On October 11, the CFPB issued a consent order to a Virginia-based federal credit union to resolve allegations that its debt collection activities were unfair and deceptive in violation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. According to the CFPB’s consent order, the credit union failed to implement adequate compliance controls and employee training on debt collection communications. The credit union’s actions involved employees who sent letters to “hundreds of thousands” of consumers containing various misrepresentations regarding the handling of consumer debt. The consent order alleged that these debt collection letters falsely threatened legal action, wage garnishment, and contacting servicemembers’ commanding officers for failure to remit payments. The consent order also noted that the same threats were made via telephone. The CFPB further contends that the credit union (i) sent approximately 68,000 letters misrepresenting the credit consequences of falling behind on a loan, alleging that members would “find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain additional credit because of [their] present unsatisfactory credit rating” (internal quotations omitted); and (ii) restricted consumers’ electronic account access and electronic accounts services – without providing adequate notice – once their accounts became delinquent. Pursuant to the consent order, the credit union must (i) pay $23 million in consumer redress; (ii) pay a $5.5 million civil money penalty; and (iii) establish a comprehensive compliance plan regarding its policies and procedures on consumer debt collection communications and electronic account restrictions.
On October 17, the CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman (Ombudsman) released a report on student loan complaints related to debt collection and servicing issues submitted to the CFPB between September 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016. During the period covered in the report, the CFPB received approximately 5,500 private student loan- and 2,300 debt collection-related complaints. Following an August 18 CFPB report that focused primarily on student loan complaints regarding income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, the Ombudsman’s recently issued report emphasizes alleged breakdowns in the “rehabilitation” process: “The majority of borrowers who cure a default and seek to enroll in IDR do so by first rehabilitating their defaulted debt. However, these borrowers describe a range of communication, paperwork processing, and customer service breakdowns at every stage of the default-to-IDR transition.” According to the report, borrowers attempting to enroll in IDR plans face issues such as: (i) delays, do-overs, and dead ends when working with debt collectors to establish and verify income-driven rehabilitation payment amounts; (ii) communication gaps between debt collectors and servicers when transferring a borrower out of default and into an IDR plan; and (iii) servicers failing to “proactively take the steps necessary to help them understand how to access IDR and quickly enroll,” in some cases leading to subsequent delinquency and re-default. The report recommends that policy makers and industry stakeholders reform the default-to-IDR transition process by, among other things, (i) streamlining and simplifying its structure; (ii) improving borrower communication; and (iii) reevaluating the economic incentives currently in place for debt collectors and student servicers to encourage long-term borrower success, rather than focusing on short-term borrower outcomes.
On September 21, the DOJ and FTC entered into an agreement with the former vice president of a Texas-based debt collection company, to resolve allegations that that he violated Section 5 of the FTC Act and Section 807 of the FDCPA. The stipulated order enters a civil penalty of $496,000, but suspends the majority of the judgment based on certain conditions, including cooperation in the ongoing lawsuit against his former company.
On September 9, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) sent a letter to the CFPB regarding the CFPB’s initial outline of the proposed rule for third party debt collectors. The letter asserts that, since the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) was enacted, credit unions have been exempt from the statute’s rules and that to extend any rulemaking pursuant to the statute to include credit unions would be “unlawful.” The CUNA distinguishes credit unions from for-profit debt collectors subject to the FDCPA, claiming that credit unions’ collection approach is more holistic: “They are not just interested in short-term efforts of collecting a debt; instead, they try to find out the specific cause of their member’s financial challenge.” The CUNA is concerned that certain aspects of the CFPB’s proposal as outlined, including the “highlight technical substantiation and oversight requirements,” would negatively impact credit unions. The CUNA reminded the CFPB that pursuant to the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), it is required to consider the recommendations in its letter before finalizing any rule.
FTC Resolves “Operation Collection Protection” Charges; Bans Companies from Debt Collection Business
On September 7, the FTC announced separate stipulated orders (here and here) against two groups of debt collectors to resolve November 2015 charges that their debt collection practices were deceptive, abusive, and unfair in violation of the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). According to the FTC, the first group of debt collectors (i) attempted to collect on debts consumers claimed they did not owe; (ii) failed to verify the debts; and (iii) impersonated law enforcement, threatened non-compliant consumers with arrests and lawsuits, and made accusations of bank fraud. In addition to barring the defendants from debt collection activities and from “misrepresenting material facts about any financial-related products or services,” the order imposes a judgment of more than $4.47 million. Regarding the second group of debt collectors, the FTC alleged that, in addition to threatening consumers with arrest if purported debts went unpaid and harassing friends, family members, and employees in an attempt to collect debts, they sent “alarming and deceptive text messages to trick consumers into contacting them, without identifying themselves as debt collectors.” Pursuant to the final judgment, the defendants must pay a judgment of approximately $27 million. The order imposes a separate judgment of $11,000 on the individually named defendant.
Filed in federal district court of New York, the actions were part of the FTC’s Operation Collection Protection, a federal-state-local initiative that has brought a total of 148 debt collection-related actions to date.