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  • District Court sanctions bankruptcy law firm for allegedly harming consumers and auto lenders

    Consumer Finance

    On February 12, following a four-day trial, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia entered a memorandum opinion to sanction and enjoin a national consumer bankruptcy law firm and its local partner attorneys (defendants) for “systematically engag[ing] in the unauthorized practice of law, provid[ing] inadequate representation to consumer debtor clients, and promot[ing] and participat[ing] in a scheme to convert auto lenders’ collateral and then misrepresent[ing] the nature of that scheme.” According to a DOJ press release, the combined order was entered in two actions consolidated for trial brought by the DOJ’s U.S. Trustee Program. The actions concern a Chicago-based law firm that offered legal services via its website to financially distressed consumers and allegedly had “non-attorney ‘client consultants’” engage in the unauthorized practice of law and employ “high-pressure sales tactics” when encouraging consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. Among other things, the defendants allegedly (i) refused to refund bankruptcy-related legal fees to clients for whom the firm failed to file bankruptcy cases; (ii) failed to have in place oversight and supervision procedures to prevent non-attorney salespeople from practicing law; and (iii) partnered with an Indiana-based towing company to implement a scheme that would allow clients to have their bankruptcy-related legal fees paid if they transferred vehicles “fully encumbered by auto lenders’ liens” to the towing company without lienholder consent. Under the “New Car Custody Program,” the towing company allegedly claimed rights to the vehicles, sold the vehicles at auction, paid the client’s bankruptcy fees to the defendants, and pocketed the proceeds. According to the release, this program “harmed auto lenders by converting collateral in which they had valid security interests,” and exposed clients to “undue risk by causing them to possibly violate the terms of their contracts with their auto lenders as well as state laws.”

    Under the terms of the order, the court sanctioned the defendants $250,000, imposed additional sanctions totaling $60,000 against the firm’s managing partner and affiliated partner attorneys, ordered the defendants to disgorge all funds “collected from the consumer debtors in both bankruptcy cases,” and revoked the defendants’ privileges to practice in the Western District of Virginia for various specified periods of time. The court also sanctioned the towing company and “ordered the turnover of all funds it received in connection” with the program. The towing company did not respond to the filed complaints.

    Consumer Finance DOJ Bankruptcy Auto Finance State Issues Courts

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  • FTC seeks permanent injunction to stop alleged student loan debt relief scam

    Consumer Finance

    On February 7, the FTC announced it was charging a student loan debt relief operation with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices when marketing and selling their debt relief services. According to the complaint, defendants contacted consumers through personalized mailers that falsely claimed borrowers had pre-qualified for federal loan assistance programs that would reduce their monthly debt payments to a fixed payment or result in total loan forgiveness. However, the FTC asserted that monthly payments under federal income-driven repayment programs vary from year to year due to fluctuations in income, and that most consumers do not meet the programs’ strict eligibility requirements. Among other things, defendants allegedly charged illegal up-front fees to purportedly enroll consumers in programs, accepted monthly payments that were not applied towards student loans, and collected monthly fees that consumers believed were being applied to their loans but instead were going towards unrelated “financial education” programs. According to the FTC, defendants have collected over $28 million since 2014. In connection with the telemarketing of student loan debt relief services, the FTC also charged defendants with TSR violations for allegedly collecting illegal upfront fees and misrepresenting “material aspects of their debt relief services.” The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction against 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.”

    This action is part of the FTC’s enforcement initiative, Operation Game of Loans, which targets companies that engage in practices that harm student loan borrowers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)

    Consumer Finance FTC Debt Relief Enforcement Student Lending

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  • Virginia attorney general announces $2.7 million settlement with internet lender

    State Issues

    On February 7, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark R. Herring, announced a $2.7 million settlement with a Virginia affiliate of a New York-based internet lender to resolve alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). According to the announcement, between January 2017 and July 2017, the online lender (i) offered installment loans with interest rates as high as 359 percent without qualifying for an exception to the state’s 12 percent interest cap; (ii) falsely claimed it was licensed by Virginia’s Bureau of Financial Institutions; and (iii) charged state residents an unlawful check-processing fee of $15 for payments made by check on closed-end installment loans. The attorney general’s office stated that the settlement requires the lender to disgorge more than $2 million in illegal interest payments received, provide over $300,000 in refunds to affected state consumers, and pay the state $30,000 in civil money penalties, costs, and fees. The settlement also contains a permanent injunction that prohibits the lender from misrepresenting its status as a licensed Virginia lender.

    State Issues State Attorney General Consumer Finance Settlement Anti-Predatory Lending

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  • FTC releases report on military consumer finance

    Consumer Finance

    On February 2, the FTC released a new Staff Perspective (perspective) which highlights takeaways from a July 2017 FTC workshop focused on examining the array of financial issues that may affect military consumers (defined as servicemembers, veterans, and their families). The perspective notes, among other things, that servicemembers may struggle during auto financing transactions because of a lack of time to shop and lack of credit history, which may result in disadvantageous credit terms. Additionally, the perspective highlights that debt collection problems may result in a servicemember not qualifying for a security clearance and that debt collectors may threaten to contact servicemembers’ commanding officers. The perspective also summarized the additional legal rights that may apply to military consumers, such as the Military Lending Act (MLA) and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), and emphasized the FTC’s focus on financial education for servicemembers throughout the various stages of their military career.

    Consumer Finance FTC Debt Collection Military Lending Act Auto Finance SCRA

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  • Federal Reserve blocks national bank’s growth, cites internal governance and risk management oversight failures

    Federal Issues

    On February 2, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) cited compliance breakdowns and widespread consumer abuses as the primary factors behind its decision to issue an order to cease and desist against a national bank. In addition to blocking the bank from growing beyond $1.95 trillion in assets until the Fed approves internal governance and risk management reforms, the order also requires the bank to take actions in the areas of board effectiveness, risk management program improvement, third party reviews of plans and improvements, and reports on progress. The bank must, among other things, (i) create “separate and independent reporting lines” to the chief risk officer and the board, and (ii) enhance risk management oversight and functions, which includes creating “an effective risk identification and escalation framework.” The bank concurrently agreed to replace four current board members in 2018, with three replaced by April. Notably, the order does not require the bank to cease current activities such as accepting customer deposits or making consumer loans.

    The Fed also sent letters to the bank’s former lead independent director and former chair of the board of directors (see letters here and here) to address the “many pervasive and serious compliance and conduct failures” that occurred during their tenures. Citing ineffective oversight following awareness of alleged consumer abuses, the Fed stated that the former directors failed to initiate any serious inquiry or request that the board do so. Further, the Fed asserted that the former chair of the board continued to support the sales goals that were a major cause of the identified sales practice problems and failed to initiate a serious investigation or inquiry. A third letter sent to the current board of directors outlines steps the board must take to improve senior management reporting, maintain an effective risk management structure, and ensure compensation and other incentive programs are “consistent with sound risk management objectives and promote . . . compliance with laws and regulations.” (See here and here for previous InfoBytes coverage on the alleged improper sales practices.)

    In response, the bank issued a press release stating it will commit to the Fed’s requirements and will provide a compliance plan for oversight, compliance, and operational risk management to the Fed within 60 days. The plan will also outline measures already completed by the bank, and if approved by the Fed, the bank will engage independent third parties to review its adoption and implementation of the plan.

    Federal Issues Federal Reserve Bank Regulatory CFPB OCC Consumer Finance Risk Management

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  • District judge enters final judgment against company posing as a direct lender; rules in favor of CFPB

    Consumer Finance

    On January 30, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered a New Jersey-based company along with two associated individuals (defendants) to pay civil money penalties totaling $75,000 for allegedly offering loans to consumers who were awaiting payouts from legal settlements or victim-compensation funds. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the order stems from a complaint filed against defendants for allegedly engaging in deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act by purportedly representing itself as a direct lender, when in actuality it did not provide loans to consumers, but instead brokered transactions while charging a commission for the service. Defendants neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the complaint. In addition to civil money penalties, the order permanently bans defendants from participating either directly or indirectly in any activities related to funding post-settlement litigation or victim compensation funds.

    Consumer Finance CFPB Lending UDAAP CFPA Enforcement

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  • Maryland issues bipartisan consumer protection recommendations

    State Issues

    On January 26, the Maryland Financial Consumer Protection Commission (the “Commission”) and ranking officials from the Maryland legislature announced bipartisan “Interim Recommendations” of the Commission for State and local action in response to the federal government’s “efforts to change or weaken […] important federal consumer protections.” New legislation in response to the recommendations is expected to be released in the near future. Key recommendations include, among other things: (i) requiring credit reporting agencies to provide an alert of data breaches promptly and provide free credit freezes; (ii) adopting new financial consumer protection laws in areas where the federal government may be weakening oversight; (iii) addressing potential issues with Maryland’s current payday and lending statutes; (iv) adopting the Model State Consumer and Employee Justice Enforcement Act that addresses forced arbitration clauses; and (v) adopting new laws that address new risk, such as, virtual currencies and financial technology.

    State Issues State Legislation Consumer Finance Data Breach Payday Lending Arbitration Virtual Currency Fintech Credit Reporting Agency

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  • 10th Circuit says FCBA claim ends if credit account is paid

    Consumer Finance

    On January 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a District Court’s decision dismissing a consumer’s claim that, under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), two credit card providers (collectively, defendants) must refund his accounts after a  merchant failed to deliver goods purchased using credit cards issued by the defendants. The FCBA allows consumers to raise the same claims against credit card issuers that can be raised against merchants, but limits such claims to the “amount of credit outstanding with respect to [the disputed] transaction.” According to the opinion, the consumer ordered nearly $1 million in wine from a merchant and prior to delivery of the complete order, the merchant declared bankruptcy. The consumer filed lawsuits against each credit card provider in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking a refund to his credit accounts for the amounts of the undelivered wine. The District Court dismissed the suits against both defendants because the consumer had fully paid the balance on his credit cards. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the 10th Circuit concluded that because “‘the amount of credit outstanding with respect to’ the undelivered wine is $0” the consumer had no claim against the defendants under the FCBA.

    Consumer Finance Courts Credit Cards Tenth Circuit Appellate

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  • NYDFS promises to fill CFPB regulatory void

    State Issues

    On January 25, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) Superintendent, Maria T. Vullo, issued a statement critical of the recent policy changes by the CFPB’s new leadership. As previously covered by InfoBytes, acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney announced, among other things, that the CFPB will no longer “push the envelope” in pursuit of the agency’s mission. Vullo stated that NYDFS remains “committed to its mission to safeguard the financial services industry and protect New York consumers,” and promised to fill the “regulatory voids” left by the new administration.

    In December, as previously covered by InfoBytes, seventeen state attorneys general sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern about Mulvaney serving as acting director, and emphasizing that if the CFPB does not do the job, the states will “redouble our efforts at the state level to root out such misconduct and hold those responsible to account.”

    State Issues NYDFS Enforcement Consumer Finance CFPB Succession CFPB

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  • FTC announces charges against mortgage loan modification operation

    Consumer Finance

    On January 19, the FTC issued a press release announcing charges against a mortgage loan modification operation for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule by making false promises to consumers for services designed to prevent foreclosures or reduce interest rates or monthly mortgage payments. According to the charges, the defendants contacted consumers using doctored government logos on correspondence, which misrepresented an affiliation with the government’s Making Home Affordable loan modification program. Additionally, the defendants allegedly made unlawful claims that they had “special relationships with particular lenders” and instructed consumers to stop paying their mortgages without actually obtaining the promised loan modifications. As alleged by the FTC, this resulted in many consumers paying substantial interest charges, incurring penalties for paying the defendants rather than making mortgage payments, and in some instances, losing their homes to foreclosure. On January 10, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada temporarily restrained and enjoined the defendants’ alleged illegal practices and froze their assets at the request of the FTC.

    Consumer Finance FTC Mortgages FTC Act

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