On July 14, the CFPB sued a Georgia-based law firm and its three principal partners for allegedly using high-volume litigation tactics to collect millions of dollars from consumers who may not actually have owed the debts or may not have owed the debts in the amounts claimed. The suit relates to the firm’s attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, consumer credit-card debts on behalf of both credit-card issuers and debt buyers that purchase portfolios of defaulted credit-card debts. The CFPB alleges the defendants violated the FDCPA and engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by: (i) serving consumers with deceptive court filings generated by automated processes and the work of non-attorney staff, without any meaningful involvement of attorneys; and (ii) introducing faulty or unsubstantiated evidence through sworn statements even though some signers could not have known the details they were attesting to. The CFPB is seeking to permanently enjoin the firm from engaging in the alleged activity, restitution to borrowers, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and damages and other monetary relief.
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 16, the New York DFS re-proposed a rule to regulate third-party debt collection. The revised proposal: (i) describes disclosures debt collectors must provide to consumers when the debt collector initially communicates with a consumer, and additional disclosures that must be provided when the debt collector is communicating with a consumer regarding a charged-off debt; (ii) requires debt collectors to disclose to consumers when the statute of limitations on a debt has expired; (iii) outlines a process for consumers to request additional documentation proving the validity of the charged-off debt and the debt collector’s right to collect the charged-off debt; (iv) requires debt collectors to provide consumers written confirmation of debt settlement agreements and regular accounting of the debt while the consumer is paying off a debt pursuant to a settlement agreement; (v) requires debt collectors to provide consumers with disclosures of certain rights when settling a debt; and (vi) allows debt collectors to correspond with consumers by electronic mail in certain circumstances. The DFS states that although comments on its initial proposal were “generally supportive,” the revised proposal responds to comments on how the rules could better correspond to the structure of the collection industry, and seeks to clarify the meaning of certain provisions. Comments on the revised proposal are due by August 15, 2014.
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 15, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report on its audit of the Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office, which revealed that the FSA has failed to effectively: (i) monitor borrower complaints against private collection agencies (PCAs) and ensure that corrective action is taken; (ii) ensure PCAs are abiding by federal debt collection laws and the related terms of their contracts; and (iii) consider borrower complaints in its evaluation and compensation of PCAs. The audit covered the period October 1, 2009, through September 30, 2012. The OIG recommended that FSA, among other things, (i) enforce the contract requirement that PCAs submit all complaints to FSA and establish procedures that include ensuring PCAs take corrective action; and (ii) require relevant staff to monitor, review, and evaluate the PCA deliverables and reconcile the management/fiscal reports with recorded complaints. The FSA concurred with the findings and most of the recommendations and stated that it has taken a number of steps over the past two years to strengthen its PCA oversight efforts. The FSA further stated that it has planned additional improvements that will further enhance its ability to effectively oversee PCA’s interactions with defaulted borrowers.
Yesterday, in advance of a field hearing being held today on consumer complaints, the CFPB released a proposal to expand the amount of information that will be included in the Consumer Complaint Database to include certain consumer complaint narratives, along with any response to the complaint submitted by the identified financial institution. The CFPB already collects the narrative information as part of the complaint intake process, but to date has not published narratives over privacy concerns it believes it now has addressed. The CFPB describes the proposed change as a natural extension of a policy designed to “provide consumers with timely and understandable information about consumer financial products and services, and improve the functioning, transparency, and efficiency of markets for such products and services.” The CFPB will accept comments on the proposal for 30 days following publication in the Federal Register. Read more…
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 July 1, the Federal Reserve Board announced a joint enforcement action with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation against a state bank that allegedly failed to properly oversee a nonbank third-party provider of financial aid refund disbursement services. The consent order states that from May 2012 to August 2013, the bank opened over 430,000 deposit accounts in connection with the vendor’s debit card product for disbursement of financial aid to students. The agencies claim that during that time, the vendor misled students about the product, including by (i) omitting material information about how students could get their financial aid refund without having to open an account; (ii) omitting material information about the fees, features, and limitations of the product; (iii) omitting material information about the locations of ATMs where students could access their account without cost and the hours of availability of those ATMs; and (iv) prominently displaying the school logo, which may have erroneously implied that the school endorsed the product. The regulators ordered the bank to pay a total of $4.1 million in civil money penalties. In addition, the Federal Reserve is seeking restitution from the vendor, and, pursuant to the order against the bank, may require the bank to pay any amounts the vendor cannot pay in restitution to eligible students up to the lesser of $30 million or the total amount of restitution based on fees the vendor collected from May 2012 through June 2014. The consent order also requires the bank to submit for Federal Reserve approval a compliance risk management program in advance of entering into an agreement with a third party to solicit, market, or service a consumer deposit product on behalf of the bank.
On July 8, the CFPB released guidance designed to ensure equal treatment for legally married same-sex couples in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Windsor held unconstitutional section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined the word “marriage” as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and the word “spouse” as referring “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
The CFPB’s guidance, which took the form of a memorandum to CFPB staff, states that regardless of a person’s state of residency, the CFPB will consider a person who is married under the laws of any jurisdiction to be married nationwide for purposes of enforcing, administering, or interpreting the statutes, regulations, and policies under the Bureau’s jurisdiction. The Bureau adds that it “will not regard a person to be married by virtue of being in a domestic partnership, civil union, or other relationship not denominated by law as a marriage.”
The guidance adds that the Bureau will use and interpret the terms “spouse,” “marriage,” “married,” “husband,” “wife,” and any other similar terms related to family or marital status in all statutes, regulations, and policies administered, enforced or interpreted by the Bureau (including ECOA and Regulation B, FDCPA, TILA, RESPA) to include same-sex marriages and married same-sex spouses. The Bureau’s stated policy on same-sex marriage follows HUD’s Equal Access Rule, which became effective March 5, 2012, which ensures access to HUD-assisted or HUD-insured housing for LGBT persons.
This afternoon, the CFPB announced that a nonbank consumer lender will pay $10 million to resolve allegations that it engaged in certain unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices in the collection of payday loans. This action comes exactly one year after the CFPB issued guidance that it would hold supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive when collecting their own debts, in much the same way third-party debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA. Read more…
On July 3, the CFPB published a report on its study of the use of remittance histories in credit scoring, which found that (i) remittance histories have little predictive value for credit scoring purposes, and (ii) remittance histories are unlikely to improve the credit scores of consumers who send remittance transfers. The report follows a 2011 CFPB report on remittance transfers, which was required by the Dodd-Frank Act and assessed, among other things, the feasibility of and impediments to using remittance data in credit scoring. At that time, the CFPB identified a number of potential impediments to incorporating remittance history into credit scoring, and noted the need for further research to better address the potential impact of remittance information on consumer credit scoring. Read more…
Supreme Court Holds President May Make Recess Appointments During Intra-Session Recesses Of Sufficient Length
On June 26, the Supreme Court rejected the federal government’s challenge to a January 2013 decision by the D.C. Circuit that appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by President Obama in January 2012 during a purported Senate recess were unconstitutional. NLRB V. Noel Canning, No. 12-1281, 2014 WL 2882090 (U.S. Jun. 26, 2014). A five-member majority of the Court held that Presidents are permitted to exercise authority under the Recess Appointments Clause to fill a vacancy during both intra-session and inter-session recesses of sufficient length, and that such appointments may fill vacancies that arose prior to or during the recess.
The Court determined that the phrase “recess of the Senate” is ambiguous, and that based on the functional definition derived from the historical practice of past presidents and the Senate, it is meant to cover both types of recesses. Further, the court held that although the Clause does not indicate how long a recess must be before a president may act, historical practice suggests that a recess less than 10 days is presumptively too short. The Court did not foreclose the possibility, however, that appointments during recesses of less than 10 days may be permissible in unusual circumstances. The Court also validated the Senate’s practice of using pro forma sessions to avoid recess appointments, holding the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided it retains capacity to conduct business. Because the Senate was in session during its periodic pro forma sessions, and because the recess appointments at issue were made during a three-day recess between such sessions, the appointments were invalid.
A minority of the Court concurred in the judgment, but endorsed a narrower reading of the President’s authority to make recess appointments and the Senate’s ability to avoid triggering the President’s recess-appointment power. Writing for that minority, Justice Scalia explained that the plain constitutional text limits the President’s recess appointment power to filling vacancies that first arise during the recess. The minority reading of the Clause also limits the President’s recess appointment power to recesses between legislative sessions, and not intra-session ones. CFPB Director Richard Cordray was appointed in the same manner and on the same day as the NLRB members whose appointments were at issue in this case, but was subsequently re-nominated and confirmed for the position. He later ratified CFPB actions taken during the period he served as a recess appointee.
On June 27, the GAO released a May 2014 report regarding virtual currency. The leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked the GAO to examine potential policy issues related to virtual currencies and the status of federal agency collaboration in this area. The report summarizes virtual currency policy developments to date, and provides an overview of various interagency working groups and the ways each has so far addressed virtual currencies. The GAO concludes that consumer protection issues have largely not been addressed by the working groups, and recommends that the CFPB identify and join existing interagency working groups to ensure that consumer protection issues are considered as those groups develop virtual currency policies. In response to the report, the CFPB stated that it has been doing its own work on virtual currency, and has collaborated informally, but agreed that it should participate formally in interagency working groups.
Recently, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed SB 209, which makes a number of changes to the restrictions on unsolicited telemarketing contacts with consumers. Under current law, telemarketers are prohibited from making an unsolicited sales call to consumers on the state “Do Not Call” registry unless they receive a consumer’s prior written or verbal consent. The bill removes the verbal consent option, requiring telemarketers to obtain prior express written consent before making such calls. In addition to unsolicited calls, the bill also prohibits without prior express written consent unsolicited text or media messages, as well as unsolicited, automatically dialed, recorded telephonic sales calls—i.e. robocalls. Under the bill, a text or media message is a message that contains written, audio, video, or photographic content and is sent electronically to a mobile telephone or electronic device telephone number, but does not include electronic mail. The bill also increases the maximum fine for each violation from $11,000 to $20,000.
Michigan Supreme Court Holds Forwarding Companies Are Collection Agencies Subject To Licensing Rules
On June 13, the Michigan Supreme Court held that forwarding companies are collection agencies under state law and are subject to state licensing requirements. Badeen v. Par, Inc., No. 147150, 2014 WL 2686068 (Mich. Jun. 13, 2014). In this case, a state-licensed debt collection agency and an individual state-licensed collection agency manager filed a putative class action against a group of forwarding companies—companies that contract with creditors to allocate a collection to a collection agent in the appropriate location but do not contact the debtors themselves—alleging the companies are actually collection agencies and were operating in the state without first obtaining a collection agency license. The court explained that under state law, a collection agency is “a person directly or indirectly engaged in soliciting a claim for collection or collecting or attempting to collect a claim owed or due another or repossessing or attempting to repossess a thing of value owed or due another arising out of an expressed or implied agreement.” The court determined that under the plain meaning of the statute, the phrase “soliciting a claim for collection” means asking a creditor for any unpaid debts that the collection agency may pursue by allocating them to local collection agents, which the forwarding companies did by contracting with creditors. The court rejected the forwarding companies’ argument that they do not satisfy the definition because soliciting a claim for collection refers only to asking the debtor to pay his or her debt, which the forwarding companies did not do. The court determined it need not reach the issue of whether the forwarding companies indirectly collect or attempt to collect debts when they contract with a local collection agency. The court remanded for trial court consideration a separate issue of whether the forwarding companies satisfy a statutory exception to the licensing requirements applicable to collection agencies whose collection activities in the state are limited to interstate communications.