Beginning in 2019, all California “debt collectors”—including creditors collecting their own debts regularly and in the ordinary course of business—will be required to provide notice to debtors when collecting on debts that are past the statute of limitations and will be prohibited from suing on such debts. The new law is based on provisions in the 2013 California Fair Debt Buying Practices Act. However, unlike the 2013 Act, which limited the notice requirement to “debt buyers,” the new law extends the notice requirement to any collector, wherever located, that is engaged in collecting a debt from a California consumer.

The notice requirements have been added to the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, which applies to “any person who, in the ordinary course of business, regularly, on behalf of himself or herself or others, engages in debt collection.” Under the new law, collectors must deliver one form of notice if an account is reported to credit bureaus and another form if it is beyond the Fair Credit Reporting Act’s seven-year limitation period, or date for obsolescence. (There is no separate notice for a collector who has not reported, and will not report, an account to credit bureaus for any other reason.)

The notices, which are identical to those in the 2013 California debt buying law, must be “included in the first written communication provided to the debtor after the debt has become time-barred” or “after the date for obsolescence,” respectively. “First written communication” means “the first communication sent to the debtor in writing or by facsimile, email or other similar means.” We recommend that clients who email the “first written communication” ensure they receive an effective consent to receive electronic communications from debtors.

We surmise that the BCFP may be studying California’s disclosures as the BCFP formulates its notice of proposed rulemaking for third-party debt collection, which it has said it will issue next year. The 2013 advance notice of proposed rulemaking and 2016 outline of proposals issued by the Cordray-era Bureau suggested it was considering limits on the collection of time-barred debts. Therefore, California’s new law may influence any ongoing discussions and drafting by the Bureau’s current staff and leadership on this point.

The new California law also amends the statute of limitations provision in Section 337 of the California Code of Civil Procedure to prohibit any person from bringing suit or initiating an arbitration or other legal proceeding to collect certain debts after the four year limitations period has run. With this amendment, the expiration of the statute of limitations will be an outright prohibition to suit, rather than an affirmative defense that must be raised by the consumer.

The CFPB’s newly-released Summer 2018 edition of Supervisory Highlights represents the CFPB’s first Supervisory Highlights report covering supervisory activities conducted under Acting Director Mick Mulvaney’s leadership.  The Bureau’s most recent prior Supervisory Highlights report was its Summer 2017 edition, which was issued in September 2017.

On October 10, 2018, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET, Ballard Spahr attorneys will hold a webinar, “Key Takeaways from the CFPB’s Summer 2018 Supervisory Highlights.”  The webinar registration form is available here.

Noticeably absent from the new report’s introduction and the Bureau’s press release about the report are statements touting the amount of restitution payments that resulted from supervisory resolutions or the amounts of consumer remediation or civil money penalties resulting from public enforcement actions connected to recent supervisory activities.  (The report does, however, include summaries of the terms of two consent orders entered into by the Bureau, including its settlement with Triton Management Group, Inc., a small-dollar lender, regarding the Bureau’s allegations that Triton had violated the Truth in Lending Act and the CFPA’s UDAAP prohibition by underdisclosing the finance charge on auto title pledges entered into with consumers.)

The report confirms that the Bureau’s supervisory activities have continued without significant change under its new leadership.  It includes the following information:

Automobile loan servicing.  The report indicates that in examinations of auto loan servicing activities, Bureau examiners focus primarily on whether servicers have engaged in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices prohibited by the CFPA.  It discusses instances observed by examiners in which servicers had sent billing statements to consumers who had experienced a total vehicle loss showing that the insurance proceeds had been applied to the loan so that the loan was paid ahead and the next payment was due months or years in the future.  The CFPB found the due dates in these statements to be inconsistent with the terms of the consumers’ notes which required the insurance proceeds to be applied to the loans as a one-time payment and any remaining balance to be collected according to the consumers’ regular payment schedules.  According to the CFPB, sending such statements was a deceptive practice.  The CFPB indicates that in response to the examination findings, servicers are sending billing statements that accurately reflect the account status after applying insurance proceeds.

The Bureau also found instances where servicers, due to incorrect account coding or the failure of their representatives to timely cancel the repossession, had repossessed vehicles after the repossession should have been cancelled because the consumer had entered into an extension agreement or made a payment.  This was found to be an unfair practice.  The CFPB indicates that in response to the examination findings, servicers are stopping the practice, reviewing the accounts of affected consumers, and removing or remediating all repossession-related fees.

Credit cards.  The report indicates that in examinations of the credit card account management operations of supervised entities, Bureau examiners typically assess advertising and marketing, account origination, account servicing, payments and periodic statements, dispute resolution, and the marketing, sale and servicing of add-on products.  The Bureau found instances where entities failed to properly re-evaluate credit card accounts for APR reductions in accordance with Regulation Z requirements where the APRs on the accounts had previously been increased. The report indicates that the issuers have undertaken, or developed plans to undertake, remedial and corrective actions in response to the examination findings.

Debt collection.  In examinations of larger participants, Bureau examiners found instances where debt collectors, before engaging in further collection activities as to consumers from whom they had received written debt validation disputes, had routinely failed to mail debt verifications to such consumers. The Bureau indicates that in response to the examination findings, the collectors are revising their debt validation procedures and practices to ensure that they obtain appropriate verifications when requested and mail them to consumers before engaging in further collection activities.

Mortgage servicing.  The report indicates that in examinations of servicers, Bureau examiners focus on the loss mitigation process and, in particular, on how servicers handle trial modifications where consumers are paying as agreed. In such examinations, the Bureau found unfair acts or practices relating to the conversion of trial modifications to permanent status and the initiation of foreclosures after consumers accepted loss mitigation offers.  In reviewing the practices of servicers with policies providing for permanent modifications of loans if consumers made four timely trial modification payments, the Bureau found that for nearly 300 consumers who successfully completed the trial modification, the servicers delayed processing the permanent modification for more than 30 days.  During these delays, consumers accrued interest and fees that would not have been accrued if the permanent modification had been processed.  The servicers did not remediate all of the affected consumers ,did not have policies or procedures for remediating consumers in such circumstances, and attributed the modification delays to insufficient staffing.  The Bureau indicates that in response to the examination findings, the servicers are fully remediating affected consumers and developing and implementing policies and procedures to timely convert trial modifications to permanent modifications where the consumers have met the trial modification conditions.

The Bureau also identified instances in which servicers, due to errors in their systems, had engaged in unfair acts or practices by charging consumers amounts not authorized by modification agreements or mortgage notes.  The Bureau indicates that in response to the examination findings, the servicers are remediating affected consumers (presumably by refunding or credit the unauthorized amounts) and correcting loan modification terms in their systems.

With regard to foreclosure practices, Bureau examiners found instances where mortgage servicers had approved borrowers for a loss mitigation option on a non-primary residence and, despite representing to borrowers that they would not initiate foreclosure if the borrower accepted loss mitigation offers in writing or by phone by a specified date, initiated foreclosures even if the borrowers had called or written to accept the loss mitigation offers by that date.  The Bureau identified this as a deceptive act or practice. The Bureau also found instances where borrowers who had submitted complete loss mitigation applications less than 37 days from a scheduled foreclosure sale date were sent a notice by their servicer indicating that their application was complete and stating that the servicer would notify the borrowers of their decision on the applications in writing within 30 days.  However, after sending these notices, the servicers conducted the scheduled foreclosure sales without making a decision on the borrowers’ loss mitigation application.  Interestingly, while the Bureau did not find that this conduct amounted to a “legal violation,” it did find that it could pose a risk of a deceptive practice.

Payday/title lending.  Bureau examiners identified instances of payday lenders engaging in deceptive acts or practices by representing in collection letters that “they will, or may have no choice but to, repossess consumers’ vehicles if the consumers fail to make payments or contact the entities.”  The CFPB observed that such representations were made “despite the fact that these entities did not have business relationships with any party to repossess vehicles and, as a general matter, did not repossess vehicles.”  The Bureau indicates that in response to the examination findings, these entities are ensuring that their collection letters do not contain deceptive content.  Bureau examiners also observed instances where lenders had used debit card numbers or Automated Clearing House (ACH) credentials that consumers had not validly authorized them to use to debit funds in connection with a defaulted single-payment or installment loan.  According to the Bureau, when lenders’ attempts to initiate electronic fund transfers (EFTs) using debit card numbers or ACH credentials that a borrower had identified on authorization forms executed in connection with the defaulted loan were unsuccessful, the lenders would then seek to collect the entire loan balance via EFTs using debit card numbers or ACH credentials that the borrower had supplied to the lenders for other purposes, such as when obtaining other loans or making one-time payments on other loans or the loan at issue.  The Bureau found this to be an unfair act or practice.  With regard to loans for which the consumer had entered into preauthorized EFTs to recur at substantially regular intervals, the Bureau found this conduct to also violate the Regulation E requirement that preauthorized EFTs from a consumer’s account be authorized by a writing signed or similarly authenticated by the consumer.  The Bureau indicates that in response to the examination findings, the lenders are ceasing the violations, remediating borrowers impacted by the invalid EFTs, and revising loan agreement templates and ACH authorization forms.

Small business lending. The Bureau states that in 2016 and 2017, it “began conducting supervision work to assess ECOA compliance in institutions’ small business lending product lines, focusing in particular on the risks of an ECOA violation in underwriting, pricing, and redlining.”  It also states that it “anticipates an ongoing dialogue with supervised institutions and other stakeholders as the Bureau moves forward with supervision work in small business lending.”  In the course of conducting ECOA small business lending reviews, Bureau examiners found instances where financial institutions had “effectively managed the risks of an ECOA violation in their small business lending programs,” with the examiners observing that “the board of directors and management maintained active oversight over the institutions’ compliance management system (CMS) framework.  Institutions developed and implemented comprehensive risk-focused policies and procedures for small business lending originations and actively addressed the risks of an ECOA violation by conducting periodic reviews of small business lending policies and procedures and by revising those policies and procedures as necessary.”  The Bureau adds that “[e]xaminations also observed that one or more institutions maintained a record of policy and procedure updates to ensure that they were kept current.”  With regard to self-monitoring, Bureau examiners found that institutions had “implemented small business lending monitoring programs and conducted semi-annual ECOA risk assessments that include assessments of small business lending.  In addition, one or more institutions actively monitored pricing-exception practices and volume through a committee.”  When the examinations included file reviews of manual underwriting overrides at one or more institutions, Bureau examiners “found that credit decisions made by the institutions were consistent with the requirements of ECOA, and thus the examinations did not find any violations of ECOA.”  The only negative findings made by Bureau examiners involved instances where institutions had collected and maintained (in useable form) only limited data on small business lending decisions.  The Bureau states that “[l]imited availability of data could impede an institution’s ability to monitor and test for the risks of ECOA violations through statistical analyses.”

Supervision program developments.  The report discusses the March 2018 mortgage servicing final rule and the May 2018 amendments to the TILA-RESPA integrated disclosure rule.  With regard to fair lending developments, it discusses recent HMDA-related developments and small business lending review procedures.  With regard to small business lending, the Bureau highlights that its reviews include a fair lending assessment of an institution’s compliance management system (CMS) related to small business lending and that CMS reviews include assessments of the institution’s board and management oversight, compliance program (policies and procedures, training, monitoring and/or audit, and complaint response), and service provider oversight.  The CFPB indicates that in some ECOA small business lending reviews, examiners may look at an institution’s fair lending risks and controls related to origination or pricing of small business lending products, including a geographic distribution analysis of small business loan applications, originations, loan officers, or marketing and outreach, in order to assess potential redlining risk.  It further indicates that such reviews may include statistical analysis of lending data in order to identify fair lending risks and appropriate areas of focus during the examination.  The Bureau states that “[n]otably, statistical analysis is only one factor taken into account by examination teams that review small business lending for ECOA compliance. Reviews typically include other methodologies to assess compliance, including policy and procedure reviews, interviews with management and staff, and reviews of individual loan files.”

In the CFPB’s RFI on its supervision program, one of the topics on which the CFPB sought comment is the usefulness of Supervisory Highlights to share findings and promote transparency.  The new report indicates that the Bureau “expects the publication of Supervisory Highlights will continue to aid Bureau-supervised entities in their efforts to comply with Federal consumer financial law.”  Presumably, this means that we will now again be seeing new editions of Supervisory Highlights on a regular basis.

 

Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., L.P.A., the law firm that recently defeated the CFPB’s FDCPA lawsuit against it, has filed a motion seeking attorney’s fees of approximately $1.2 million from the CFPB.

After a four-day trial, the Ohio federal district court hearing the CFPB’s lawsuit, found that the CFPB had failed to prove its FDCPA and CFPA claims by a preponderance of the evidence.  The CFPB’s complaint alleged that the debt collection letters sent by Weltman, which were printed on the law firm’s letterhead, violated the FDCPA and CFPA because they falsely implied that attorneys were “meaningfully involved” in the collection of the debts.  Having found that the letters could be interpreted to imply meaningful involvement by an attorney, the court concluded that there was “meaningful[] and substantial[] involve[ment by Weltman attorneys] in the debt collection process both before and after the issuance of the demand letters.”

In its motion, Weltman asserts that “the Bureau’s blind pursuit of its groundless case cost Weltman dearly, both in terms of substantial expense Weltman incurred in its defense and the reputational harm that cost the firm valued clients and employees.”

Weltman’s motion seeks attorney’s fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), which permits a court to award “reasonable fees and expenses of attorneys” to the prevailing party in a civil action brought by any agency of the United States “to the same extent that any other party would be liable under the common law or under the terms of any statute which specifically provides for such an award.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b).  Weltman asserts that “the EAJA puts the United States on equal footing with private litigants under common law and statute,” and that courts applying this provision have held the government to the same good faith standard expected of all parties to litigation.  According to Weltman, Section 2412(b) of the EAJA “permits a court to sanction the United States and its agencies for attorney’s fees under th[e] common law ‘bad faith’ exception to the American Rule that each party bears its own attorney’s fees.”

Weltman argues that, as the prevailing party, it is entitled to its reasonable attorney’s fees “because the Bureau prosecuted this action in bad faith.”  It asserts that “the Bureau knew, or should have known, that its claims lacked merit long before it even filed the Complaint.”  It claims that based on the more than two-year investigation of Weltman that the Bureau conducted, “the Bureau knew no consumer had been harmed, misled, or confused by Weltman’s practice of truthfully identifying itself as a law firm.”

Ballard Spahr attorneys have successfully pursued attorney’s fees claims against federal government agencies under the EAJA as well as attorney’s fees claims against state government agencies under other federal statutes, such as Section 1988(b) of the Civil Rights Act.  This provision entitles a “prevailing party” in a Civil Rights Act lawsuit to recover its reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses from the losing party.  Several years ago, our client brought a Civil Rights Act lawsuit against a state’s banking regulator in which it successfully argued that the regulator’s attempt to apply its laws to our client’s loans was precluded by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  That state subsequently paid our client $440,000 to resolve its petition seeking attorney’s fees as a “prevailing party” in a Civil Rights Act lawsuit.

The CFPB, in a decision and order signed by Acting Director Mulvaney, has denied the petition filed by Firstsource Advantage, LLC (Firstsource) to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) (Petition) that was issued under the leadership of former Director Cordray.  The CFPB did, however, grant Firstsource’s request to redact portions of the Petition that contained confidential supervisory information.  Acting Director Mulvaney’s decision demonstrates that despite the protestations of consumer advocates and some politicians, the CFPB under Mr. Mulvaney’s leadership is continuing to pursue investigations launched under former Director Cordray.

According to the Petition, there was “full compliance” by Firstsource  with the first CID issued by the Bureau to Firstsource in April 2017. A second CID was issued in September 2017 and contained a Notification of Purpose which stated that the CID had been issued “to determine whether debt collectors, depository institutions, or other persons have engaged or are engaging in unlawful acts and practices in connection with the collection of debt in violation of [the CFPA, the FDCPA] or any other Federal consumer financial law.”

In its Petition, Firstsource argued that the second CID should be set aside for reasons that included: (1) the FDCPA violations asserted by the Bureau are not actionable under the bona fide error rule, (2) the issuance of the CID was outside the Bureau’s Dodd-Frank authority because it had not identified (and cannot identify) any legally cognizable reason to believe Firstsource violated the FDCPA, (3) the Notification of Purpose was written in a vague and formulaic fashion, and (3) Firstsource had already produced data and documents to the Bureau.

The Bureau refused to set aside the CID, stating that “an entity’s fact-based arguments about whether it has complied with substantive provisions of the CFPA or any other enumerated consumer law, such as the FDCPA, are not valid defenses to the enforcement of a CID.”  With regard to Firstsource’s argument that the CID’s issuance was outside the Bureau’s Dodd-Frank authority, the Bureau stated that, even if Firstsource’s assertion were true, the applicable standard only requires a CID “to state the nature of the conduct constituting the alleged violation under investigation and the provision of law applicable to such violation.”  It also found that the CID’s Notification of Purpose was adequate despite its use of broad terms because it identified the conduct at issue (debt collection) and made clear that this was the conduct being investigated.

In rejecting Firstsource’s argument that it had already produced data and documents to the Bureau, the Bureau stated that Firstsource had identified “no authority that precludes a law enforcement agency from making follow-up requests for information.”

Firstsource also argued that as an alternative to setting aside the CID in its entirety, the CID should be modified for reasons that included: (1) the CID was disproportionate because it was unlikely to serve an investigatory purpose and imposed an unnecessary burden on Firstsource because the Bureau could have requested a sampling approach to the recordings of calls it requested, and (2) the requested recordings were time-barred under the FDCPA.  The CFPB rejected both of Firstsource’s arguments for why the CID was disproportionate, stating that Firstsource’s belief that it had not violated the law did not make the Bureau’s investigation improper and that Firstsource’s request for a sampling approach was untimely because it had not been made during the meet-and-confer process.

With respect to Firstsource’s argument that the requested recordings were time-barred, the Bureau stated that even assuming potential FDCPA claims were time-barred, the Notification of Purpose made clear that the Bureau was also investigating whether there had been CFPA violations which are subject to a 3-year statute of limitations that runs from discovery of the violation. Thus, the CFPA statute of limitations would not have begun to run if a CFPA violation had not yet been discovered and the Bureau was seeking the recordings to determine whether there had been a violation.

On September 11, 2018, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET, Ballard Spahr attorneys will hold a webinar, “The CFPB Under Mulvaney: What Has Really Changed?”  The webinar registration form is available here.

 

On August 1, 2018, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) introduced S. 3334 captioned “The Military Lending Improvement Act of 2018” in the United States Senate to “expand and improve” credit protections afforded to service members by the Military Lending Act (MLA) and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).  If this bill becomes law, it would lower the maximum rate of interest on covered transactions from 36 percent to 24 percent.  It would also expand transactions covered by the MLA to include auto and other loans secured by personal property, extend MLA protections to recently-discharged veterans, and amend the FDCPA to prohibit debt collectors from “harassing” service members by calling their commanding officers.

In a press release, Sen. Nelson, who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that “our military men and women have dedicated their lives to serving our county and we must help ensure they do not become the targets of unscrupulous lenders.”  Specifically, the bill would:

  • Reduce the interest rate cap under the MLA from 36 percent to 24 percent.  (The 36% cap is on the Military Annual Percentage Rate (MAPR), which is an “all-in” APR that includes interest and other fees such as application fees and annual fees that are not finance charges under Regulation Z.)
  • Extend coverage of the MLA to veterans for up to one year following discharge from active duty.
  • Expand coverage of the MLA to credit intended to finance the purchase of motor vehicles and other personal property.
  • Amend the FDCPA to prohibit debt collectors from “communicat[ing], in connection with the collection of any debt, with the commanding officer or officer in charge of any covered member, including for the purpose of acquiring location information about the covered member.”
  • Prohibit debt collectors from threatening that failure to cooperate with a debt collector will result in prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • Prohibit creditors from requiring installation of GPS trackers or kill switches in motor vehicles as a condition of extending credit to service members.
  • Require the Department of Defense to assess whether creditors downloading bulk data from the MLA database are using adequate safeguards to prevent data breaches and other potential misuse of downloaded data.

The Military Lending and Improvement Act of 2018 was originally introduced as amendments to the National Defense Reauthorization Act of 2019 (which has already been presented to the President for signature), though no action was taken on the proposed amendments.  Accordingly, Sen. Nelson reintroduced the amendments as a standalone bill, S. 3334, which has been referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.  The bill will surely be opposed by the consumer financial services industry, which has seen MLA coverage explode from furthering the statute’s original purpose — protecting service members from aggressive pay day-type loans – to placing restrictions on forms of credit not typically considered “predatory,” such as credit cards.  We will provide updates on the bill as they become available.

After a four-day trial, the Ohio federal district court hearing the CFPB’s lawsuit against a law firm, Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., L.P.A., found that the CFPB had failed to prove its FDCPA and CFPA claims by a preponderance of the evidence.  By injecting some much needed logic in the approach to these types of claims, the decision should serve as helpful precedent.

The CFPB’s complaint alleged that the debt collection letters sent by Weltman, which were printed on the law firm’s letterhead, violated the FDCPA and CFPA because they falsely implied that attorneys were “meaningfully involved” in the collection of the debts.  Having found that the letters could be interpreted to imply meaningful involvement by an attorney, the court concluded that there was “meaningful[] and substantial[] involve[ment by Weltman attorneys] in the debt collection process both before and after the issuance of the demand letters.”

The court reached this conclusion despite its finding that Weltman did not require an attorney to review every individual account before a demand letter was sent and Weltman attorneys did not “form a professional judgment about the validity of a debt or the appropriateness of sending a demand letter before the letters are sent.”  It also concluded that even if the letters had misrepresented the level of attorney involvement, the CFPB still could not prevail “because there is no evidence that any consumer’s decision on when and whether to pay a debt was influenced by the inclusion of the attorney identifiers in Weltman’s demand letters.”

The findings on which the court based its legal conclusion that “Weltman attorneys were meaningfully and substantially involved” included the following:

  • Weltman’s demand letters accurately conveyed the fact that Weltman was a law firm that had been retained to collect the debt in question but did not state that an attorney had reviewed the particular circumstances of the account, mention any potential legal action, and were not signed by an attorney.
  • Before demand letters were sent, attorneys were involved in: drafting client contracts; checking clients’ reputations; discussing certain information with clients, including the available data and documentation, the history of clients’ portfolios and types of accounts, which consumers were represented by attorneys, any asset reviews that had occurred, and bankruptcy information; reviewing clients’ policies and procedures; evaluating clients’ trustworthiness and legal compliance; obtaining warranties as to the validity of the debts to be collected; sampling documentation and terms of accounts (including reviewing statutes of limitation and determining when arbitration is required); and creating data “scrubbing” procedures and criteria to identify consumers who should not receive collection letters.
  • Weltman had a formal compliance program that was developed and approved by attorneys (including attorney Board members) and conducted routine audits.
  • Attorneys drafted the demand letter templates, oversaw all departments, and were responsible for the training and oversight of non-attorney staff.
  • Weltman collected debts for the State of Ohio using demand letters that were substantially similar to the ones at issue and followed the same processes and procedures used for other clients.  Such letters were approved by the then Ohio Attorney General, Richard Cordray, who nevertheless authorized the CFPB’s lawsuit against Weltman.

 

The CFPB announced last Friday that it had entered into a consent order with National Credit Adjusters, LLC (NCA), a privately-held company that owns several debt collection companies, and NCA’s former CEO and part-owner (CEO).  The consent order enters a $3.0 million judgment for civil money penalties against NCA and the CEO but suspends $2.2 million of the judgment based on the financial condition of NCA and the CEO. (NCA must pay $500,000 and the CEO must pay $300,000.)

According to the consent order, the CFPB found that NCA purchased consumer debts and used a group of debt collection companies (Agencies) to collect such debts.  Some of those companies engaged in frequent unlawful debt collection practices that harmed consumers, including by representing that consumers owed more than they were legally required to pay or by threatening consumers and their family members with various legal actions that NCA did not have the intention or legal authority to take.

The consent order also finds that the CEO determined which of the Agencies NCA would place debt with, which accounts the Agencies would collect on, and the terms under which the Agencies would collect.  NCA and the CEO continued to place debt with the Agencies for collection after NCA’s compliance personnel had recommended terminating the Agencies because of their illegal debt collection practices.  NCA also sold consumer debt to one of the Agencies as a means of convincing original creditors to approve NCA’s business practices and NCA and the CEO defended the Agencies when original creditors raised concerns about their collection practices.

The consent order makes the legal conclusions that NCA and the CEO, either through their actions or through the Agencies, directly violated the CFPA’s prohibition of unfair and deceptive acts or practices by inflating account amounts, making false threats to take legal action, and placing debts with the Agencies despite their illegal collection practices.  It also concludes that the inflation of account amounts and making of false threats by NCA, through the Agencies, constituted deceptive practices or the use of unfair or unconscionable means to collect debt in violation of the FDCPA and that such FDCPA violations also constituted violations of the CFPA.  The consent order finds further that NCA and the CEO not only directly violated the CFPA and FDCPA but also violated the CFPA by knowingly or recklessly providing substantial assistance to the unfair and deceptive collection acts and practices of the Agency to which NCA sold debts.

In addition to requiring payment of $800,000 of the judgment, the consent order prohibits NCA and the CEO from engaging in the illegal collection practices addressed by the consent order, permanently bars the CEO from working in any business that collects, buys, or sells consumer debt, and requires NCA to submit a comprehensive compliance plan to the CFPB that includes, at a minimum, certain specified elements.

It is noteworthy that, like the consent order announced last month by the CFPB that also involved alleged unlawful debt collection practices, the consent order with NCA and the CEO does not require refunds to be made to consumers.  In its Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda, the CFPB stated that it “is preparing a proposed rule focused on FDCPA collectors that may address such issues as communication practices and consumer disclosures.”  It estimated the issuance of a NPRM in March 2019.

 

 

On June 26, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against a debt broker, debt collector and their principals to shut down a phantom debt collection scheme.  According to the complaint, debt broker Hylan Asset Management LLC and its owner, Andrew Shaevel, purchased, placed for collection, and sold phantom debts.  The complaint alleges that Hylan knew that the debts were fabricated because they were purchased from Hirsch Mohindra and Joel Tucker, two individuals who were previously sued by the FTC.  As a result of those actions, Mohindra was banned from the debt collection business and from selling debt portfolios and Tucker was banned from handling sensitive financial information about consumer debts.

The lawsuit also charges a debt collector, Worldwide Processing Group, LLC and its owner Frank Ungaro, Jr. for their role in collecting these phantom debts. The complaint alleges that Worldwide and Ungaro engaged in illegal collection practices and similarly knew that the debts were fabricated.

Hylan and Shaevel are charged with violating the FTC Act by marketing and distributing counterfeit and unauthorized debts.  Worldwide and Ungaro are charged with violating the FTC Act by making false or misleading representations that the consumers owe debts.  Worldwide and Ungaro are additionally charged with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by making false, deceptive, or misleading representations to consumers, engaging in unlawful communications with third parties, and failing to provide statutorily-required notices.

All of the defendants, including those individually named, are charged with violations of New York General Business Law § 349 by engaging in deceptive acts or practices in connection with conducting their debt sales and collection businesses, along with violations of New York State Debt Collection Law by engaging in prohibited debt collection practices under the statute, including, disclosing or threatening to disclose information affecting the debtor’s reputation for credit worthiness with knowledge or reason to know that the information is false and claiming, or attempting to enforce a right with knowledge or reason to know that the right does not exist.

This lawsuit is part of the FTC’s and State Attorneys General continuing efforts to crackdown on phantom debt schemes.

The CFPB announced that it has entered into a consent order with Security Group Inc. and its subsidiaries (Security Group) to settle an administrative enforcement action that charged the companies with having engaged in unlawful debt collection and credit reporting practices.  The consent order requires Security Group to pay a civil money penalty of $5 million.

The consent order states that Security Group owned and operated approximately 900 locations in 20 states.  According to the consent order, certain Security Group entities were primarily in the business of making consumer loans and other entities were primarily in the business of purchasing retail installment contracts from auto dealers. The consent order concludes that Security Group engaged in debt collection practices that constituted unfair acts and practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act and credit reporting practices that violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Regulation V.

The consent order finds that:

  • The unlawful debt collection practices in which Security Group engaged included the following:
    • Visiting consumers’ homes and places of employment, as well as the homes of their neighbors, and visiting consumers in other public places, thereby disclosing or risking disclosure of consumers’ delinquencies to third parties, disrupting consumers’ workplaces and jeopardizing their employment, and humiliating and harassing consumers
    • Routinely calling consumers at work, sometimes calling consumers on shared phone lines and in the process speaking with co-workers or employers and thereby disclosing or risking disclosure of consumers’ delinquencies to third parties, and also calling after being told that consumers were not allowed to receive calls at work and that future calls could endanger their employment
    • Failing to heed and properly record consumers’ and third parties’ requests to cease contact or to give personnel access to cease-contact requests logged by employees in other stores, thereby resulting in repeated unlawful calls to consumers and third parties
  • The unlawful credit reporting practices in which Security Group engaged included the following:
    • Failing to establish and implement any reasonable policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of information furnished to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs)
    • Failing to address in policies and procedures how to properly code customer account information or responses to consumer disputes using the Metro 2 Guide and not ensuring that its monthly furnishing system was coordinated with its consumer dispute furnishing practices
    • Regularly furnishing information to CRAs that it had determined was inaccurate based on information maintained in its data base or other information, such as information provided by consumers as part of a credit reporting dispute or information provided to CRAs

The consent order appears to indicate that first-party collectors that engage in conduct that the FDCPA would prohibit as unfair conduct by third-party collectors continue to be at risk for violating the CFPA’s UDAAP prohibition.  It also appears to indicate that the CFPB continues to disfavor in-person debt collection activities and that companies that do so remain in great peril.  In December 2015, the CFPB issued a bulletin to provide guidance to creditors, debt buyers and third-party debt collectors about compliance with the CFPA UDAAP prohibition and the FDCPA when conducting in-person debt collection visits, such as visits to a consumer’s workplace or home.

In addition to imposing the $5 million civil money penalty, the consent order prohibits Security Group from engaging in the debt collection practices found to be unlawful, and requires it to:

  • implement and maintain reasonable written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information furnished to CRAs
  • correct or update any inaccurate or incomplete information furnished to CRAs
  • provide a prescribed notice to customers affected by inaccurate information furnished to CRAs
  • update its policies and procedures to include a specific process for identifying when information furnished to CRAs is inaccurate or requires updating (which must include at a minimum the monthly examination of sample accounts and monitoring and evaluation of disputes received from CRAs and customers)
  • submit a compliance plan to the CFPB to ensure that Security Group’s credit reporting and collections comply with applicable federal consumer financial laws and the terms of the consent order (which includes a list of items that, at a minimum, must be part of the compliance plan

It is noteworthy that while the consent order imposes a $5 million civil penalty on Security Group, unlike a 2015 CFPB consent order that required the respondents to refund amounts collected through in-person visits found to be unlawful, the consent order does not require Security Group to make refunds to consumers.

In its Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda, the CFPB stated that it “is preparing a proposed rule focused on FDCPA collectors that may address such issues as communication practices and consumer disclosures.”  It estimated the issuance of a NPRM in March 2019.

The CFPB has issued a new report, “Complaint snapshot: Debt collection,” which provides complaint data as of April 1, 2018.  The report represents the CFPB’s first complaint report since Mick Mulvaney was appointed Acting Director.  The CFPB’s last regular monthly complaint report was issued in May 2017 and provided complaint data as of April 1, 2017.   (Subsequent complaint reports issued prior to former Director Cordray’s departure were “special edition” reports.)

The new report is different from prior monthly complaint reports in several significant respects:

  • While the new report includes overall complaint volume information by product and state that was previously part of the CFPB’s monthly complaint reports, it does not include complaint volume information by company (i.e. the “top 10 most-complained about companies.”)
  • It does not highlight complaints received in a particular state as did prior monthly reports.
  • It provides context for certain complaint data.  More specifically, as described below, the new report provides context for the complaint categories showing the greatest percentage changes over the three month periods compared in the report and for the debt collection data highlighted in the report.  (In the RFI seeking comment on potential changes to the CFPB’s practices for the public reporting of consumer complaint information, the CFPB has asked for comment on whether it should change the amount of context it provides for complaint information, particularly with regard to product or service market share and company size.)

Also noteworthy is that the new report was not accompanied by a press release or blog containing editorial spin about the report information.  Rather, the blog post accompanying the new report provides an objective overview of the report information.

General findings include the following:

  • As of April 1, 2018, the CFPB handled approximately 1,492,600 complaints nationally, including approximately 30,300 complaints in March 2018.
  • Credit reporting complaints and debt collection complaints represented, respectively, approximately 37 and 27 percent of complaints submitted in March 2018.
  • Credit reporting, debt collection, and mortgage complaints collectively represented about 74 percent of the complaints submitted in March 2018.
  • Money transfer or service and virtual currency complaints showed the greatest percentage increase from January-March 2017 (352 complaints) to January-March 2018 (1,000 complaints), representing an increase of approximately 184 percent.  The CFPB comments that the increase was “driven by a spike related to virtual currency” and that in the complaints submitted from January-March 2018 “consumers described issues with the availability of funds held at virtual currency exchanges during periods of price volatility for the most active virtual currencies.”
  • Credit reporting complaints showed the second greatest percentage increase from January-March 2017 (4,848 complaints) to January-March 2018 (11,107 complaints), representing an increase of approximately 129 percent.  The CFPB comments that improvements to its complaint submission process in April 2017 allowed consumers “to submit consumer reporting complaints about concerns they are having with data furnishers that supply consumer information to consumer reporting agencies, contributing to this increase in [credit reporting] complaints.”
  • Student loan complaints showed the greatest percentage decrease from January-March 2017 (monthly average of 3,273 complaints) to January-March 2018 (monthly average of 974 complaints), representing a decline of approximately 70 percent.  The CFPB comments that the decline “is likely because student loan complaint data was elevated in 2017 following the Bureau’s enforcement action against a student loan servicer.”

Findings regarding debt collection complaints include the following:

  • The CFPB has received approximately 400,500 debt collection complaints since July 21, 2011, representing 27 percent of all complaints.
  • The CFPB has referred approximately 40 percent of the debt collection complaints it has received to other regulators.  The CFPB states that it typically makes such referrals when a complaint is about a first-party collector, where the debt did not arise from a financial product or service, or when the company complained about does not appear to be a third-party collector of a financial product or service-related debt.
  • The CFPB comments that “debt collection complaints submitted by consumers can be more meaningful when considered in context with other data, such as the number of consumers who have an account in collection.”  The CFPB observes that according to its most recent annual FDCPA report, “millions of Americans” are affected by the debt collection industry, according to its Consumer Credit Panel, “about 26 percent of consumers with a credit file have a third-party collection tradeline listed.”
  • The most common concerns identified by consumers were attempts to collect a debt not owed (39 percent), written notification about debt (17 percent), and communication tactics (17 percent).
  • Based on its review of the narrative descriptions in complaints, the CFPB observed that:
    • Consumers complained about debts appearing on their credit reports without prior written notice of the existence of the debt and not receiving additional information requested about such debts from companies.
    • Consumers complained about communication tactics, such as frequent and repeated calls and calls before 8 am and after 9 pm and calls after having requested no further telephone contact about the debt.

The CFPB has indicated that it intends to move forward on debt collection rulemaking.  Its Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda states that the Bureau “is preparing a proposed rule focused on FDCPA collectors that may address such issues as communication practices and consumer disclosures” and estimates the issuance of a NPRM in March 2019.