Arkansas Amends Penalties for Unlicensed Collection Agency Activities

On April 8, the Arkansas General Assembly approved H.B.1668, which amends its collection agencies law to allow unlicensed collection agencies operating within the state to pay a $10,000 civil penalty to be considered retroactively licensed by its State Board of Collection Agencies. The legislation defines “retroactively licensed” as the date in which the collection agency first became subject to licensure. The legislation removes the criminal penalty for operating without a license but preserves the board’s right to impose a minimum fine of $50 up to a maximum of $500 for each day a collection agency participates in collection activities without a license. The opportunity to opt for retroactive licensure will take effect 90 days after the state legislature has adjourned.

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CFPB Files Suit and Obtains Injunction Against Participants of Alleged Illegal Debt Collection Scheme

On April 8, the CFPB announced that it filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on March 26 against participants in an allegedly illegal debt collection operation, involving certain payment processors and a telephone broadcast service provider. The complaint alleges that several individuals and the companies they formed, based in New York and Georgia, attempted to collect debt that consumers did not owe or that the collectors were not authorized to collect. The complaint further alleges uses of  harassing and deceptive techniques in violation of the CFPA and FDCPA. Specifically, the collectors allegedly placed robo-calls through a telephone broadcast service provider, also named in the complaint, to millions of consumers stating that the consumers had engaged in check fraud and threatening them with legal action if they did not provide payment information. The CFPB asserts that as a result, the debt collectors received millions of dollars in profits from the targeted consumers. The complaint also names certain payment processors used by the collectors to process payments from consumers. The CFPB obtained a preliminary injunction to halt the debt collection activities and freeze the assets of all defendants named in the lawsuit. Consistent with prior enforcement actions and guidance, the CFPB’s complaint in this matter underscores the importance of exercising thorough due diligence and ongoing oversight of third parties engaged to provide material services in connection with the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.  For an in-depth analysis of the CFPB’s expanding scrutiny in this area, please see the recently published article Regulatory Blue Pencil: CFPB Guidance, Enforcement Actions Signal Expanding Focus on Vendor Management, authored by BuckleySandler Partner Elizabeth McGinn and Counsel Moorari Shah.

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CFPB Announces Action Against National Debt Collection Company

On March 30, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a nationwide debt collection operation and its CEO for allegedly violating the FDCPA. The Bureau’s complaint alleges that the debt collection operation (i) posed as state or district attorneys by sending communication letters on prosecutors’ letterheads; (ii) threatened consumers with criminal prosecution for bounced checks before a state or district attorney had determined if a violation had occurred; and (iii) deceived consumers into believing that they must enroll in and pay for a financial education class to avoid potential criminal prosecution for bad checks. In addition to the $50,000 civil money penalty the company will pay, the proposed consent order requires that the debt collection operation: (i) end its deceptive communication practices; (ii) stop threatening customers with imprisonment; (iii) no longer use district attorney letterhead; and (iv) increase its supervision – to include state and district attorneys – of communicating with consumers about diversion programs.

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CFPB Seeks Consumer Feedback in Review of Credit Card Market

On March 17, the CFPB announced a Request for Information (RFI) seeking public comment on key aspects of the credit card market. This RFI is a part of a review mandated by the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act (the CARD Act)—a law passed in 2009 that requires the CFPB to conduct a review of the credit card market every two years. The review seeks feedback on how the credit card market has functioned over the last two years and the impact new credit card protections have had on consumers. Specifically, the review solicits input on the changing patterns of credit card agreement terms, unfair or deceptive practices within the credit card market, the use of third-party debt collection agencies, and how consumers understand credit card reward products. Information obtained from the review will culminate in a public report to Congress.

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FTC and New York AG File Joint Suits Against Debt Collectors

On February 26, the FTC and the New York State Attorney General announced joint lawsuits to cease certain practices of two debt collection operations based in upstate New York.  The complaints allege that the defendants unlawfully used threats and abusive language, including false threats that consumers would be arrested, to collect more than $45 million in supposed debts.  The FTC and the State of New York are also seeking monetary relief to provide refunds to consumers.  FTC v. 4 Star Resolution LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00112-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2015), FTC v. Vantage Point Services, LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00006-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2015).  The District Court has temporarily enjoined the defendants’ practices in both cases.

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Eighth Circuit Rules Disputed Debt Claim Does Not Violate FDCPA

On December 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a debt collector did not violate the FDCPA by informing a consumer reporting agency (CRA) that a consumer owed a debt without also expressly indicating that the consumer had disputed it. McIvor v. Credit Control Services, Inc., No. 14-1164 (8th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014). According to the opinion, the plaintiff brought a claim under § 1692e(8) of the FDCPA, which prohibits debt collectors from using “any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt,” and deems as a violation the conduct of “[c]ommunicating . . . to any person credit information which is known . . . to be false, including the failure to communicate that a disputed debt is disputed.” The court reasoned that no violation occurred here because (i) the CRA already knew that the debt was disputed, and (ii) the debt collector communicated with the CRA “with the purpose of complying with the FCRA, not as an elective report of credit information.”

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CFPB & State Attorneys General Fine Retailer and Debt Collectors for Alleged Illegal Debt Collection Practices Against Military Servicemembers

On December 18, the CFPB and the Attorneys General of North Carolina and Virginia announced an enforcement action against three affiliated companies offering credit and financing services to military servicemembers. The complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia alleges that the companies used illegal tactics to collect debts in violation of Dodd-Frank, including by (i) filing illegal lawsuits; (ii) debiting consumers’ accounts without authorization; and (iii) contacting servicemembers’ commanding officers. The complaint also charges that one of the companies violated the EFTA by failing to properly disclose the terms of preauthorized transfers, while another company violated TILA by failing to properly disclose terms and interest rates on the loans it offered to servicemembers. The CFPB and the Attorneys General filed a consent order in the district court to require the companies and their owners and chief officers to provide over $2.5 million in consumer redress, pay a $100,000 civil penalty, and undergo ongoing compliance monitoring for a period of five years.

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District Court Awards Florida Couple Over $1 Million In Robocalls Suit

Recently, the U.S. District Court for the District of Florida denied a major bank’s motions to vacate and modify a judgment that awarded a Florida couple a total of $1,051,000 – approximately $1,500 per unauthorized call. Coniglio v. Bank of America, N.A., No. 8:14-CV-01628-EAK-MAP (M.D. Fla. December 4, 2014). In a complaint filed in July, the couple claimed the bank violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act after they received over 700 calls in four years, including calls from an automated telephone dialing system, without their consent. The calls began as a result of the couple falling behind on their mortgage payments in 2009. In October, the Court agreed with the couple’s claims and ordered the bank to pay the awarded amount.

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CFPB Addresses Medical Debt Collection, Requires Consumer Reporting Agencies To Provide Accuracy Reports

On December 11, the CFPB held a field hearing on medical debt collection and how it affects consumer credit reports. In his prepared remarks, Director Cordray announced the release of a white paper focused on the specific issue of medical debt collection. According to Cordray, medical debt collection presents unique challenges as compared to other industries due to inconsistent debt collection practices by medical service providers, insurance companies, and collection agencies. More broadly, Cordray addressed issues within the consumer reporting system and announced that major consumer reporting agencies will now be required to submit “regular, standardized accuracy reports” as part of its ongoing examinations efforts. Specifically, consumer reporting agencies will have to (i) identify furnishers with the most disputes; (ii) identify industries with the most disputes, and (iii) provide peer group ranking of furnishers consumer disputes relative to their industry.

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ABA Requests Guidance On SCRA Notice Form Expiration

On December 3, the ABA sent a letter to HUD’s General Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Housing requesting guidance on the use of form HUD-92070 under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. HUD Form 92070 relates to the debt protections servicemembers receive under the SCRA. However, the most current version of the form expired on November 30, 2014. The letter seeks guidance regarding (i) compliance requirements now that the form has expired; and (ii) how to provide an accurate notice to servicemembers since the current form will be inaccurate effective January 1, 2015. Finally, the letter requests that HUD advise lenders as to how they should remain in compliance with the Congressional mandate until a new form is published.

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New York Announces New Regulations of Abusive Third-Party Debt Collection Practices

On December 3, New York Governor Cuomo announced that the DFS finalized regulations to help end abusive debt collection practices. The new regulations will (i) require debt collectors and debt buyers to provide enhanced disclosures regarding the debt; (ii) protect consumers who may have debts where the statute of limitations has expired; (iii) require that the debt collector substantiate that the debt is actually owed; (iv) ensure that consumers receive written confirmation of settlement agreements; and (v) allow consumers to communicate with debt collectors via personal email. The new regulations will take effect on March 3, 2015, with the exception of Sections 1.2(b) and 1.4, which will take effect August 30, 2015. Section 1.2(b) refers to disclosure requirements and 1.4 refers to substantiation of debts.

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DOJ Announces Arrests and Charges Against Debt Collection Company

On November 19, the DOJ issued a press release announcing charges against six employees of a Georgia-based debt collection company for allegedly running a $4.1 million dollar debt collection scam. According to the press release, from approximately 2009 to May 2014, the accused employees allegedly falsely represented themselves as affiliated with various law enforcement agencies, and made a variety of false statements to consumers in an attempt to coerce them into making payments to the debt collection company. The action appears to be the first case in which multiple federal agencies – U.S. Attorneys’ Office, CFPB, FBI, and the FTC – have taken a coordinated action against a debt collector. The complaint was filed in the Southern District of New York.

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Special Alert: CFPB Takes Enforcement Action Against “Buy-Here, Pay-Here” Auto Dealer for Alleged Unfair Collection and Credit Reporting Tactics

On November 19, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a ‘buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealer alleging unfair debt collection practices and the furnishing of inaccurate information about customers to credit reporting agencies. ‘Buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealers typically do not assign their retail installment sale contracts (RISCs) to unaffiliated finance companies or banks, and therefore are subject to the CFPB’s enforcement authority. Consistent with the position it staked out in CFPB Bulletin 2013-07, in this enforcement action the CFPB appears to have applied specific requirements of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) to the dealer in its capacity as a creditor based on the CFPB’s broader authority over unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts practices.

Alleged Violations

The CFPB charges that the auto dealer violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536, which prohibits unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, by (i) repeatedly calling customers at work, despite being asked to stop; (ii) repeatedly calling the references of customers, despite being asked to stop; and (iii) making excessive, repeated calls to wrong numbers in efforts to reach customers who fell behind on their auto loan payments. Specifically, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer used a third-party database to “skip trace” for new phone numbers of its customers. As a result, numerous wrong parties were contacted who asked to stop receiving calls. Despite their requests, the auto dealer allegedly failed to prevent calls to these wrong parties or did not remove their contact information from its system.

In addition, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by (i) providing inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies; (ii) improperly handling consumer disputes regarding furnished information; and (iii) not establishing and implementing “reasonable written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information relating to [customers] that it furnishes to a consumer reporting agency.” Specifically, the CFPB alleges that, since 2010, the auto dealer did not review or update its written furnishing policies, despite knowing that conversion to its third-party servicing platform had led to widespread inaccuracies in furnished information. Also, the consent order alleges that the auto dealer received more than 22,000 credit disputes per year, including disputes regarding the timing of repossessions and dates of first delinquency for charged-off accounts, but nevertheless furnished inaccurate information. Read more…

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CFPB Releases Report Highlighting Debt Collection Complaints Among Older Americans

On November 5, the CFPB announced the release of a report highlighting debt collection issues among older Americans. The report analyzed nearly 8,700 complaints made by older consumers from July 2013 to September 2014. The most common debt collection complaints noted in the report relate to medical debt, debts of deceased family members, and threats to garnish older American’s federal benefits. Notably, of the complaints submitted, 17 percent were related to credit cards and 5 percent to payday loans.

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Third Circuit Reverses Lower Court Decision, Rules Envelope Revealing Consumer’s Account Number Violates the FDCPA

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a lower court’s holding that the disclosure of a consumer’s account is not a “benign” disclosure and, therefore, violates the FDCPA. Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, No. 13-3588, 2014 WL 4235570 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2014). In this case, a debt collector sent a consumer a dunning letter in a window envelope, and the consumer’s account number was visible through the window.  The consumer brought a claim under § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA, which bars debt collectors from using any language or symbol other than the collector’s address on any envelope sent to the consumer.  The debt collector contended that the claim must fail because the account number was “benign language” that was not prohibited by § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA. The Third Circuit held that even if “benign language” was exempt from § 1692f(8)’s prohibition (a question that the court declined to decide), the consumer’s account number was not benign.  In particular, the court noted that the disclosure of the account number threatened the consumer’s privacy because it was a “core piece of information pertaining to the status as a debtor and the debt collection effort.”

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