On January 25, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey announced that she was expanding her Abandoned Housing Initiative (AHI) in response to an increasing number of cities and towns seeking assistance to revitalize their neighborhoods. Under the AHI, the AG’s office seeks to have delinquent owners bring their distressed and abandoned residential properties into code compliance. If the owner refuses, a court-approved receiver completes repairs on the property and receives compensation, utilizing funds from the nationwide state-federal settlement over unlawful foreclosures, once the property is sold. According to Helen Zucco, Executive Director at Chelsea Restoration Corporation, the program “gives banks an incentive to approve construction loans, allows funds to be loaned to receivers at very low interest, and creates a streamlined process for receivers to obtain the funds they need to achieve their important role in [the] process.”
On January 22, Virginia State AG Mark Herring announced a settlement with eleven banks over their alleged misrepresentation of residential mortgage-backed securities to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Retirement System. Virginia recovered more than $63 million collectively from the banks involved, making it the “largest non-healthcare-related recovery ever obtained in a suit alleging violations of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act,” and, according to AG Herring, “one of the largest of its kind in the nation.” As part of the settlement, the Commonwealth dismissed the claims against the defendants with prejudice and the defendants did not admit liability.
On January 20, New York AG Schneiderman announced a lawsuit against several auto dealerships located in Queens, New York, alleging that the dealerships used deceptive sales tactics to sell add-on products and services, including credit repair and identity theft protection services. According to the lawsuit, the dealerships charged “consumers for services while concealing such charges from the consumers, or [misrepresented] that the services were free,” collecting more than $1 million from consumers between January 2013 and November 2014 for the identity theft and credit repair services alone. The lawsuit further alleges that consumers did not receive the services for which they were charged, including VIN etching and key replacement services. AG Schneiderman alleges these products and services were “bundled into the vehicle sales price and not separately itemized,” ultimately inflating the stated price of the car on the purchase and lease documents. The lawsuit seeks a court order that would (i) prohibit the dealerships from engaging in deceptive practices; and (ii) order the dealerships to refund “all illegally obtained overcharges” back to consumers. Read more…
On January 21, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated Maria Vullo to serve as the NYDFS’s superintendent. If approved by the New York State Senate, Vullo would replace former superintendent Benjamin Lawsky, who left the Department in June 2015. Governor Cuomo noted that Vullo is a “tough and fair litigator” who “has shown an immovable commitment to upholding the law and protecting consumers.” Vullo has worked in the private and public sectors, and has over 25 years of practice in business litigation and investigations. In 2010, Vullo also served under then AG Cuomo as Executive Deputy Attorney General for Economic Justice, handling various consumer protection, investor protection, and antitrust matters.
On January 6, New York AG Schneiderman announced a settlement with a California-based transportation network company that requires the company to enhance its data security protection practices to ensure protection of consumers’ personal information. In November 2014, the AG’s office launched an investigation into the company’s collection, maintenance, and disclosure of users’ personal information “amid reports that [company] executives had access to riders’ locations and that the company displayed this information in an aerial view, known internally as ‘God View.’” Moreover, in February 2015, the company reported to the AG’s office that, as early as September 2014, it had experienced a data breach where company drivers’ names and license numbers were exposed to an unauthorized third party. Read more…
On December 22, New York AG Schneiderman announced that more than 3,000 consumers received partial compensation from funds stemming from a global settlement negotiated by AG Schneiderman and the CFPB. In July 2014, the CFPB and 13 state AGs announced a consent order with a military consumer lender requiring it to provide $92 million in debt relief to approximately 17,000 U.S. servicemembers and other consumers affected by the company’s alleged predatory lending scheme. At the time of the order, the company was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the redress requirement was suspended until it complied with the debt-relief provisions of the consent order. The recent redress payment exceeds $3.7 million and was issued to 82 victims in New York.
On December 21, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey filed a lawsuit against a Massachusetts-based debt collection law firm and its two owners for allegedly violating consumer protection laws by suing consumers for debts that were inaccurate or for debts they did not owe. The AG claims that, since 2011, the law firm: (i) pursued consumers who had exempt income, serving some of them with civil arrest warrants; (ii) demanded payments on old debts without having meaningful proof that the consumer owed the debt or that the debt amount was accurate; (iii) sued consumers without meaningful attorney involvement in the lawsuits; (iv) used sworn statements by debt buyers in collection lawsuits, even though it knew the affidavits were often generated without meaningful documentation or knowledge of the debt; (v) demanded payment of debts that may not have been within the statute of limitations for bringing a lawsuit; and (vi) continued to demand payments on alleged debts even after the cases were dismissed in court for lack of proof. The AG’s suit seeks injunctive relief, restitution to consumers, and civil penalties.
On December 17, the New York DFS announced an enforcement action against a New York branch of a Pakistan-based bank. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) and the DFS recently conducted an examination of the branch and found significant risk management and compliance failures with regard to state and federal laws, rules, and regulations relating to anti-money laundering (AML) compliance. Under the terms of the DFS’s order, the branch agreed to reform its policies and procedures to ensure compliance with AML laws. Per the order, the bank must submit to the DFS, within 60 days of the order, a number of written programs regarding its (i) corporate governance and management oversight; (ii) BSA/AML compliance review; (iii) customer due diligence; and (iv) suspicious activity monitoring and reporting. The branch must also hire an independent third-party approved by the DFS and the FRBNY to review the effectiveness of the bank’s compliance program, and to prepare a written report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations for the program. Because the branch’s compliance with OFAC regulations was insufficient, the order also mandates that the bank retain an independent third-party to examine its U.S. dollar-clearing transactions between October 2014 and March 2015. Significantly, the order does not require the branch to pay a civil money penalty.
On December 11, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) announced an inquiry into the marketplace lending industry, requesting that 14 lenders complete an online survey to provide five-year trend data on their loan and investor funding programs. In addition, the survey requests that participating firms provide information on their business models and online platforms. Marketplace lenders market themselves as a faster, more accessible source of financing for consumers and small businesses. Due March 9, 2016, the survey responses are intended to assist the DBO assess the state’s licensing and regulatory regime of the industry by: (i) assessing the industry’s size in California and the number of consumers and businesses it affects; and (ii) understanding the various loan and investor funding programs used by marketplace lenders. In four years, the national online lending market reportedly grew from $1 billion in loans to $12 billion; analysts anticipate that by 2020, the total volume will be $122 billion.
New York Attorney General Announces Joint Initiative to Protect Consumers from Foreclosure Rescue Scams
On December 7, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a joint initiative with three New York media associations to curtail unlawful advertisements for foreclosure rescue scams. The three media associations sent letters to their members requesting that each member participate in the joint initiative and encouraged community media outlets “to review ads placed by foreclosure rescue companies to ensure that they comply with state disclosure laws.” Noting that scammed homeowners have frequently reported to the Attorney General’s office and local housing counseling partners that they were lured by ads placed in local media outlets, Schneiderman emphasized that foreclosure rescue ads often violate state and federal laws that “require individuals who advertise foreclosure prevention or loan modification services to include specific disclosures in their advertisements.”
On December 1, the New York DFS announced a proposed anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering regulation, Transaction Monitoring and Filtering Program Requirements and Certifications. Key requirements of the proposed regulation include maintaining programs (i) to monitor transactions after they’ve been executed for potential BSA/AML violations and Suspicious Activity Reporting; and (ii) to ban certain transactions that are prohibited by applicable sanctions, politically exposed persons lists, and internal watch lists. The proposed regulation outlines the programs’ respective minimum requirements, including ensuring that they are based on the Risk Assessment of the institution. Critically, the proposal also requires a Certifying Senior Officer of the regulated financial institutions to file with the Department executed certifications ensuring compliance with the requirements by April 15 of each year.
Massachusetts AG Announces Settlements with Student Debt Relief Companies; Reveals Initiative to Aid Student Borrowers
On November 24, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey announced settlements with two student debt relief companies over allegations of charging consumers upfront fees prior to delivering the services offered. According to the AG’s Office, at least 200 students were affected by the companies’ deceptive practices, which included misleading consumers to believe that the companies were affiliated with the government or had special connections with the Department of Education and, therefore, could assist borrowers lower their monthly loan payments. To resolve the AG’s allegations, the companies will pay $56,000 and $40,000, respectively and agree to no longer provide or advertise services in Massachusetts.
Concurrent with the settlement announcements, the AG’s Office revealed an initiative designed to assist borrowers repay their loans. Working with trained attorneys in the Insurance and Financial Services Division, the new Student Loan Assistance Unit will provide borrowers with access to a dedicated hotline and mediation program. The program will review current student loan and payment situations to help borrowers (i) get out of default or delinquency; (ii) apply for various income-driven repayment plans offered by the federal government; and (iii) advocate for complete discharges of the loans in appropriate circumstances.
On November 19, the New York DFS announced a consent order with a nonbank mortgage originator to resolve allegations that its employees engaged in a scheme to cheat on state-required continuing education courses and exams. Specifically, the DFS alleged that at least 20 Mortgage Loan Originators (MLOs), including the Chief Executive Officer and former Chief Operating Officer, encouraged compliance staff to take required continuing education courses and exams on their behalf. Furthermore, the MLOs “shared information acquired during licensing exams with . . . senior management, despite the fundamental obligation of test-takers to preserve the confidentiality of all such information.” The DFS’s examination of the mortgage originator revealed additional state banking law violations, including (i) failing to provide mandatory disclosures on more than 100 subprime loans; (ii) misstating applicable late fees on at least three loans; (iii) failing to maintain the minimum line of credit; and (iv) underreporting its total New York revenue in its 2010 and 2011 Volume of Operations Report. The settlement requires the mortgage originator to immediately surrender its mortgage banker’s license and its status as an exempt mortgage servicer in New York, and pay a civil money penalty in the amount of $1 million.
On November 19, the California DBO announced a settlement with a residential retail mortgage lender to resolve allegations that, from September 30, 2009 through January 21, 2014, it overcharged consumers for a settlement service fee to cover third-party services, and also failed to disclose that the third-party servicer was an affiliated business and that some of its services were performed by the lender’s employees. Additionally, the DBO alleged that the company did not provide examiners with the necessary documentation to account for the full third-party settlement service fee. To resolve Federal and State compliance violations, the company will pay an estimated $2.8 million of combined restitution to more than 70,000 borrowers across the country, and $7.4 million in administrative penalties to participating states where the company is licensed. The settlement requires the company to revise its policies and procedures and, by December 31, 2015, provide adequate training on those revisions to management, mortgage loan originators, and support staff.
On November 18, the California DBO announced that a California-based lender fulfilled its obligation to pay nearly $1 million of restitution to more than 7,000 California consumers and $1 million to the DBO in penalties to resolve allegations that the company used deceptive marketing practices to steer consumers into personal loans exceeding $2,500. California state law limits interest rates at about 30% for loans less than $2,500, but there is no such limit above that amount. According to the DBO, the lender advertised that it provided personal loans of “up to” $2,600, $5,000, or $10,000; in reality, the lender did not offer loans less than $2,600. The lender allegedly told consumers that they could “give back the amount they did not want in the form of a prepayment,” without disclosing that it could then charge borrowers unlimited interest rates since the loan was greater than $2,500. Per the February 5 settlement, in addition to the restitution and penalty fees, the lender must, among other things, ensure that its non-mortgage and non-auto loan ads disclose, in a “clear and conspicuous manner,” that the minimum loan amount is $2,600, that there is a state law interest rate cap on loans of less than $2,500, and that it is lower than the rate charged by the lender.