On July 19, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop in San Antonio titled the “2017 Military Consumer Financial Workshop: Protecting Those Who Protect Our Nation.” The FTC has uploaded an agenda and list of panelists for the workshop. Acting FTC Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen will be in attendance and deliver the event’s opening remarks. Describing the focus of the forum, Ohlhausen commented that “[h]elping servicemembers and veterans avoid fraud, learn about their legal rights and remedies, and find resources that protect them in the financial area is a top priority.”

Topics to be discussed include auto finance, student lending, installment credit practices, debt collection, legal rights and remedies, financial literacy, and identity theft. The FTC expects the workshop to draw participants from a wide range of spheres, including all service branches, military consumer advocates, consumer groups, legal services providers and clinics serving the military, and representatives from government and industry.  The event, which is free and open to the public, will also be tweeted live from the FTC’s Military Consumer Twitter account (@Milconsumer) using the hashtag #MilFinancial Workshop.

An Illinois federal judge ordered Dish Network to pay the federal government $168 million for violating the FTC’s Telephone Sales Rule (“TSR”).  The judgment is the largest civil penalty ever obtained for a violation of the TSR.  The remainder of the civil penalty was awarded to the states of California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) and various state statutes.  In addition to permanently blocking Dish from making calls in violation of the do-not-call laws, the order requires Dish to undergo substantial long-term compliance monitoring.  Among the many costly provisions of the compliance monitoring component of the order, Dish is required to hire a telemarketing-compliance expert to prepare policies and procedures to ensure that Dish and its primary retailers continue to comply with the injunction and the telemarketing laws.

The decision follows a five week bench trial that commenced in January 2016.  A number of factors were central to the district judge’s 475-page opinion.  Significantly, the calls were placed to individuals whose numbers were listed on the National Do Not Call Registry and to individuals who informed Dish that they did not want to receive calls from them.  Notably, the court ruled in favor of the federal government on all of the TSR counts and found more than 66 million TSR violations.  It further chastised Dish for employing call centers without any vetting or meaningful oversight.  The court also admonished Dish for its refusal to take responsibility for the actions of its call centers and retailers.  Such remarks represent a growing trend of courts scrutinizing companies over their monitoring of third-party vendors and their practices.  Just last month, a North Carolina federal judge presiding over a TCPA class action, found Dish vicariously liable for its vendor’s willful and knowing violations of the TCPA and trebled the damages to $1,200 per call—more than $61 million in total.

A Dish spokesman said that Dish “respectfully disagrees” with the Illinois decision and plans to appeal.

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.

 

Numerous media sources have reported that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has recommended Rohit Chopra to fill the open Democratic seat on the FTC.

Mr. Chopra, who currently serves as a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, formerly served as the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman.  After leaving the CFPB, he is reported to have served as a special adviser to former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. and subsequently to have been a member of Hillary Clinton’s presidential transition team.

It will ultimately be President Trump’s decision whether to nominate Mr. Chopra to fill the FTC seat.  His nomination would also require Senate confirmation.

 

 

A D.C. federal district court has rejected a trade group’s attempt to invalidate a November 2016 FTC opinion in which the agency concluded that outbound telemarketing calls made using soundboard technology are subject to the prior written consent requirement for robocalls in the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

The TSR’s robocall written consent requirement applies to “any outbound telephone call that delivers a prerecorded message.”  The FTC’s 2016 opinion revoked a 2009 opinion in which it had concluded that because soundboard technology allows the caller and recipient to have a two-way conversation, such calls were not subject to the TSR’s robocall consent requirement.  (In calls using soundboard technology, the caller can play pre-recorded audio clips in response to the call recipient’s statements and break in to the call when needed to speak directly to the recipient.)  The FTC changed its position in response to an increasing number of consumer complaints that consumers were not receiving appropriate responses to their questions and comments and live operators were not intervening in the calls as well as evidence that callers using soundboard technology were handing more than one call at a time.  In its 2016 opinion, the FTC made the revocation of its 2009 opinion effective on May 12, 2017 so that industry would have time to make the changes necessary to bring itself into compliance.

In reaching its decision, the district court first determined that the FTC’s 2016 opinion was a reviewable “final agency action” because it took a “definitive position that telemarketing calls deployed with soundboard technology are subject to the robocall regulation.”  More specifically, “telemarketing companies must either undertake the expense of coming into compliance with the agency’s new position or risk enforcement action.”

It then rejected the trade group’s claim that the FTC’s action violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because the FTC did not follow the notice and comment process.  According to the court, because the 2009 opinion revoked by the 2016 opinion was clearly an “interpretive rule” rather than a “legislative rule,” the FTC’s “decision to rescind that opinion did not change the fundamental character of the agency’s action and transform an interpretive rule into a legislative one.”  As a result, the FTC was not required to follow the APA notice and comment procedures before issuing the 2016 opinion.

The district court also rejected the trade group’s claim that subjecting soundboard technology to the TSR robocall written consent requirement violated the First Amendment because it constituted an impermissible content-based restriction on the speech of the trade group’s members engaged in charitable fundraising.  According to the trade group, the TSR robocall consent requirement represented a content-based regulation because it applied to calls soliciting donations from new donors but did not apply to calls soliciting donations from prior donors or members of the non-profit on whose behalf the call is made.  The trade group argued that the carve-out for solicitation calls to prior donors and members constituted a content-based restriction on speech because the FTC must look at what is said in the call (i.e. whether the caller requests a first-time donation or a repeated donation) to determine if the written consent requirement applies.

The court concluded that the distinction between existing and other donors was relationship-based and not content-based.  As a result, it was only subject to intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment.  The court found that the distinction satisfied such scrutiny because it was narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest (namely, “protecting against unwarranted intrusions into a person’s home or pocket”) and left open ample alternative channels of communication (such as media advertising, mailing, and use of live callers instead of pre-recorded messages).

 

On May 24, 2017, the FTC will hold a daylong conference on identity theft in Washington, D.C.

The conference, “Planning for the Future,” will include panel discussions about how identity thieves acquire and use consumer information, how websites trade in stolen consumer information, the impact of identity theft on financial services, health care and other sectors, the challenges that identity theft victims face, and resources available to identity theft victims.  FTC technical experts will give a presentation on how malicious actors use consumer data available online.

The final agenda indicates that speakers will include FTC, DOJ, Secret Service, and IRS representatives as well as industry representatives and consumer advocates.

 

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Acting Director, Thomas Pahl, posted on the FTC’s Business Blog about the FTC’s role as the federal agency with the “broadest jurisdiction” to pursue privacy and data security issues. Pahl noted that for over twenty years the FTC has used its authority, “thoughtfully and forcefully to protect consumers even as new products and services emerge and evolve.”  Pahl emphasized that the FTC is “the enforcement leader in the privacy and security arena” and that the FTC will continue to “focus the national conversation on keeping consumer privacy and data security front and center as new technologies emerge.”

Pahl’s blog posting supports recent statements by FTC Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, who recently testified before Congress that, “the FTC is committed to protecting consumer privacy and promoting data security in the private sector.”

Companies should not expect the FTC to reduce its enforcement activities relating to privacy and data security issues, but companies can expect the FTC to shift away from bringing cases based on novel legal theories.  Ohlhausen is committed to re-focusing the FTC’s efforts on “bread-and-butter” enforcement.  Ohlhausen has spoken openly in opposition to recent enforcement actions brought under the Obama Administration that were based on speculative injury or subjective types of harm rather than concrete consumer injury.

Furthermore, companies should expect further guidance from the FTC relating to privacy and data security expectations to help reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens and provide additional transparency to businesses on how they can remain compliant and avoid engaging in unfair or deceptive acts of practices.  Under Ohlhausen’s leadership, companies should be watching closely for FTC guidance laying out what they should do to protect consumer privacy and ensure proper data security, rather than just waiting to find out what they should not do from FTC enforcement actions.

The FTC issued a press release earlier this week in which it stated that it is “moving aggressively to implement Presidential directives aimed at eliminating wasteful, unnecessary regulations and processes.”  The press release does not identify the directives but presumably they are contained in President Trump’s executive orders entitled “Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System” and “Presidential Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.”

The press release listed a series of initiatives that are already underway to implement the directives that include the following:

  • New groups within the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and Bureau of Consumer Protection are working to streamline demands for information in investigations to eliminate unnecessary costs to recipients of such demands.
  • Both Bureaus are reviewing their dockets and closing older investigations, where appropriate.
  • The entire FTC is working to identify unnecessary regulations that are no longer in the public interest.
  • The Bureaus of Consumer Protection and Economics are working together to integrate economic expertise earlier in FTC investigations to better inform agency decisions about the consumer welfare effects of enforcement actions

The FTC has sent a letter to the CFPB summarizing the FTC’s debt collection activities in 2016.  The letter is intended to provide the CFPB with information for its annual report to Congress on the federal government’s FDCPA activities.

The letter includes a discussion of the FTC’s collaboration with the CFPB on two amicus briefs in cases involving FDCPA issues.  In one such case, the FTC and CFPB argued in the Seventh Circuit that an unpaid parking fee is a “debt” within the meaning of the FDCPA.  In the other such case, the FTC and CFPB argued in the Ninth Circuit that the FDCPA requirement for a debt collector to provide certain information to the consumer “after the initial communication” does not apply only to the first debt collector that contacts a consumer to collect a particular debt but applies to each debt collector that contacts the consumer to collect that debt.

The letter’s centerpiece is the FTC’s description of its enforcement activities.  The FTC stated that in 2016, it brought or resolved 12 debt collection cases that included the following:

  • Three actions involving “phantom debt collection” in which the defendants were charged with such activities as selling portfolios of fake payday loans used by debt collectors to get people to pay on debts they did not owe, threatening consumers to collect debts they did not owe, and attempting to collect on debts known to be bogus.
  • Three actions against debt collectors for allegedly using text messages, emails and phone calls to falsely threaten consumers with arrest or and lawsuits.
  • An action against debt collectors for allegedly sending letters in connection with the collection of utility bills and government debts that contained threats of arrest appearing to come from a court

The letter also discussed the FTC’s education and public outreach initiatives, such as its work with community-based organizations and national groups that order and distribute FTC information, its development of a series of fotonovelas in Spanish, and its development and distribution of business education materials.  The FTC also described its research and policy development activities, which consisted of holding conferences and workshops and coordination with the CFPB.

The FTC has sent its annual letter to the CFPB reporting on the FTC’s activities related to compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Regulation B.

The FTC has authority to enforce the ECOA and Reg B as to nonbank providers within its jurisdiction.  However, like the FTC’s letters on its 2014 and 2015 ECOA activities, the letter on 2016 activities does not describe any 2016 FTC ECOA enforcement activity and only contains information about the FTC’s research and policy development efforts and educational initiatives.

With respect to research and policy development, the letter discusses the following initiatives:

  • Auto survey.  In December 2015, the FTC published a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments on its plans to conduct a survey of consumers regarding their experiences in buying and financing automobiles at dealerships.  The FTC published a second notice in September 2016 seeking clearance from OMB for the survey, addressing comments received in response to the 2015 notice, and inviting further comments.  (In addition to ECOA enforcement authority, the FTC has authority to issue unfair or deceptive trade practices rules for auto dealers under Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The survey could be a prelude to such rulemaking.)
  • Big data report.  In January 2016, the FTC issued a report warning that certain uses of big data consisting of consumer information may implicate various federal consumer protection laws.  The report focused on big data’s impact on low-income and underserved populations and protected groups and discussed the potential applicability of various laws, including the ECOA, to big data practices and provided a list of ”questions for legal compliance” for companies to consider in light of these laws.
  • Fintech forum.  In June 2016, the FTC launched a series of forums exploring emerging financial technology and its implications for consumers.  The first forum focused on marketplace lending and examined how marketplace lending operates, potential consumer benefits, consumer protection issues, and the potential applicability of various consumer protection laws.
  • Report on fraud in African American and Latino communities.  In June 2016, the FTC issued a report on its work on fraud prevention, enforcement, and consumer outreach and education in African American and Latino communities.
  • Changing demographics workshop.  In December 2016, the FTC held a workshop in which the topics discussed included how the population is changing, the impact of those changes on the marketplace, concerns about auto lending and discriminatory lending, and the FTC’s future role.
  • Interagency fair lending task force.  The FTC noted its continued membership in the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending with the CFPB, DOJ, HUD, and the federal banking agencies.

With regard to the FTC’s consumer and business educational initiatives, the FTC discussed its publication of various blog posts in 2016, including posts about its work in combating fraud, its workshop on changing demographics, its fintech forum, and its big data report.