The FTC has entered a proposed consent order with Victory Media, Inc. (VMI) to settle the FTC’s charges that VMI violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by engaging in deceptive acts or practices in connection with its promotion of post-secondary schools to military veterans and servicemembers.

According to the FTC’s complaint, VMI creates advertising, marketing, and promotional content for schools that VMI disseminates through various media, such as magazines, and that targets veterans and servicemembers seeking new education and employment opportunities.  VMI also operates several websites directed at military consumers on which it posts articles and other information on educational topics and schools and describes itself as an advisor to such consumers on social media sites.  In addition, on one of its websites, VMI operates a search tool for military consumers seeking to identify schools in their fields of interest.

The FTC claimed that the following conduct by VMI constituted false, misleading or deceptive acts or practices in violation of Section 5:

  • Representing that its search tool only searched schools that met VMI’s “military friendly” criteria.  According to the FTC, the tool actually searched any schools that paid to be included, whether or not VMI had designated them as “military friendly.”  As a result, the tool’s search results included schools that VMI had not designated as “military friendly.”
  • Endorsing specific schools in articles, emails and social media.  According to the FTC, although they were paid advertising, VMI represented in such communications, expressly or by implication, that such endorsements were independent sources of information and not paid advertising.
  • Representing, expressly or by implication, in articles, emails and social media that it recommended specific schools.  According to the FTC, VMI failed to disclose or disclose adequately that many of such schools had paid VMI to be recommended.

In addition to reporting and recordkeeping and requirements, the terms of the proposed consent order include the following:

  • In connection with paid promotional content, VMI is prohibited from making any misrepresentations, expressly or by implication, (1) regarding the scope of any search tool, including whether the tool only searches “military friendly” schools, (2) about material connections between VMI and any schools, or (3) that paid commercial advertising is independent content.
  • In connection with any endorsement of a school (or third-party endorsement VMI prepares), VMI must clearly and conspicuously disclose, in close proximity to the endorsement, any payments or other material connections between VMI or the other endorser and the school.  For purposes of this requirement, an endorsement is any advertising message that consumers are likely to believe reflects the beliefs of a party other than the school.

Last Friday, as expected, the FTC announced the launch of a coordinated federal-state law enforcement initiative targeting deceptive student loan debt relief companies.  According to the FTC, 11 states and the District of Columbia are participating in the initiative, which is being called “Operation Game of Loans.”  The participating states are Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington,

The initiative includes seven FTC actions, including an action filed by the FTC earlier this month in Florida federal court, and 29 actions by state AGs.

A recent flurry of FTC enforcement activity targeting companies offering student loan debt relief services suggests such companies could be the subject of the announcement scheduled for tomorrow “of a major coordinated consumer fraud enforcement initiative” between the FTC and state attorneys general.

The announcement was originally scheduled to be made on October 11 at a press conference in Chicago, Illinois featuring Thomas Pahl, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  However, after postponing the press conference and rescheduling it for October 13, the FTC issued an update stating that the FTC “and attorneys general in 11 states and the District of Columbia will issue an announcement” on October 13 that “will be posted on FTC.gov.”  The FTC also indicated that “[s]enior officials from the FTC and the offices of the state attorneys general will be available for telephone interviews upon request.”

Earlier this month, the FTC filed a complaint in a Florida federal court for a permanent injunction and other equitable relief against Student Debt Doctor LLC and its individual principal alleging that the defendants conducted a deceptive student loan debt relief operation.  At the FTC’s request, the court entered an ex parte order temporarily freezing the company’s assets and appointing a receiver.  The FTC filed at least two other actions in federal courts in September 2017 against companies and individuals also alleged to have conducted deceptive student loan debt relief operations.

Based on a Law360 article reporting on an interview with Thomas Pahl, the Acting Director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, it appears that under its new leadership, the FTC will take a less aggressive approach to enforcement than the agency had taken under the Obama Administration.  Mr. Pahl was appointed Acting Director by Maureen Ohlhausen, who President Trump named Acting Chairman of the FTC.

While Mr. Pahl stated that privacy enforcement will continue to be an FTC priority, he indicated that the FTC will not follow the Obama Administration’s approach of labeling certain privacy and data security practices unfair or deceptive in the absence of clear consumer harm.  According to Mr. Pahl, the FTC’s enforcement activity will target practices where there is concrete, tangible evidence of consumer injury.

With regard to national advertising, Mr. Pahl indicated that the FTC’s enforcement activity will focus on fraud and quasi-fraud and will prioritize matters involving advertising and marketing directed at certain populations such as the military, the elderly, and consumers living in rural areas.  He also indicated that in deciding whether to recommend an enforcement action, FTC staff will look at consumer injury and the costs and benefits of a practice.

With regard to financial practices, Mr. Pahl indicated that the FTC’s enforcement activity will target matters involving fraud or quasi-fraud in areas such as debt collection and payday lending, with priority given to matters that are outside of the CFPB’s jurisdiction.  Such matters include claims against auto dealers, claims under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, and claims against companies belonging to industries for which the CFPB has created a “larger participant” rule, such as debt collectors, but that do not qualify as a “larger participant.”  Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the CFPB has authority to supervise, regardless of size, providers of residential mortgage loans and certain related services, payday loans, and private education loans.  Dodd-Frank also gave the CFPB supervisory authority over providers considered to be “a larger participant of a market for other consumer financial products or services.”

Once CFPB Director Cordray departs and is replaced by a successor appointed by President Trump, we would hope and expect that he or she will narrow the CFPB’s enforcement priorities in a manner similar to what Mr. Pahl has described for the FTC.

 

The Federal Trade Commission has provided its annual Financial Acts Enforcement Report to the CFPB covering the FTC’s enforcement activities in 2016 relating to compliance with Regulation Z (Truth in Lending Act), Regulation M (Consumer Leasing Act), and Regulation E (Electronic Fund Transfer Act).  Under Dodd-Frank, the FTC retained its authority to enforce these regulations with respect to entities subject to its jurisdiction.  The FTC and CFPB coordinate their enforcement and related activities pursuant to a MOU entered into in 2012 and reauthorized in 2015.  The Report responds to the CFPB’s request for information regarding the FTC’s efforts, which focused on three areas: enforcement actions; rulemaking, research, and policy development; and consumer and business education.

Regulation Z/TILA.  The FTC’s TILA enforcement activities included: (1) initiating two actions in federal district court for civil penalties involving alleged deceptive advertising by auto dealers, one of which focused on dealer advertising aimed at non-English speaking consumers; (2) winning a $1.3 billion dollar judgment against a group of payday lenders in Kansas City for alleged deceptive lending practices, including failing to truthfully disclose loan terms; (3) obtaining a $13.4 million judgment for contempt against a consumer electronics retailer for violations of a prior consent order, which arose from failures to provide required written disclosures and account statements; and (4) continuing to litigate two federal cases involving alleged forensic audit scams by mortgage assistance relief services that offered, among other things, to review or audit mortgage documents to identify violations of the TILA, Regulation Z, and other federal laws, and obtaining in both cases monetary judgments against multiple defendants.

In the first of the federal court actions involving alleged deceptive advertising by auto dealers, the FTC sued three auto dealers who it alleged concealed sale and lease terms that added significant costs or limited who could qualify for advertised prices.  Such alleged concealment included using print too small to read without magnification to disclose that, in addition to a low monthly price, the consumer would be required to pay a down payment and fees up front and pay a large amount at the end of the financing term.  The dealers were alleged to have violated the TILA by advertising credit terms without clearly and conspicuously disclosing required information and by failing to keep and produce required records.

In the second of such federal court actions, the FTC sued nine dealerships and owners who it alleged had enticed consumers, particularly financially distressed and non-English speaking consumers, with advertisements that made misleading claims about the availability of vehicles for advertised prices and financing terms.  The group was alleged to have violated TILA and Regulation Z by not clearly disclosing required credit information in advertisements.

The FTC reported that its TILA rulemaking, research and policy efforts continued through 2016.  Though the FTC does not have rulemaking authority under the TILA, it nonetheless engages in research related to the TILA.  The FTC’s research initiatives included: (1) proposing a qualitative survey of consumer experiences in buying and financing automobiles at dealerships; (2) beginning a forum series exploring emerging financial technologies, where the inaugural forum addressed marketplace lending; (3) holding a workshop on improving the effectiveness of consumer disclosures related to advertising claims and privacy policies; (4) hosting a conference focused on TILA and other compliance issues facing Midwest consumers, and in particular payday loans and car title loans; and (5) participating in the interagency group that provides advice to the Department of Defense on Military Lending Act regulations.

TILA consumer and business education efforts by the FTC included: (1) providing online guidance to the military community about personal financial decisions and military consumer lending issues; (2) issuing blog posts and videos for consumers regarding automobile purchasing and financing; and (3) issuing guidance on deceptive payday lending practices, marketplace lending issues, and disclosures.

Regulation M/Consumer Leasing Act.  The FTC’s Regulation M enforcement efforts included one final administrative consent order involving auto dealers alleged to have deceived consumers and the filing of the two federal court actions discussed above.  In the consent order, the auto dealers, Southwest Kia and Sage Auto, were alleged to have advertised low monthly car lease payments and down payments, without disclosing other key terms and, in violation of the CLA, failed to disclose or clearly and conspicuously disclose lease terms.  In the Southwest Kia action, the dealers were alleged to have violated the CLA by advertising lease terms without clearly and conspicuously disclosing required information—for instance, a television advertisement offered vehicles for less than $200 a month and disclosed in fine print visible for two seconds that the offer only applied to leases and required a $1,999 payment at signing.  The Sage Auto defendants allegedly violated the CLA by failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose lease terms.  As an example, the defendants ran newspaper advertisements offering vehicles for $38 a month and $38 down, but the fine print below the ad listed additional charges of $2,695 at signing, limited the offer to leases, and limited the $38 payment to the first six months.

The CLA does not confer rulemaking authority on the FTC.  Nonetheless, the FTC hosted a workshop to examine consumer leasing of rooftop solar panels.  The FTC also worked with the ABA committee on consumer leasing issues.  FTC blog posts also addressed consumer leasing.

Regulation E/EFTA. The FTC’s Regulation E enforcement actions included six new or ongoing cases.  Four cases involved negative options and the payment terms that applied automatically absent cancellation.

In the first, the defendants allegedly obtained consumers’ credit or debit card information purportedly to pay shipping costs but imposed recurring monthly charges to their credit or debit card accounts for unordered products.  This case resulted in a $72.7 million monetary judgment suspended upon the defendants’ surrender of virtually all assets.

In the second case, customers were allegedly enticed to sign up for “free” or “risk free” trials but their bank accounts were electronically charged recurring monthly fees without authorization.  The second case resulted in an agreed-upon $280.9 million judgment against some defendants, though others continue to litigate.

The third case involved the alleged use of personal information to sign up for a “free trial” or discount program for weight-loss supplements, where customers’ bank accounts were then charged electronically on a recurring basis.  The defendants also allegedly failed to allow consumers to stop the charges.  The third case led to a $105 million judgment, again suspended after surrender of over $9 million in personal and business assets.

The fourth case also involved weight loss supplements.  Here, the FTC alleged consumers were promised a “risk-free trial” offer, and were then enrolled in an inadequately disclosed monthly plan resulting in additional charges to their credit card or debit card accounts.  Consumers who failed to cancel trial memberships were allegedly billed on a monthly basis.  The fourth action was filed along with a stipulated final order imposing a $16.4 million judgment, suspended after the sale and liquidation of personal and business assets.

The FTC’s two other EFTA-related cases were the payday lending case and consumer electronics retail cases discussed above.  In the payday lending case, the defendants allegedly violated the EFTA by conditioning payday loans on payment by preauthorized debits from bank accounts.  In the consumer electronics retail case, the FTC alleged an EFTA violation where the extension of credit was conditioned on mandatory preauthorized transfers.

As with the TILA and the CLA, the FTC lacks rulemaking authority under the EFTA, although it conducts research and policy work that touches on related issues.  In that regard, the FTC worked with the Department of Defense interagency group and ABA on electronic fund transfer issues, interpretive rules, and trainings.  The FTC also hosted various conferences addressing EFTA issues and other compliance issues in connection with marketplace lending, crowdfunding and peer-to-peer payments.

The FTC continued its consumer and business education efforts with blog posts providing guidance on negative option plans and recent cases, explaining possible EFTA and Regulation E violations, giving advice to consumers, and providing guidance to businesses on EFTA issues.

At the Auto Finance Risk and Compliance Summit held this week, Calvin Hagins, CFPB Deputy Assistant Director for Originations, stated that the CFPB is increasingly asking lenders about ancillary product programs during examinations, particularly about the percentage of consumers buying these products.

In June 2015, when the CFPB released its larger participant rule for nonbank auto finance companies, it also issued auto finance examination procedures in which ancillary products, like GAP insurance and extended service contracts, received heavy attention.  We commented that by giving so much attention to these products, the CFPB was signaling its intention to give lots of scrutiny to these products in the auto finance market.  Mr. Hagins’s comments confirm that the CFPB is in fact looking closely at these products in exams.

Speaking at the Summit as a member of a regulatory panel, Mr. Hagins indicated that companies should expect to get questions from CFPB examiners about ancillary products.  He indicated that the CFPB specifically looks at how the product is offered to the consumer, when in the contracting process is it offered, how disclosures are being provided to the consumer, and the acceptance rate.  As an example, he indicated that a 95% acceptance rate would cause CFPB examiners to raise questions about how the rate was achieved.

At the Summit, Colin Hector, an FTC attorney, indicated that the FTC is also interested in ancillary products, particularly whether there is a potential for consumer deception in how they are sold.  He commented that, in its enforcement work, the FTC has focused on ancillary product sales that occur at the end of the sales process when consumers may be led to believe they must purchase the products to obtain financing and the seller has increased leverage because the consumer is more invested in completing the transaction.

 

A Texas federal district court has entered a $2 million civil penalty judgment against the former president of a debt collection company for alleged violations of the FDCPA and FTC Act.  The judgment follows the court’s finding in a prior order that $2 million was a “reasonable and appropriate penalty for [the president’s] violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”  The company and former president had previously been banned by the court from “participating in debt collection activities”  and “advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, selling, or buying any consumer or commercial debt or any consumer information relating to a debt.” 

In January 2015, the DOJ, on behalf of the FTC, had filed a complaint against the company and its former president and vice president alleging that the defendants had engaged in various practices in violation of the FDCPA and FTC Act, including impersonating attorneys and attorneys’ staff and falsely threatening consumers with litigation or wage garnishment.  In April 2016, the court entered summary judgment against the company and former president, stating “the summary judgment record is clear and uncontroverted that [the company] is a debt collector covered by the FDCPA and that its collectors have committed numerous violations of the FDCPA and Section 5 of the FTC Act.”  With regard to the company’s president, the court found that as president and sole owner of the company, he had actual or implied knowledge of the FDCPA violations because he “not only played a role in formulating the policies and practices that resulted in the violative acts, but in fact actually set the policies of his company.  As President, he had the authority to fire or otherwise discipline his employees for employing deceptive debt collection activities.”   In September 2016, the court entered a stipulated order permanently banning the company’s former vice president from participating in debt collection activities and activities related to the sale or purchase of consumer or commercial debts or debt-related consumer information. The order also imposed a $496,000 civil penalty judgment that was suspended except for $10,000 based on inability to pay.) 

In its order finding $2 million to be an appropriate penalty, the court noted that the FTC Act authorizes a penalty of up to $40,000 for each act that violates the FDCPA “with actual or implied knowledge of the FDCPA” and that the “maximum theoretical penalty for the estimated  109,634 violations exceeds $4 billion.”  The court stated that the FTC had established the defendant’s lack of good faith through his admissions that the company had no formal FDCPA training program and that he had hired “abusive collection managers and refused to fire them if they were effective.”  The court also noted his awareness of consumer complaints and that he “he had the ultimate authority over the collection managers and the collectors.”