On February 27, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3193, a bill that would convert the CFPB into an independent Financial Product Safety Commission led by a five-member board and subject to annual appropriations. The bill aggregates five bills the House Financial Services Committee approved last November. The bill also would, among other things, establish new rulemaking procedures for the Commission and amend its data collection authority and processes. Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI) led the effort on behalf of the House Financial Services Committee minority to unify Democrats in opposition to the bill. His “dear colleague” letter urged fellow Democrats to “stand with consumers and oppose this flawed, unnecessary legislation to undo progress we’ve made since reforming Wall Street.” Ten Democrats joined 222 Republicans in the 232-182 vote that advanced the legislation. The Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up the measure, however.
On March 6, the CFPB released a “snapshot” of servicemember complaints prepared by the Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA), which analyzes the military consumer complaints received since July 2011. According to the report, servicemembers, veterans, and their families have submitted 14,100 complaints to the Bureau since its opening and have recovered more than $1 million. The volume of servicemember complaints has continued to increase over time, rising 148% from 2012 to 2013.
Notably, although “debt collection” was not added as a complaint category until July 2013, approximately 3,800 complaints received relate to collection practices. Nearly half of these complaints concern attempts to collect non-existent debts, with the remainder concerning improper collection tactics and procedural issues related to collection. The category that received the most complaints—approximately 4,700—was mortgage. Concerns raised relate primarily to practices undertaken when a borrower defaults, but also to loan origination and making payments. The remainder of the complaints received relate to consumer loans, private student loans, payday loans, credit cards, credit reporting, banking services, and money transfers. Along with debt collection practices, the report identifies payday loans—and specifically, compliance with the Military Lending Act’s interest-rate restrictions—as a point of focus for OSA.
On February 26, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other Democratic Senators, together with Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and other Democratic House members, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging the DOJ to “continue a vigorous review of potential payment fraud, anti-money-laundering violations, and other illegal conduct involving payments by banks and third-party payment processors.” The lawmakers highlighted a number of specific issues on which the DOJ should focus: (i) know-your-customer obligations, which they believe should include a review of whether a lender holds all required state licenses and follows state lending laws; (ii) use of lead generators, including those that auction consumer data; (iii) high rates of returned, contested, or otherwise failed debits or the regular use of remotely created checks, which they state may indicate payment fraud; and (iv) lenders’ failure to incorporate or maintain a business presence in the U.S., which they assert can be indicative of fraud and other payment system violations, including money-laundering.
On February 27, the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System & Registry (NMLS) announced that Robert S. Niemi, Deputy Superintendent for Consumer Finance at the Ohio Division of Financial Institutions, will serve as NMLS Ombudsman. The NMLS states that the Ombudsman “provide[s] the non-depository financial services industries, and other interested parties, with a neutral venue to discuss issues or concerns regarding NMLS and state licensing” with the objective of fostering “constructive dialogue between NMLS industry users and participating state regulators.”
On February 25, the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) published the results of its survey of prepaid cards. The OCBAR examined 16 different purchasing and use-related fees for 11 randomly-selected prepaid cards, using the fee schedule from each card’s website, which the OCABR stated “were not always easy to find and were quite confusing at times.” The survey identified as the most common fees charged by the prepaid cards surveyed as (i) monthly fees, (ii) ATM withdrawal fees, and (iii) balance inquiry fees, which were each charged by nine of the 11 cards surveyed. The OCABR researchers claim to have discovered “additional types of fees associated with the products”, including fees associated with alternative card payment plans. The OCABR believes such alternative options make it more difficult for consumers to anticipate the cost of having and using a prepaid card.
CFPB Supplements Consumer Reporting Guidance, Holds Consumer Advisory Board Meeting, Issues Consumer Reporting Complaints Report
On February 27, the CFPB issued supplemental guidance related to consumer reporting and held a public meeting focused on consumer reporting issues. The CFPB also released a report on consumer reporting complaints it has received.
The CFPB issued a supervision bulletin (2014-01) that restates the general obligations under the Fair Credit Reporting Act for furnishers of information to credit reporting agencies and “warn[s] companies that provide information to credit reporting agencies not to avoid investigating consumer disputes.” It follows and supplements guidance issued last year detailing the CFPB’s expectations for furnishers.
The latest guidance is predicated on the CFPB’s concern that when a furnisher responds to a consumer’s dispute, it may, without conducting an investigation, simply direct the consumer reporting agency (CRA) to delete the item it has furnished. The guidance states that a furnisher should not assume that it ceases to be a furnisher with respect to an item that a consumer disputes simply because it directs the CRA to delete that item. In addition, the guidance explains that whether an investigation is reasonable depends on the circumstances, but states that furnishers should not assume that simply deleting an item will generally constitute a reasonable investigation.
The CFPB promises to continue to monitor furnishers’ compliance with FCRA regarding consumer disputes of information they have furnished to CRAs. Furnishers should take immediate steps to ensure they are fulfilling their obligations under the law. Read more…
On February 26, the CFPB filed its first enforcement action against a for-profit higher-education company, alleging that the company engaged in unfair and abusive private student loan origination practices.
In a civil complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the CFPB asserts that the company offered first-year students no-interest short-term loans to cover the difference between the costs of attendance and federal loans obtained by students. The CFPB claims that when the short-term loans came due at the end of the first academic year and borrowers were unable to pay them off, the company forced borrowers into “high-rate, high-fee” private student loans without providing borrowers an adequate opportunity to understand their loan obligations. Moreover, the CFPB claims that the company’s business model is dependent on coercing students into “high-rate, high-fee” private loans, despite the low average incomes and credit profiles of the students, and a 64 percent default rate on such loans.
The company issued a statement denying the charges, criticizing the CFPB’s decision to file suit, and challenging the CFPB’s jurisdiction. The statement describes the suit as an “aggressive attempt by the Bureau . . . to extend its jurisdiction into matters well beyond consumer finance” and expresses the company’s intent to “ vigorously contest the Bureau’s theories in court.” Read more…
The CFPB announced this week that its next Consumer Advisory Board meeting will be held on February 27, in Washington, DC, and that the sole public session will focus on the “consumer experience in the credit reporting market.” Non-public sessions of the two-day event will cover, among other things, the HMDA rulemaking, the debt collection rulemaking, and the CFPB’s general approach to regulation.
Democratic Lawmakers Urge Federal Reserve Board To Increase Direct Role In Supervision And Enforcement
On February 11, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent a letter to newly appointed Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen, asking that she reconsider the Board’s policy of delegating supervisory and enforcement powers to staff. The lawmakers cite a recent letter from former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in which he explained that in the last 10 years, the Board of Governors voted on only 11 of nearly 1,000 enforcement actions, and that under current application of the Federal Reserve’s enforcement delegation policy, the Federal Reserve can enter into consent orders without ever receiving formal approval of senior staff. The letter asks for a change in policy that would require the Board to retain greater authority over the Federal Reserve’s enforcement and supervisory activities. Specifically, the lawmakers recommend that (i) the Board vote on any consent order that involves $1 million or more or that requires a bank officer to be removed and/or new management installed; (ii) staff formally notify the Board before entering into a consent order under delegated authority; (iii) each Board member be provided with the necessary staffing capacity to review and analyze pending enforcement actions; and (iv) all Board members receive a copy of all letters sent to the Chairman or another Board member by a committee or member of Congress.
Federal Reserve Board Proposes To Repeal Duplicative Regulations Amend Identity Theft Red Flags Rule
On February 12, the Federal Reserve Board proposed to repeal its Regulation DD, which implements the TISA, and Regulation P, which implements Section 504 of the GLBA because the Dodd-Frank Act transferred rulemaking authority for those laws to the CFPB, and the CFPB has already issued interim final rules implementing them. The Board also proposed to amend the definition of “creditor” in its Identity Theft Red Flags rule, which implements Section 615 of the FCRA. Generally, the Indemnity Theft Red Flags rule requires each financial institution and creditor that holds any consumer account to develop and implement an identity theft prevention program. The proposed revision will exclude from the foregoing requirements businesses that do not regularly and in the ordinary course of business (i) obtain or use consumer reports in connection with a credit transaction; (ii) furnish information to consumer reporting agencies in connection with a credit transaction; or (iii) advance funds to or on behalf of a person. The Board will accept comments on the proposal for 60 days from publication in the Federal Register.
CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Questions Marketing Of Student Financial Products; GAO Recommends More Transparency
On February 13, CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra published on the CFPB’s blog an update on the CFPB’s review of student financial products and raised concerns about certain marketing arrangements between financial institutions and colleges and universities, and the level of transparency associated with those agreements and the products marketed under them. He specifically questioned financial institutions that “generate a significant amount of their revenue on these products while students are currently in school.” On the same day, the GAO published a report on student debit and prepaid cards and marketing agreements, which recommends that Congress take steps to increase transparency. Read more…
On February 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff’s claim against a data broker alleged to have published inaccurate information about him has standing by virtue of the alleged violation of his statutory rights and need not demonstrate injury. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843, 2014 WL 407366, (9th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014). The district court held that the plaintiff failed to allege an injury in fact because his claims that the inaccurate information harmed, among other things, his ability to obtain employment did not sufficiently allege any actual or imminent harm. Applying its own precedent established in a long-running RESPA case that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review in 2012, the court held that the violation of a statutory right usually is a sufficient injury to confer standing and that statutory causes of action do not require a showing of actual harm. The court determined that violations of statutory rights created by FCRA are concrete injuries that Congress can elevate to the status of legally cognizable injuries and are therefore sufficient to satisfy Article III’s injury-in-fact requirement. Further, the plaintiff adequately pled causation and redressability because (i) an alleged violation of a statutory provision caused the violation of a right created by that provision; and (ii) FCRA provides for monetary damages to redress the violation. The court reversed the trial court and remanded.
On January 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the FDCPA does not impose a requirement that debt disputes be presented in writing and permits debtors to orally dispute the validity of a debt. Clark v. Absolute Collection Serv., Inc., No. 13-1151, 2014 WL 341943 (4th Cir. Jan. 31, 2014). A debt collector moved to dismiss a suit in which the debtor sought to invalidate a debt because the debt collection notice required the debtor’s dispute to be in writing. The debtor argued the notice violated FDCPA section 1692g(a)(3), which provides the basic right to dispute a debt. The debtor also claimed that the writing requirement was a false or deceptive means of collection in violation of section 1692e(10). Considering only the first argument on appeal, the Fourth Circuit joined the Second and Ninth Circuits, but split from the Third Circuit, and held that the “FDCPA clearly defines communications between a debt collector and consumers” and section 1692g(a)(3) “plainly does not” require a written communication to dispute a debt. The court rejected the debt collector’s argument that 1692g(a)(3) imposes an inherent writing requirement.
On January 28, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced a settlement with the owners of a vehicle extended-service-contract seller alleged to have marketed limited-time extend warranty programs for vehicles. The AG alleged that the company attempted to sell vehicle breakdown coverage with a generalized and often misleading description of the coverage, and that many customers later discovered their contracts were actually provided by a third party and did not contain the coverage promised. The AG stated that consumers who asked for refunds faced numerous objections and delays. The settlement requires the owners to pay $60,000 to resolve claims of deception, unfair practices, and unlawful insurance practices, and also permanently prohibits them from selling “additive contracts” in Missouri. The AG stated that the settlement “highlights [his office’s] efforts to clean up the auto service contract industry in Missouri and protect consumers from future deceptive sales practices.”
Last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed SB 854, which will regulate, among other things, motor vehicle service contracts and motor vehicle ancillary protection products. For example, the new law (i) requires service contract providers or sellers to provide to the purchaser receipts or other written evidence of a contract, and copies of such contracts “within a reasonable period of time following the date of purchase”; (ii) specifies the form and contents of service contracts, including “plain language” requirements and certain disclosures; and (iii) grants purchasers the right to return a contract and obtain a full refund of the contract’s purchase price. In addition, providers must meet certain financial security requirements. A violation of the new provisions constitutes an unlawful practice under to the state’s consumer fraud act, which provides for fines of up to $10,000 for the first offense and up to $20,000 for any subsequent offense. The bill exempts, among other things, warranties and mechanical breakdown insurance policies offered by licensed insurers. The bill takes effect on 180 days following enactment, i.e. July 16, 2014.