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CFPB Enforcement Action Targets Debt-Settlement Payment Processor For Aiding Collection Of Upfront Fees
On August 25, the CFPB announced a consent order with an Oklahoma-based debt-settlement payment processor for allegedly helping other companies collect unlawful upfront fees from consumers. The CFPB specifically alleged that the company violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by making it possible for debt-settlement companies to charge consumers advance fees before settling any of their debts. The CFPB believes the company processed tens of millions of dollars in illegal advance fees from tens of thousands of customers on behalf of hundreds of debt relief companies across the country. The consent order requires the company to pay $6,099,000 in consumer relief and a civil money penalty of $1 million. In addition, the company is subject to monitoring by the CFPB and a third-party monitor, and must submit compliance reports.
CFPB Expands Complaint Collection To Include Prepaid Cards, Additional Nonbank Products And Services
On July 21, the CFPB announced that it is now accepting consumer complaints regarding (i) prepaid products, including gift cards, benefit cards, and general purpose reloadable cards; (ii) credit repair services and debt settlement services; and (iii) pawn and title loans. The CFPB’s decision to field prepaid card complaints comes as the agency prepares a proposed rule related to those products. The press release states that the CFPB is planning to initiate the prepaid card rulemaking “in the coming months.” Director Cordray recently stated the rule would be proposed at the “end of the summer.”
The CFPB provides the following options for consumers to identify the nature of their complaints:
- Prepaid Cards - (i) managing, opening, or closing your account; (ii) fees; (iii) unauthorized transactions or other transaction issues; (iv) advertising, marketing or disclosures; (v) adding money; (vi) overdraft, savings or rewards features; or (vii) fraud or scam.
- Credit Repair and Debt Settlement - (i) advertising and marketing; (ii) customer service/customer relations; (iii) disclosures; (iv) excessive fees; (v) unexpected/other fees; (vi) incorrect exchange rate; (vii) lost or stolen money order; (viii) lost or stolen check; or (ix) fraud or scam.
- Pawn and Title Loans – (i) charged fees or interest I didn't expect; (ii) can't stop lender from charging my bank account; (iii) received a loan I didn't apply for; (iv) applied for a loan, but didn't receive money; (v) lender charged my bank account on wrong day or for wrong amount; (vi) lender didn't credit payment to my account; (vii) can't contact lender; (viii) lender sold the property / repossessed or sold the vehicle; or (ix) lender damaged or destroyed property / vehicle.
As with all of the CFPB’s complaint categories, consumers also have an opportunity to describe their complaints regarding these new products and services in narrative form. Last week, the CFPB proposed a policy change under which it would publish those consumer complaint narratives, a move it hopes will increase the number of complaints the CFPB fields. At the same time the CFPB released its latest “snapshot” of consumer complaints, which provides an overview of the complaint process and summary analyses of complaints handled by the CFPB since July 21, 2011.
On July 9, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed SB 622, which directs the Department of Banking and Securities to establish licensing requirements, including fees, for providers of debt settlement services. Such a license will be a “covered license” under state law, and, as such, will require employees of entities seeking a license to submit to criminal history checks. In addition, licensed debt settlement firms would be required to provide written disclosures regarding, among other things: (i) the amount of time necessary to achieve the represented results; (ii) the extent to which debt settlement services may include settlement offers to creditors and debt collectors, including the time by which bona fide offers will be made; (iii) the cost to the individual for providing debt settlement services and the method by which any fee will be calculated; (iv) that the use of a debt settlement service will likely adversely impact the credit worthiness of the individual; and (v) the total estimated program costs if the individual completes the program. The bill does not apply to (i) judicial officers; (ii) depository licensees; (iii) title insurers, escrow companies, or other persons that provide bill paying services and offer debt settlement incidental to those services; or (iv) attorneys who act as intermediaries. The bill defines certain prohibited activities, and grants the regulator authority to supervise licensed firms, enforce the requirements, and impose civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation. Most provisions of the bill take effect November 1, 2014.
On July 14, Illinois Attorney General (AG) Lisa Madigan announced that her office filed separate civil lawsuits (here and here) in state court against two student debt relief firms and their principals. The lawsuits allege that the defendants violated several state consumer protection statutes relating to their deceptive student debt relief practices and collection of improper fees. The AG claims that the unlicensed companies and their sole principals improperly accepted upfront fees from student borrowers while claiming to have enrolled them in sham loan forgiveness programs or other legitimate loan relief programs that were available to borrowers free of charge. The lawsuits also allege that the defendants engaged in extensive false and misleading advertisements that misrepresented their expertise, affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education, and the debt relief programs available to borrowers.
The AG maintains that these practices violate several state consumer protection statues, including:
- The Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices, including making false representations and failing to disclose material facts to consumers;
- The Credit Services Organizations Act, prohibiting unlicensed parties from acting as “debt settlement providers” or accepting illegal fees; and
- The Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act, prohibiting parties from accepting upfront payment for debt relief services.
The lawsuits seek injunctive and non-monetary relief in the form of permanent injunctions against each defendant and a rescission of all contracts with Illinois residents. The AG is also pursuing a variety of monetary damages and penalties, including restitution, costs of prosecution and investigation, and civil penalties of $50,000 for each statutory violation with additional penalties for those conducted with the intent to defraud or perpetrated against elderly victims.
On April 8 the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a debt settlement company and its owner pled guilty to fraud charges, resolving the first criminal case referred to the DOJ by the CFPB. The DOJ alleged that from 2009 through May 2013, the company systematically exploited and defrauded over 1,200 customers with credit card debt by charging them for debt settlement services the company never provided. The DOJ claimed that the company (i) lied about and/or concealed its fees, and falsely assured customers that fees would be substantially less than those the company eventually charged; (ii) deceived customers by fraudulently and falsely promising that the company could significantly lower borrower debts when, for the majority of its customers, the company allegedly did little or no work and failed to achieve any reduction in debt; and (iii) sent prospective customers solicitation letters falsely suggesting that the agency was acting on behalf of or in connection with a federal governmental program. The company’s owner pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The company pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and faces a fine of up to twice the gross pecuniary gain derived from the offense, and up to five years' probation. The defendants also entered into a stipulation of settlement of a civil forfeiture action and consented to the entry of a permanent injunction barring them from providing, directly or indirectly, any debt relief or mortgage relief services in the future. The CFPB subsequently dismissed its parallel civil suit.
- Valerie L. Hletko to discuss "Forecasting litigation and settlement trends in the mortgage servicing and fair lending context" at the American Conference Institute National Forum on Residential Mortgage Regulatory Enforcement & Litigation
- Michelle L. Rogers and Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Building a govt affairs program; Government investigations” at the TechGC National Summit
- Tina Tchen to deliver keynote address at the American Bar Foundation Montgomery Summer Research Diversity Fellowship 30th Anniversary Celebration
- Douglas F. Gansler to discuss "Privacy, security and protection of your assets in contracts; Security exercises and tactical measures" at the TechGC National Summit
- H Joshua Kotin will discuss federal regulatory developments in mortgage lending and servicing at the Mortgage Bankers Association of Arkansas Fall Conference
- Kate Shrout to discuss "Conducting workplace investigations" at the TechGC National Summit
- Kathryn R. Goodman to discuss "HECM servicing policies and updates" at the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association Annual Meeting & Expo
- Fredrick S. Levin to discuss "Reverse mortgage litigation trends" at the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association Annual Meeting & Expo
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to speak at the "Digital marketing compliance roundtable" at the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association Annual Meeting & Expo
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The role of the media in white collar criminal investigations and the Mueller probe" at the American Bar Association White Collar Crime Town Hall
- John C. Redding to discuss "Regulatory compliance update" at PowerSports Finance
- Matthew P. Previn to discuss "Enforcement trends: Who is doing what and how?" at the Cambridge Forums Inc. Forum on Consumer Finance Litigation & Enforcement
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Protect yourself from a CFPB investigation" at the National Association of Settlement Purchasers Conference
- Tina Tchen to deliver keynote address at the American Bar Association Professional Success Summit
- Andrea K. Mitchell to discuss "Developments in fair lending law" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Summit on Diversity and Inclusion
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "New CDD Rule: Pitfalls in compliance" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference