On November 18, the FTC announced that it approved, by a 3-1 vote, final amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) that ban telemarketers from using certain payment methods that are commonly used by scammers. Per the amendments, telemarketers are prohibited from (i) using specific types of checks and “payment orders” that are remotely created by the telemarketer or seller and which permit direct access to consumers’ bank accounts; (ii) receiving payments through traditional “cash-to-cash” money transfers, which allow scammers to easily obtain consumer funds anonymously and without the ability to reverse the transaction; and (iii) accepting as payment “cash reload” mechanisms. The FTC concluded that the aforementioned payment methods constituted abusive practices because they caused or were likely to cause “substantial injury to consumers that is neither reasonably avoidable by consumers nor outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.” Finally, according to the FTC, “the amendments address changes in the financial marketplace to ensure consumers remain protected by the TSR’s antifraud provisions, but are narrowly tailored to allow for innovations with respect to other payment methods that are used by legitimate companies.”
On November 18, the CFPB announced an action against a Delaware-based online payday lender and its CEO for alleged violations of the Truth in Lending Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, and for engaging in unfair and deceptive acts and practices. Specifically, the CFPB alleges that, from May 2008 through December 2012, the online lender (i) continued to debit borrowers’ accounts using remotely created checks after consumers revoked the lender’s authorization to do so; (ii) required consumers to repay loans via pre-authorized electronic funds transfers; and (iii) deceived consumers about the cost of short-term loans by providing them with contracts that contained disclosures based on repaying the loan in one payment, while the default terms called for multiple rollovers and additional finance charges. The case will be tried by an Administrative Law Judge from the CFPB’s Office of Administrative Adjudication.
On November 18, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote H.R. 1210 and H.R. 1737, both of which will affect CFPB policies governing the mortgage and auto lending industries. The “Portfolio Lending and Mortgage Access Act” – H.R. 1210 – would amend the Truth in Lending Act to create a safe harbor from certain requirements for depository institutions making residential mortgage loans held in portfolios. Specifically, the bill permits loans that appear on a depository institution’s balance sheet to be treated as a Qualified Mortgage subject to certain limitations, thus permitting such loans to fall under the Ability-to-Repay Rule’s safe harbor provisions. The “Reforming CFPB Indirect Auto Finance Guidance Act” – H.R. 1737 – would invalidate CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, which provides guidance to indirect auto lenders regarding compliance with federal fair lending laws.
On November 19, the Federal Reserve announced a plan to redistribute unclaimed funds from the Independent Foreclosure Review Payment Agreement (Agreement). Under the Agreement, borrowers whose homes were in any state of the foreclosure process in 2009 or 2010 received payment from Federal Reserve -regulated servicers, resolving allegations of improper mortgage servicing and foreclosure practices. The Fed’s recently announced plan gives borrowers who have yet to cash or deposit their original check until December 31, 2015 to request a replacement check; all checks must be deposited by March 31, 2016. In an effort to distribute the maximum amount of funds to borrowers affected by alleged deficient servicing and foreclosure practices, the Federal Reserve will instruct the paying agent company to redistribute the remaining funds after March 31, 2016 to the borrowers who did cash or deposit their original checks.
On November 16, the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (OWB) issued its 2015 annual report to Congress on its Whistleblower Program established pursuant to Dodd-Frank. According to the report, in Fiscal Year 2015, the OWB received more than 3,900 whistleblower tips – a 30% increase since 2012, which the SEC attributes to increased public awareness of the program due to Dodd Frank’s implementing rule awarding tipsters 10 to 30 percent of a securities violation when the penalty is greater than $1 million. Additional items to note from the report include: (i) the SEC brought its first enforcement action against a company for using language in confidentiality agreements that impeded a whistleblower from reporting possible securities law violations; (ii) the SEC received whistleblower submissions from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with tips from individuals in 95 countries outside of the U.S.; and (iii) the most common complaint categories reported were Corporate Disclosures and Financials, followed by Offering Fraud and Manipulation.
On November 16, the FCC and the FTC executed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on continued cooperative efforts to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive acts and practices involving telecommunications services. In an effort to formalize existing cooperation among the agencies, the MOU outlines the ways in which the two agencies will continue to work together, including: (i) coordinating agency initiatives where one agency’s action will significantly impact the other agency’s authority or programs; (ii) sharing investigative techniques and tools, intelligence, technical and legal expertise, as necessary, in addition to best practices in response to reasonable requests for such assistance; and (iii) collaborating on consumer and industry outreach and education efforts, as appropriate. Moreover, the MOU identifies the scope of each agency’s enforcement authority with respect to common carriers, and confirms that the 2003 MOU regarding Telemarketing Enforcement between the two agencies remains effective, stating that the most recent MOU should not “be construed as altering, amending, or invalidating that  MOU.”
On November 16, the FDIC issued FIL-52-2015 to advise financial institutions that it revised its 2005 guidance on payday lending, which established the FDIC’s expectations for prudent risk-management practices in the payday loan industry. The letter emphasizes that the 2005 payday lending guidance, as issued in FIL-14-2005, does not apply to depository institutions offering certain products and services, such as deposit accounts and extensions of credit, to non-bank payday lenders. Specifically, the letter states, “[f]inancial institutions that can properly manage customer relationships and effectively mitigate risks are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing services to any category of business customers or individual customers operating in compliance with applicable state and federal laws.”
On November 16, the DOJ’s Deputy AG Sally Yates delivered remarks at the American Bankers Association and American Bar Association Money Laundering Enforcement Conference. Yates focused her remarks on recent revisions – originally outlined in a September 9 policy memorandum – to the United States Attorney’s Manual (USAM), as follows: (i) updating the corporate criminal cases section, specifically the “Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations” chapter, or the “Filip factors”; (ii) implementing an entirely new section to the civil cases chapter on enforcing claims against individuals in corporate matters; and (iii) updating its policy on parallel proceedings. First, the DOJ updated the Filip factors and the written guidance accompanying the factors to emphasize individual accountability in corporate cases and company cooperation in the DOJ’s investigation of individual wrongdoing. Yates highlighted the following policy change: “In the past, cooperation credit was a sliding scale of sorts and companies could still receive at least some credit for cooperation, even if they failed to fully disclose all facts about individuals. That’s changed now… providing complete information about individuals’ involvement in wrongdoing is a threshold hurdle that must be crossed before [the DOJ will] consider any cooperation credit.” Read more…
On November 16, HUD released FHA’s annual report to Congress on the financial condition of its Mutual Mortgage Insurance (MMI) Fund. For the first time since 2008, the report shows that FHA’s MMI fund’s capital ratio exceeds the congressionally required 2% threshold, standing at 2.07%. The report points to FHA policy changes and program improvements as the driving factors behind the improved MMI fund capital ratio. Notably, the report states that the agency’s decision to reduce annual mortgage insurance premiums by a half percent (i) marginally decreased the projected time to reach the 2% capital ratio; (ii) enabled over 75,000 new creditworthy borrowers to purchase homes; and (iii) compensated for the credit risk of the Forward mortgage loan program. Finally, the report highlights the agency’s efforts to reduce risk and improve loss mitigation by making substantial revisions to its credit guidelines, including strengthening its underwriting guidelines to discourage extreme risk layering and prohibiting seller-funded down-payment assistance.
On November 16, the DOJ announced a $95.5 million settlement with the country’s second-largest for-profit education company to resolve alleged federal and state violations of the False Claims Act (FCA). According to the DOJ’s complaint, the company’s admissions personnel received payment based on the number of students they enrolled, a violation of Title IV of the Higher Education Act’s (HEA) Incentive Compensation Ban (ICB) and the Regulatory Safe Harbor. The DOJ alleges that the company misrepresented its compliance with Title IV of the HEA to the Department of Education by certifying in Program Participation Agreements that it had not “paid to any persons or entities any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment based directly or indirectly on success in securing enrollments, financial aid to students, or student retention.” The Department of Education calculated that, from July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2011, the company, having submitted “a variety of claims to the government for Title IV funding that it [knew] to be false based upon its non-compliance” with the ICB, received more than $11 billion in government funding. Under the terms of the settlement, the $95.5 million will be divided among the United States, the co-plaintiff states, and the whistleblowers and their counsel in the FCA cases filed separately in federal court in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Nashville, Tennessee.
On November 16, FinCEN Director Jennifer Calvery and Treasury’s Acting Under Secretary Adam Szubin delivered remarks at the American Bankers Association and American Bar Association Money Laundering Enforcement Conference on continued AML enforcement efforts. Szubin focused on the topic of “de-risking,” which he described as “instances in which a financial institution seeks to avoid perceived regulatory risk by indiscriminately terminating, restricting, or denying services to broad classes of clients, without case-by-case analysis or consideration of mitigating options,” and addressed Treasury’s efforts to curtail the negative effects attributed to de-risking, such as preventing access to the dollar and pushing people out of the regulated financial system. Szubin emphasized, however, that the Treasury would not “dilute or roll back [its] AML/CFT standards,” but expects financial institutions to be vigilant when identifying potential risks and to implement AML/CFT programs that effectively address risks associated with illicit financing on a client-by-client basis. In a separate speech, Director Calvery addressed FinCEN’s reliance on Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) data to “uncover risks, vulnerabilities, and gaps in each financial sector,” noting that BSA data supports FinCEN’s ongoing AML enforcement efforts.
On November 9, an Atlanta-based claims management firm disclosed that it reported possible FCPA violations to DOJ and SEC. The company discovered the possible violations during an internal audit and has since launched an investigation, using outside counsel and external forensic accountants. The company stated that it intends to cooperate with the SEC and the DOJ in this matter, but the filing did not elaborate on the nature or location of the potential violations.
Developments in Uzbekistan Telecommunications FCPA Investigations: Dutch Telecommunications Company Makes Provision in Connection with Investigation; DOJ Names Russian Telecommunications Company in Civil Forfeiture Action
On November 3, a Dutch telecommunications company announced that, based on its assessment of ongoing FCPA investigations, it would make a provision in the amount of $900 million in its third quarter financial statements. The company previously disclosed that the SEC, the DOJ, and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service were conducting investigations related to its business in Uzbekistan and prior dealings with a Gibralter-registered company that negotiates mobile phone licenses on behalf of the Uzbek government.
On November 5, another company under investigation for its conduct in Uzbekistan disclosed that the DOJ referenced it in a civil forfeiture complaint. The DOJ’s complaint was directed at an unnamed Uzbek government official, but the complaint alleged that the company and certain other parties made corrupt payments to the unnamed official to gain access to the Uzbek telecommunications market.
On November 2, a pharmaceutical company disclosed that the DOJ requested documents and other information related to the company’s compliance with the FCPA. The SEC is also investigating the company’s compliance with the FCPA, a fact the company disclosed in May. The SEC’s subpoena sought information about the company’s grant-making activities worldwide, specifically naming Japan, Brazil, Turkey and Russia in its request, and also addressed non-FCPA items. The company said that it plans to cooperate with DOJ’s investigation.
On November 10, the FFIEC issued a revised Management booklet, which outlines the principles of overall sound governance and, more specifically, IT governance. The booklet is one of 11 that makes up the FFIEC’s Information Technology Examination Handbook, and explains how risk management, including IT risk management, is a component of governance. The handbook emphasizes that the board of directors sets the tone and the direction of an institution’s IT program. Specifically, the board’s responsibilities include (i) reviewing and approving an IT strategic plan that aligns with the overall business strategy and includes an information security strategy to protect the institution from ongoing and emerging threats, including those related to cybersecurity; (ii) overseeing an institution’s process for approving third-party vendors; (iii) approving policies to report significant security issues to the board, steering committee, government agencies, and law enforcement, as necessary; (iv) holding management accountable for identifying, measuring, and mitigating IT risks; and (v) providing independent, comprehensive, and effective audit coverage of IT controls. The revised handbook incorporates cybersecurity concepts as an integral part of maintaining effective IT policies and procedures, noting that, “[a]lthough an institution is not required to have a separate cybersecurity program, its information security program should identify, measure, mitigate, monitor, and report on the heightened risks associated with cybersecurity.”