On November 5, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey announced a settlement with a national auto lender to resolve allegations that the lender charged excessive interest rates on subprime auto loans. The company agreed to provide over $5 million – approximately $11,000 per consumer – in relief to those affected by its alleged practice of charging consumers excessive interest rates as a result of including fees from an add-on GAP insurance product. Under the terms of the assurance and discontinuance, the company will (i) eliminate the alleged excessive interest on certain loans as a result of the GAP fee; and (ii) forgive outstanding interest on loans. In addition, the company must pay $150,000 to Massachusetts and perform supervised audits of its existing loan portfolio to ensure that no additional consumers were overcharged because of GAP fees.
State AGs Urge Card Companies to Advance Consumer Protection by Implementing Chip and PIN Technology
On November 16, nine state attorneys general sent a letter urging leading card brands to expedite the implementation of chip and PIN technology in the United States. The letter summarizes research connected to recent data breaches, stating “individuals whose credit or debit cards were breached in the past year were nearly three times more likely to be an identity fraud victim.” Addressing concern that PIN technology would be burdensome or confusing to consumers, the AGs maintain that many consumers are accustomed to financial transactions that rely on PIN technology, such as transactions involving debit cards, and point to a November 2014 poll that indicated cardholders were supportive of chip and PIN technology. The AGs emphasize that PIN technology is “nothing new” and is considered the “gold standard” for payment card security, noting that countries around the world have seen a dramatic decrease in fraud since implementing the technology. Finally, while the letter stresses that chip and PIN technology would better protect both consumers and businesses from data breaches, it does not suggest that the technology be legally mandated at the federal or state level: “[T]his letter calls upon you as good corporate citizens to voluntarily expedite the implementation of existing technology that offers the most substantial security benefits, and to continue to adapt and improve security as quickly as possible as technology advances.”
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 27, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a letter to nearly 100 banks operating in New York requesting that they examine and revise their screening policies for deposit accounts to expand access to mainstream banking to the unbanked and underbanked communities. The letter is part of a 2013 initiative that led to agreements with five banks regarding their screening of applicants seeking to open checking or savings accounts. According to the New York AG’s office, its prior examination revealed that “many financial institutions reject applicants for minor financial missteps, even when those missteps occurred years ago, involved de minimis amounts, or otherwise did not reflect a consumer’s ability to pay responsibly.” In the prior agreements, the five banks committed to taking a number of steps to reform deposit account screening criteria to expand access. The recent letter urges approximately 100 banks to examine their practices and adopt similar measures.
On September 9, the Massachusetts Attorney General announced that her office, along with 12 other states and the District of Columbia, had filed with the U.S. Supreme Court an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff-respondent in Spokeo v. Robins. (Previous InfoBytes coverage can be seen here). The putative class-action plaintiff in that case claimed that an online data broker published inaccurate information about him in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Reversing the district court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the violation of a statutory right created by FCRA was, in itself, a sufficient injury to confer standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution. In their multistate amicus brief, the AGs argued that the Supreme Court should affirm this holding. The states asserted that businesses frequently rely on consumer data profiles to make important credit, employment, housing, and insurance decisions. However, “the damage done by . . . an inaccurate data profile is frequently impossible for the affected consumer to detect or quantify,” they argued. Accordingly, “Congress rightly has authorized statutory damages for a willful violation of the FCRA.” The AGs asserted that, given their limited resources, statutory damage cases and private class actions are needed to supplement their own consumer protection actions.
NAAG Urging Congress to Refrain From Passing Federal Data Breach Legislation Preempting State Authority
On July 7, as Congress considers proposed legislation on data breach notification and security, the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) sent a letter to leaders of both houses of Congress urging them to refrain from passing federal data breach and identity theft laws that would preempt states’ authority to enforce their own legislation, or pass legislation that exceeds federal standards. The 47 state attorneys general argued that “preempting state law would make consumers less protected than they are right now” because (i) states are closer to people affected consumers and can better respond to their concerns; (ii) states are “better equipped to quickly adjust to the challenges presented by a data-driven economy”; (iii) although helpful for a national data breach, a single federal agency would be unable to “respond effectively” to the large number of smaller data breaches that “have a large impact in a particular state or region”; and (iv) “with the increasing speed rate of technological developments,” states need the ability to surpass minimal and continually obsolete federal requirements. Accordingly, the state attorneys general asserted it was “crucial” that they “maintain their enforcement authority under their states’ laws, and that any legislation be tailored to ensure complementary enforcement authority.”
On June 29, a mobile app developer entered into an agreement with the FTC and the New Jersey AG to settle allegations that the developer engaged in deceptive and unfair practices by marketing its rewards app, called “Prized,” as being free of malicious software, also known as “malware.” However, according to the FTC, the true purpose of the mobile app was to uploaded malware onto consumers’ mobile devices capable of mining virtual currencies for the software developer. This process allegedly reduced the battery life of consumers’ devices and caused consumers to burn through their monthly data plans. Under terms of settlement, the developer and accompanying mobile app are (i) prohibited from creating and distributing malicious software, and (ii) required to pay $50,000 to the state of New Jersey, with $5,200 due immediately, and the remaining $44,800 payable if the developer fails to comply with the terms of the consent order or the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act within three years of the order.
Illinois AG Madigan Announces $1 Million Settlement Regarding Company’s Management of Foreclosed Properties
On June 3, Illinois AG Madigan announced a $1 million settlement with an Ohio-based company that mortgage lenders hire to manage properties throughout the foreclosure process and ensure that the properties retain their value. The settlement resolves a 2013 lawsuit by Madigan that alleged that the company wrongly deemed homes vacant, and instructed its contractors to shut off utilities, change the properties’ locks and illegally remove residents’ personal belongings even though they actively remained in their homes. Under the settlement, the company agreed to overhaul its business practices by using objective standards to ensure that homes are vacant, such as: (i) requiring its inspectors to support their inspections with photographs and an affidavit; (ii) posting notice to the occupant that the property has been deemed vacant; (iii) not misrepresenting the occupants’ rights to stay in their home, even if they are behind on their mortgage payments and in foreclosure; (iv) increasing its oversight and quality control of its subcontractors; (v) providing consumers with access to a 24-hour hotline for submitting complaints; and (vi) unless the company obtains a court order, not removing any personal property prior to foreclosure.
In addition to the $1 million agreement, which will be paid in restitution to consumers who filed complaints with respect to the company’s business practices, the company agreed to adhere to ongoing monitoring by Madigan’s office to ensure compliance with the settlement.
CFPB and Florida AG Obtain Judgment Against Law Group and Corporate Affiliates for “Mass-Joinder” Foreclosure Relief Scam
On May 29, a final order was entered against a law group and its corporate affiliates in an action brought by the CFPB and the State of Florida. The July 2014 complaint alleged that the law group and its affiliates violated Regulation O, or the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule, and Florida state law by convincing consumers to participate in “mass-joinder” lawsuits against their mortgage lenders with the false promise that the suits would result in mortgage modifications or foreclosure relief. More specifically, the defendants’ Regulation O violations included: (i) charging consumers advance fees before obtaining loan modifications for them; (ii) misrepresenting success rates of receiving a loan modification; (iii) deceiving consumers into believing that they would receive legal representation; and (iv) discouraging consumers from making their loan payments and/or communicating with their lenders or servicers. The final order, which follows a temporary restraining order and an asset freeze against the defendants, requires that the defendants pay redress to victims and a total of $16 million in civil and state penalties and cease all business operations. Final orders were issued against the three named individuals in the suit as well.
On March 19, four federal and state agencies –DOJ, the Department of Labor (DOL), the SEC, and New York Attorney General – entered into a proposed $714 million settlement agreement against a large bank to resolve allegations of fraudulent conduct involving the pricing and misleading representation of a specific foreign exchange product. According to the settlement, for over a decade the bank misled clients about the pricing they received on the bank’s automatic platform used to execute trades on the clients’ behalf. The bank quoted clients prices that were at or near the least favorable interbank rate, purchased the most favorable interbank rate for themselves, and sold the highest prices to clients, profiting from the difference. Under the proposed settlement, the bank will pay (i) a $167.5 million civil penalty to the DOJ to resolve allegations brought under federal statutes including FIRREA and the False Claims Act; (ii) $167.5 million to the State of New York to resolve claims brought under the Martin Act; (iii) $14 million to the DOL for ERISA claims, (iv) $30 million to the SEC to resolve violations of the Investment Company Act, and (v) $335 million to settle private class action suits filed by customers. The bank also agreed to end its employment relationship with senior executives involved in the conduct.
On March 12, the Legislative Assembly of North Dakota approved legislation H.B. 1346 amending the North Dakota Retail Installment Sales Act to grant enforcement authority to a state attorney or to the North Dakota Attorney General. Under the new law, the Attorney General has all powers provided under the Act, in addition to powers provided under the state’s Unlawful Sales or Advertising Practices law. The law as amended will be effective August 1, 2015.
On January 20, 2015, Douglas F. Gansler, former Attorney General of Maryland, joined BuckleySandler LLP as a Partner in the firm’s Washington, DC, office upon completion of his second term as Maryland Attorney General. An accomplished trial lawyer and appellate advocate with a unanimous victory before the U.S. Supreme Court, Doug’s in-depth knowledge and understanding of complex civil, criminal and enforcement matters will be, as firm Chairman Andrew L. Sandler recently noted, “an invaluable asset for firm clients in navigating the government enforcement challenges they confront on a daily basis.”
As he makes the transition to private practice, Doug is optimistic about the opportunities in front of him and is looking forward to getting to know his new colleagues and meeting with firm clients. He shares some added professional and personal insights for InfoBytes Spotlight. Read more…
On February 3, the DOJ announced a settlement agreement with a large credit rating agency and its parent company for $1.375 billion – a record amount according to the DOJ – in connection with the agency’s alleged “scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).” In 2013, the DOJ, along with 19 states plus the District of Columbia, brought the lawsuit against the agency for misrepresenting the securities’ true credit risks through inflated ratings, which led investors to suffer substantial losses right before the financial crisis. While the agency is neither admitting to nor denying the allegations, it has agreed to (i) “retract an allegation that the United States’ lawsuit was filed in retaliation for the defendant’s decision with regard to the credit of the United States;” (ii) abide by the consumer protection statutes set forth by the settling states and DC; and (iii) answer requests from any of the states and DC regarding information on potential violations of the consumer protection laws.
On October 21, a federal judge dismissed the claims brought by the State AG that the GSEs violated state law by putting limits on the sale of pre- and post-foreclosure homes. Commonwealth v. Fed. Hous. Fin. Agency, No. 14-12878-RGS, 2014 BL 295733 (D. Mass. Oct. 21, 2014). In this case, the State argued that the GSEs violated a state law by refusing to sell homes in foreclosure to nonprofit organizations who intended to restructure the loan and sell or rent the property back to the original homeowner at a lower price. The 2012 state law forbids banks and lenders from refusing to consider offers from legitimate buyback programs solely because the property will be resold to the former homeowner. The judge dismissed the lawsuit agreeing with the FHFA, conservator of the GSEs, that the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) allows the FHFA to enforce restrictions under its conservatorship mandate authorized by Congress. Further, the judge noted that “Congress, by enacting HERA’s Anti-Injunction Clause, expressly removed such conservatorship decisions from the courts’ oversight.” The State is expected to appeal the decision.
On August 21, the DOJ announced that a large financial institution agreed to resolve federal and state mortgage-related claims through what the DOJ characterized as the largest ever civil settlement with a single entity. The agreement actually resolves numerous federal and state investigations related to various alleged practices conducted by the institution and certain former and current subsidiaries that it acquired during the financial crisis. Such allegations relate to the packaging, marketing, sale, arrangement, structuring, and issuance of RMBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as well as the underwriting and origination of mortgage loans. In total, the institution agreed to pay $9.65 billion in penalties and fines and provide $7 billion in relief to borrowers. Of the more than $9 billion in civil payments, $5 billion resolves several DOJ investigations related to RMBS and CDOs under FIRREA, as well as the allegedly fraudulent origination of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA. The origination investigations centered on alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the selling of, or seeking of government insurance for, loans alleged to be defective. Other penalty payments resolve RMBS-related claims by the SEC, the FDIC, and several states. In total, the state participants will receive nearly $1 billion, with California and New York obtaining the largest amounts at $300 million each. An independent monitor will be appointed to oversee the borrower relief provisions, which will require the institution to: (i) offer principal reduction loan modifications; (ii) make loans to “credit worthy borrowers struggling to obtain a loan”; (iii) make donations to certain communities harmed during the financial crisis; and (iv) provide financing for affordable rental housing. The institution also agreed to provide funding to defray any tax liability that will be incurred by borrowers who receive certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.