarterly basis. The interactive dashboards explore aggregated statistics about fraud, identity theft, and other consumer protection problems, and also provide a state-by-state breakdown of issues. As part of the new initiative, the FTC’s Consumer Protection Data Spotlight focuses on the rise in consumer complaints concerning gift card scams, which are now the most reported method of payment for imposter scams. According to the FTC, fraud report payments using gift and reload cards experienced a 270 percent increase (from 7 percent up to 26 percent), which can be attributed to quick access to cash, largely irreversible transactions, and anonymity. As of September 2018, the FTC reports that reported losses involving the use of gift and reload cards has already reached $53 million.
CFPB announces settlement with companies that allegedly delayed transfer of consumer payments to debt buyers
On October 4, the CFPB announced a settlement with a group of Minnesota-based companies that allegedly violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act when consumers made payments on debts that the companies had already sold to third parties, and the companies improperly delayed the forwarding of some of those payments to debt buyers. According to the consent order, the companies—whose practices include the purchasing, servicing, collection, and furnishing consumer-report information on consumer loans—partnered with third-party banks to sell merchandise on closed-end or open-end revolving credit. Within a few days, banks originated the loans and sold the receivables to the companies. The companies subsequently serviced the debts and sold the receivables to a third party. For defaulted accounts, the companies charged off the accounts and sold them to third-party debt buyers. According to the Bureau, the companies allegedly failed to notify consumers when their accounts were sold, failed to inform them who now owned the debt, and continued to accept direct pays from consumers. The Bureau contends that between 2013 and 2016, the companies delayed forwarding direct pays for more than 31 days in 18,000 instances, and in 3,500 of those instances, the companies did not forward the payments for more than a year. Moreover, the Bureau asserts that these delays led to misleading collection efforts, including collection activity on accounts consumers had completely paid off. The order requires the companies to pay a civil money penalty of $200,000, and improve their policies and procedures to prevent further violations.
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.
FTC announces settlements with website operators over the sale of fake documents allegedly used for fraud and identity theft
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.
On September 19, the CFPB released a new Data Point report from the Office of Research titled, “The Geography of Credit Invisibility,” which examines geographic patterns in the prevalence of “credit invisible” consumers, a term for those who do not have a credit record maintained by a national credit reporting agency, or have a credit record that is deemed to have too little or too old of information to be treated as “scorable” by widely used credit scoring models. The report studies whether the geographic location of a consumer’s residence is correlated with the likelihood of remaining credit invisible and aims to “aid policymakers and advance the conversation around potential causes and solutions.” Among other things, the report found:
- credit invisibility may be higher for geographic tracts near universities due to their concentration of adults under 25 who may not have established a credit record yet;
- rural areas have the most credit invisibility per capita;
- consumers are less likely to use a credit card as an entry product to establishing a credit record in rural and low-to-moderate income areas;
- credit invisibility was more prevalent in areas with less internet access as many products are originated through online services; and
- there is little relationship between distance to the nearest bank branch and the occurrence of credit invisibility.
On September 11, the Department of Justice announced a settlement with a Nebraska apartment complex owner resolving allegations that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by unlawfully charging lease termination fees for 65 servicemembers. The complaint, which was filed on the same day as the settlement, alleges that between January 2012 and June 2017, the apartment complex owner imposed early lease termination fees, ranging from $78 to almost $1,500, on servicemembers who sought termination due to qualifying military orders under the SCRA. The settlement requires the apartment complex owner, among other things, to (i) pay more than $76,000 in damages to the 65 identified servicemembers; (ii) pay a $20,000 civil money penalty, and (iii) develop policies and procedures related to SCRA lease terminations.
On August 22, the CFPB released the latest quarterly consumer credit trends report, which focuses on the reporting of telecommunications-debt collections to nationwide consumer reporting agencies based on a sample of approximately 5 million credit records. The report notes that during the past five years approximately 22 percent of credit records contained at least one telecommunications-related (telecom-related) item, with nearly 95 percent of these telecom-related items being reported by collection agencies. The report highlights that 37 percent of consumers who reported having been contacted about a debt in collection in the prior year were contacted about a telecommunications debt, and more than one fifth of all debt collection revenue is telecom-related debt. The report also observed that a single telecom collection may be associated with multiple tradelines in a credit record over time, suggesting that telecom collections are often reassigned. Notably, however, the report suggests that while the presence of a telecom-related collection item on a credit record is most commonly associated with consumers with lower credit scores, the change in score before and after the collection item appears on the credit record is often small, and as a result, a single telecom-related collection is unlikely to affect a credit decision for those consumers.
- 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