On December 28, the CFPB filed a proposed consent order to resolve allegations that a Georgia-based law firm operated a debt-collection lawsuit mill by collecting millions of dollars from consumers who may not have owed the debts in the amounts claimed, or may not have owed debts at all. According to the July 2014 complaint, the firm violated the FDCPA and engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by (i) intimidating consumers through the use of automatically-filed lawsuits that did not involve attorneys; and (ii) using sworn statements from its clients to support its lawsuits, even though the signers could not have known the details to which they were attesting. The CFPB’s proposed consent order would prohibit the firm and its partners from (i) filing lawsuits or threatening to sue to enforce debts unless they are able to prove, through specific documentation, that the debt is enforceable; (ii) filing or threatening lawsuits unless specific documentation regarding a consumer’s debt was reviewed by an attorney; and (iii) using affidavits as evidence to collect debts unless the signer’s knowledge of the facts and the documents are specifically and accurately described in the statements. The proposed order also seeks a $3.1 million civil money penalty.
On January 7, the FTC announced four separate actions under its Operation Collection Protection initiative against collectors allegedly engaging in abusive and deceptive debt collection practices. It also announced that other federal and state law enforcement officials have taken 12 more actions as part of the initiative. The FTC’s actions targeted the following practices: (i) impersonating investigators, law enforcement agencies, or process servers; (ii) threatening consumers with arrest, lawsuits, or wage garnishment for nonpayment; (iii) failing to inform consumers of the amount of debt and the creditor’s name, as well as their right to dispute the alleged debt, as required by the FDCPA; and (iv) collecting on debts that consumers did not owe. The four actions, each with a separate set of defendants, include the following:
- A preliminary injunction prohibiting the use of illegal collection tactics, pending litigation;
- A stipulated order for permanent injunction banning debt collection activities and imposing a judgment of over $2 million;
- A proposed stipulated order for permanent injunction prohibiting misrepresentation of material facts while collecting debts and imposing a judgment of $194,888, which is suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay; and
- A summary judgment granting a permanent injunction against an individual defendant, banning him from debt collection activities and ordering him to pay more than $565,000.
This brings the Operation Collection Protection initiative to a total of 130 actions with more than 70 law enforcement agencies participating in the last year.
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.
CFPB Orders Small-Dollar Lender to Pay $10 Million for Debt Collection Practices; Releases Compliance Bulletin
On December 16, the CFPB announced a consent order against a Texas-based small-dollar lender for alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA), and the EFTA’s implementing regulation, Regulation E. According to the CFPB, beginning in July 2011, the company engaged in unfair and deceptive acts or practices and violated Regulation E by (i) visiting consumers’ homes and places of employment to collect debts; (ii) contacting third parties for reasons other than to acquire consumers’ location information, which put consumers at risk of their information being disclosed to third parties, and ignoring requests to stop calling consumers’ workplaces; (iv) making false threats of litigation if consumers did not pay the past due amount; (v) misrepresenting the company’s ability to, and routine practice to, run credit checks on loan applicants; (vi) requiring consumers to pay using pre-authorized electronic fund transfers; (vii) causing consumers to incur fees from their banks due to electronic withdrawal practices; and (viii) misrepresenting a consumer’s ability to repay loans early and to revoke authorization for electronic withdrawal authorization. The CFPB’s administratively-filed consent order requires the company to pay $7,500,000 towards refunding consumers affected by its practices, and pay a civil money penalty of $3,000,000. In addition, the order prohibits the company from collecting on defaulted loans owed by approximately 130,000 consumers, and from engaging in unfair and deceptive debt collection practices in the future. Read more…
In 2015, the CFPB further expanded its reach into debt collection through a number of enforcement actions. The CFPB also continues to conduct research on a potential rulemaking regarding debt collection activities, which may address information accuracy concerns involving debt sales and other collection activity, as well as many other issues regarding how creditors collect their own debts and oversee collectors working on their behalf. In addition to CFPB activity, this year’s Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC decision has important implications beyond the debt collection industry. Finally, developments regarding the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and collections will likely be of interest to regulatory agencies in the new year.
Debt Sale Consent Orders and Regulatory Guidance
Among the CFPB enforcement actions relevant to debt collection in 2015 were two consent orders with large debt buyers. These orders resolved allegations that the debt buyers, among other things, engaged in robo-signing, sued (or threatened to sue) on stale debt, made inaccurate statements to consumers, and engaged in other allegedly illegal collection practices. In particular, the CFPB criticized the practice of purchasing debts without obtaining supporting documentation or information, or taking sufficient steps to verify the accuracy of the amounts claimed due before commencing collection activities. Under the consent orders, one company agreed to provide up to $42 million in consumer refunds, pay a $10 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a portfolio of consumer debt with a face value of over $125 million. The second company agreed to provide $19 million in restitution, pay an $8 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a consumer debt portfolio with a face value of more than $3 million. In addition, both companies agreed to refrain from reselling consumer debt more generally. Read more…
On December 7, the CFPB announced the filing of a complaint and a proposed consent order against a Massachusetts-based debt collection firm for alleged violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and the Dodd-Frank Act. In 2012, the firm’s subsidiary purchased a debt portfolio from a telephone service provider containing over three million defaulted, and predominantly outdated, cellphone accounts. The firm and its subsidiary entered into a collection services agreement, with the firm agreeing to remit money collected from consumers, less fees and expenses, to its subsidiary. According to the CFPB, the firm, having prior experience in the collection of telecommunications debt, knew that the portfolio likely contained defects, including inaccurate and incomplete dispute histories and unverified documentation. Read more…
On December 3, the CFPB published a report summarizing the impact of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD Act) on consumers and the credit market. According to the report, access to credit has increased by 10% since early 2012, with more than 60% of adults owning at least one credit card account. The report states that as a result of the CARD Act placing limitations on the use of over-limit fees, and its requirement that such fees and other penalty fees be “reasonable and proportional” to the underlying violation of account terms, consumers saved billions of dollars from 2011 through 2014. The CFPB’s outstanding areas of concern relating to the credit market include: (i) deferred-interest promotions; (ii) debt collection practices; and (iii) rewards program offers that provide only partial information.
On November 12, the FTC announced the topics for its November 18 Debt Collection Dialogue in Atlanta, which will have two panels. The first panel, “State Regulation and Enforcement of Debt Collection,” will include representatives from state law enforcement agencies and industry. The second panel, “Federal Regulation and Enforcement of Debt Collection,” will feature representatives from the FTC, the CFPB, and the OCC. Panelists will discuss enforcement actions, consumer complaints, compliance issues, and industry best practices.
FTC Partners with Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Agencies to Announce Nationwide “Crackdown” on Abusive Debt Collection
On November 4, the FTC announced the first coordinated federal, state, and local initiative to combat alleged abusive and deceptive debt collection practices, Operation Collection Protection. This announcement included authorities listing 30 new actions, including five enforcement actions by the FTC. These actions targeted the following practices: (i) extracting payments from consumers by using intimidation and inaccurate representations; (ii) impersonating servers or attorneys and threatening arrest or litigation; and (iii) collecting on debts that never existed or had already been paid. These cases bring the total number of actions taken under the Operation Collection Protection initiative this year to 115 and the total number of participating law enforcement partners to 70.
On October 1, the CFPB ordered an indirect auto lender and its auto title lending subsidiary to pay more than $48 million in restitution and consumer relief over allegations that both companies engaged in unlawful debt collection practices. The CFPB alleged that the companies used a variety of “deceptive” tactics to coerce borrowers into making payments on their remaining loan amounts. The CFPB further asserted that the companies provided inaccurate information in their advertisements to borrowers regarding monthly interest rates, and misled borrowers about the effect of changing payment due dates or the ramifications of extending loan terms, which resulted in additional accrued interest owed over the life of the loan. Under terms of the consent order, the companies agreed to, among other things, provide $44.1 million in restitution and loan balance reductions to affected borrowers and pay a $4.25 million civil money penalty.
On September 15, the CFPB announced a preliminary injunction obtained against World Law Group and its senior leaders for allegedly running a debt-relief scheme that charged consumers costly and illegal upfront fees. According to the CFPB, “the debt-relief scheme falsely promised consumers a team of attorneys to help negotiate debt settlements with creditors, failed to provide legal representation, and rarely settled consumers’ debts.” Specifically, the complaint alleges that defendants charged consumers upfront fees before providing debt-relief services in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The complaint also alleges that World Law Group falsely promised legal representation to consumers who did not receive the promised legal representation. The underlying lawsuit remains pending following the granting of the preliminary injunction.
On September 9, the CFPB ordered the two largest U.S. debt buyers and collectors to pay a combined total of nearly $80 million in civil penalties and consumer restitution related to their debt collection practices. The CFPB alleged that both companies, among other things, engaged in robo-signing, sued (or threatened to sue) on stale debt, made inaccurate statements to consumers, and engaged in other illegal collection practices. In particular, the CFPB criticized the practice of purchasing debts without obtaining important documentation or information about the debt, or verifying to ensure the debts were accurate and enforceable before commencing collection activities. Under the consent orders, one company agreed to provide up to $42 million in consumer refunds, pay a $10 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a portfolio of consumer debt with a face value of over $125 million. The other company agreed to provide $19 million in restitution, pay an $8 million civil money penalty, and cease collecting on a consumer debt portfolio with a face value of over $3 million. In addition, both companies are also generally prohibited from reselling consumer debt. In prepared remarks announcing the enforcement action, CFPB Director Richard Cordray noted, “the terms of the orders will help reform and improve the tactics and approaches” within the debt collection market. The CFPB’s action comes as the industry anticipates the CFPB’s issuance of new debt collection rules.
Today, the CFPB expanded its consumer complaint database, publishing for the first time over 7,700 consumer narratives which provide descriptive details of issues consumers face with respect to mortgages, bank accounts, credit cards, and debt collection, among other topics. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the Bureau finalized its Policy earlier this year requiring consumers who file complaints to “opt-in” to have the actual narrative of the complaint disclosed in the CFPB consumer complaint database. In addition, the Bureau issued a Request For Information seeking feedback on how complaint information contained within the database can be more easily identified and “normalized.” The Bureau also announced that it had received more than 627,000 complaints as of June 1, with mortgages and debt collection among the most frequent sources of complaints.
On June 23, the CFPB published its eighth edition of Supervisory Highlights, covering supervisory activities from January 2015 through April 2015. The latest edition identifies issues with dual-tracking at mortgage servicers and the need for improved quality control measures at consumer reporting agencies. The report also provided supervisory observations related to debt collection, student loan servicing, mortgage origination and servicing, and fair lending. Notably, the report reveals that non-public supervisory actions and self-reported violations at banks and nonbanks in the areas of mortgage origination, fair lending, mortgage servicing, deposits, payday lending, and debt collection resulted in $11.6 million in remediation to more than 80,000 consumers during the first four months of 2015.
On June 18, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a third-party medical debt collection company for allegedly failing to issue debt validation notices to customers, mishandling consumer credit reporting disputes, and preventing customers from exercising certain debt collection rights. According to the Bureau, from 2011 through 2013, the company failed to properly investigate consumers’ complaints with respect to information furnished to credit reporting agencies, and lacked internal policies and procedures on how to handle and respond to the complaints, resulting in a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). In addition, the Bureau contends that the company did not properly inform consumers of the amount of medical debt owed before commencing efforts to obtain payment on the debt, subsequently violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The CFPB ordered the medical debt collector to, among other things, (i) provide over $5 million in restitution to affected consumers, (ii) correct errors in consumer credit reports, (iii) pay a $500,000 civil money penalty, and (iv) improve its business practices.