House Committee Members Express Concerns About Operation Choke Point

On April 8 the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing with the general counsels of the federal banking agencies regarding, among other things, Operation Choke Point, the federal enforcement operation reportedly intended to cut off from the banking system certain lenders and merchants allegedly engaged in unlawful activities. Numerous committee members from both sides of the aisle raised concerns about Operation Choke Point, as well as the federal government’s broader pressure on banks over their relationships with nonbank financial service providers, including money service businesses, nonbank lenders, and check cashers. Committee members asserted that the operation is impacting lawful nonbank financial service providers, who are losing access to the banking system and, in turn, are unable to offer needed services to the members’ constituents. The FDIC’s Richard Osterman repeatedly stated that Operation Choke Point is a DOJ operation and the FDIC’s participation is limited to providing certain information and resources upon request. Mr. Osterman also asserted that the FDIC is not attempting to, and does not intend to, prohibit banks from offering products or services to nonbank financial service providers operating within the law, and that the FDIC’s guidance is clear that banks are neither prohibited from nor encouraged to provide services to certain businesses, provided they properly manage their risk. Similarly, the OCC’s Amy Friend stated that the OCC wants to ensure that banks conduct due diligence and implement appropriate controls, but that the OCC is not prohibiting banks from offering services to lawful businesses. She stated the OCC has found that some banks have made a business decision to terminate relationships with some nonbank providers rather than implement additional controls.

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Democratic Lawmakers Express Support for DOJ Payment Processor Investigations

On February 26, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other Democratic Senators, together with Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and other Democratic House members, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging the DOJ to “continue a vigorous review of potential payment fraud, anti-money-laundering violations, and other illegal conduct involving payments by banks and third-party payment processors.” The lawmakers highlighted a number of specific issues on which the DOJ should focus: (i) know-your-customer obligations, which they believe should include a review of whether a lender holds all required state licenses and follows state lending laws; (ii) use of lead generators, including those that auction consumer data; (iii) high rates of returned, contested, or otherwise failed debits or the regular use of remotely created checks, which they state may indicate payment fraud; and (iv) lenders’ failure to incorporate or maintain a business presence in the U.S., which they assert can be indicative of fraud and other payment system violations, including money-laundering.

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CFPB Director Delivers Remarks On Nonbank Supervision, Payment Systems

On November 21, CFPB Director Richard Cordray delivered remarks at The Clearing House Annual Conference, including a review of the CFPB’s efforts to resolve concerns raised by the mortgage market through adoption of new mortgage rules and the objective of evenhanded oversight that is not dependent on charter choice or regulator. Mr. Cordray placed particular emphasis on the CFPB’s ability and efforts to “level the playing field” through its nonbank supervision program.

Notably, Director Cordray raised questions about recent efforts by other regulators and law enforcement authorities to investigate and take action against nonbank entities, like online payday lenders, by focusing on how these nonbanks get paid through bank payment systems. Cordray cautioned that, “[t]he focus of these . . . actions may create burdens that fall disproportionately on individual banks that are participants in the payment systems” and that the referenced approach “may not be the most efficient or effective approach.” Rather, Director Cordray suggested that further attention should be given to “how [payment] systems are designed and how they function for all of the institutions that participate in them.” The Director also expressed interest in working with the Clearing House to improve the CFPB’s understanding of using enhanced computer analytics and communications to identify patterns in payment systems, which he stated would better enable the CFPB to “identify and enforce the law against illegitimate firms that are otherwise able to reduce their own costs by hitching a free ride on the payments system,” as well as to consider necessary changes in law or practice.

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FDIC Explains Supervisory Approach to Payment Processing Relationships

On September 27, the FDIC issued Financial Institution Letter FIL-43-2013, which is intended to clarify the FDIC’s policy and supervisory approach related to financial institutions that facilitate payment processing services—directly or through a third party—for merchant customers engaged in “higher-risk activities.”  The letter states that banks that perform these services for merchants engaged in activities that “tend to display a higher incidence of consumer fraud or potentially illegal activities” are expected to perform proper risk assessments, conduct due diligence to determine the merchants are operating in accordance with applicable law, and maintain systems to monitor the relationships with payment processors and merchants. Institutions that properly manage payment processing relationships and risks are not prohibited or discouraged from providing such services to businesses operating in compliance with applicable law. The FDIC intends to assess whether institutions are adequately overseeing these activities and addressing related risks. The FDIC’s statement follows concerns raised by certain banks, their representatives in Congress, and third-party payment processors about the scope of the governmental scrutiny of online lenders, payment processors, and their relationships with banks.

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CFPB Enforcement Action Targets Debt Settlement Payment Processing

On October 3, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a leading debt-settlement payment processor and its President/CEO for allegedly assisting clients in the debt-settlement industry charge and collect millions of dollars in unlawful fees since October 2010.  According to the complaint, the defendants “knew or consciously avoided knowing” that the company’s services were used to charge illegal upfront fees in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule to more than 11,000 consumers across multiple states.  The defendants agreed to a consent order that will:  (i) prohibit the company from processing payments for debt-settlement companies and for members of the related mortgage-settlement industry going forward; (ii) subject the parties to regular monitoring by and reporting to the CFPB, as well as recordkeeping requirements; and (iii) mandate a civil money penalty of $1.376 million.  On the date announced, Deputy Director Steve Antonakes remarked that the action should send a message that the CFPB is “working to ensure federal consumer laws are being followed at every stage of the process, including taking action against those who unlawfully facilitate illegal conduct of others.”

The CFPB has already taken action against the debt-settlement companies themselves, obtaining judgments against two companies in 2012 and 2013 and filing a complaint against four others in May.

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FDIC Promises Guidance on Bank Payment Processing

On September 17, FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg responded to a letter sent recently by Republican members of the House of Representatives, in which the members objected to the agency’s approach toward online lending and the banks that process payments on behalf of online lenders. In his response letter, Chairman Gruenberg explains the FDIC’s approach to the issue, describes the challenges for banks who do business with online lenders and third party payment processors, and promises “ a Financial Institution Letter . . . to make it clear that the FDIC’s focus is the proper management of the banks’ relationships with their customers, particularly those engaged in higher risk activities, and not underlying activities that are permissible under state and federal law.”

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Republican House Members Object To DOJ Online Lender Probe

Last week, a group of 31 Republican House Members reportedly submitted a letter to the DOJ and FDIC accusing the agencies of “intimidating some community banks and third party payment processors with threats of heightened regulatory scrutiny unless they cease doing business with online lenders.”  According to reports, the letter argues that the government’s actions effectively cut off access to lawful, short-term, high-interest loans available online. Several prominent online lenders have reportedly ceased their lending operations in response to similar pressure from state regulators.

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