Richard Moseley Sr., the operator of a group of interrelated payday lenders, was convicted by a federal jury on all criminal counts in an indictment filed by the Department of Justice, including violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and the Truth in Lending Act (TILA).  The criminal case is reported to have resulted from a referral to the DOJ by the CFPB. The conviction is part of an aggressive attack by the DOJ, CFPB, and FTC on high-rate loan programs.

In 2014, the CFPB and FTC sued Mr. Mosley, together with various companies and other individuals.  The companies sued by the CFPB and FTC included entities that were directly involved in making payday loans to consumers and entities that provided loan servicing and processing for such loans.  The CFPB alleged that the defendants had engaged in deceptive and unfair acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) as well as violations of TILA and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA).  According to the CFPB’s complaint, the defendants’ unlawful actions included providing TILA disclosures that did not reflect the loans’ automatic renewal feature and conditioning the loans on the consumer’s repayment through preauthorized electronic funds transfers.

In its complaint, the FTC also alleged that the defendants’ conduct violated the TILA and EFTA.  However, instead of alleging that such conduct violated the CFPA, the FTC alleged that it constituted deceptive or unfair acts or practices in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  A receiver was subsequently appointed for the companies.

In November 2016, the receiver filed a lawsuit against the law firm that assisted in drafting the loan documents used by the companies.  The lawsuit alleges that although the payday lending was initially done through entities incorporated in Nevis and subsequently done through entities incorporated in New Zealand, the law firm committed malpractice and breached its fiduciary obligations to the companies by failing to advise them that because of the U.S. locations of the servicing and processing entities, the lenders’ documents had to comply with the TILA and EFTA.  A motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the law firm was denied.

In its indictment of Mr. Moseley, the DOJ claimed that the loans made by the lenders controlled by Mr. Moseley violated the usury laws of various states that effectively prohibit payday lending and also violated the usury laws of other states that permit payday lending by licensed (but not unlicensed) lenders.  The indictment charged that Mr. Moseley was part of a criminal organization under RICO engaged in crimes that included the collection of unlawful debts.

In addition to aggravated identity theft, the indictment charged Mr. Moseley with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud by making loans to consumers who had not authorized such loans and thereafter withdrawing payments from the consumers’ accounts without their authorization.  Mr. Moseley was also charged with committing a criminal violation of TILA by “willfully and knowingly” giving false and inaccurate information and failing to provide information required to be disclosed under TILA.  The DOJ’s TILA count is particularly noteworthy because criminal prosecutions for alleged TILA violations are very rare.

This is not the only recent prosecution of payday lenders and their principals. The DOJ has launched at least three other criminal payday lending prosecutions since June 2015, including one against the same individual operator of several payday lenders against whom the FTC obtained a $1.3 billion judgment.   It remains to be seen whether the DOJ will limit prosecutions to cases where it perceives fraud and not just a good-faith disclosure violation or disagreement on the legality of the lending model.  Certainly, the offenses charged by the DOJ were not limited to fraud.

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.

The FTC has announced that it will host a workshop on December 12, 2017 in Washington, D.C. to examine consumer injury in the context of privacy and data security.

In the workshop, the FTC plans to examine questions about the injury consumers suffer when information about them is exposed or misused such as “how to best characterize these injuries, how to accurately measure such injuries and their prevalence, and what factors businesses and consumers consider when evaluating the tradeoffs involved in collecting, using, or providing information while also potentially increasing their exposure to injuries.”

The types of consumer harm that flow from data security and privacy breaches has significant implications both for government enforcement and private actions.  With regard to government enforcement actions, in remarks given in February 2017 soon after her appointment by President Trump as Acting FTC Chairman, Maureen Ohlhausen observed that a focus on consumer injury is important both in deciding what cases to bring and in determining what remedy to seek.  She stated that the FTC can best use its limited resources “by focusing on practices that are actually harming or likely to harm consumers” and used recent privacy and data security actions as examples of situations where the FTC “strayed from a focus on actual harm.”  She also criticized the FTC’s pursuit of disgorgement  that was “disproportionate to any consumer harm” and stated that she intended to “work to ensure that our enforcement actions target behaviors causing concrete consumer harm, and that remedies are tied to consumer harm.”

With regard to private actions, the issue of what types of consumer injury will satisfy Article III standing under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Spokeo decision continues to be litigated.  In Spokeo, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff alleging a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act does not have Article III standing to sue for statutory damages in federal court unless the plaintiff can show that he or she suffered “concrete,” “real” harm as a result of the violation.

In advance of the workshop, the FTC is seeking comment by October 27 on the issues to be covered by the workshop, including the following questions:

  • What are the qualitatively different types of injuries from privacy and data security incidents?  What are some real life examples of these types of informational injury to consumers and to businesses?
  • What frameworks might we use to assess these different injuries?  How do we quantify injuries?  How might frameworks treat past, current, and potential future outcomes in quantifying injury?  How might frameworks differ for different types of injury?
  • How do businesses evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of collecting and using information in light of potential injuries?  How do they make tradeoffs? How do they assess the risks of different kinds of data breach?  What market and legal incentives do they face, and how do these incentives affect their decisions?
  • How do consumers perceive and evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks of sharing information in light of potential injuries?  What obstacles do they face in conducting such an evaluation?  How do they evaluate tradeoffs?

The FTC has launched a new page on its website dedicated to its Military Task Force.  According to the FTC, it created the Task Force “to focus on identifying the particular needs of military consumers and developing initiatives to empower servicemembers, veterans, and their families more effectively.”  The Task Force consists of representatives of different FTC divisions.

The new webpage includes links to resources for servicemembers and veterans, workshops, related FTC cases and other initiatives, and congressional testimony.

 

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.

 

On July 17th, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced reforms to its civil investigative demand (CID) process designed to streamline information requests and improve transparency in FTC investigations.  The process reforms that will be implemented for consumer protection cases include:

  • Providing plain language descriptions of the CID process and developing business education materials to help small businesses understand how to comply;
  • Adding more detailed descriptions of the scope and purpose of investigations to give companies a better understanding of the information the agency seeks;
  • Where appropriate, limiting the relevant time periods to minimize undue burden on companies;
  • Where appropriate, significantly reducing the length and complexity of CID instructions for providing electronically stored data;
  • Where appropriate, increasing response times for CIDs (for example, often 21 days to 30 days for targets, and 14 days to 21 days for third parties) to improve the quality and timeliness of compliance by recipient; and
  • Ensuring companies are aware of the status of investigations by adhering to the current practice of communicating with investigation targets concerning the status of investigations at least every six months after they comply with the CID.

The reforms are part of the FTC’s broader initiative to implement Presidential directives aimed at eliminating wasteful, unnecessary regulations, and processes.  The FTC had previously announced other efforts that are already underway:

  • Forming new groups within the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Consumer Protection working to eliminate unnecessary costs to companies and individuals who receive CIDs.
  • Reviewing FTC dockets and closing older investigations, where appropriate.
  • Working to identify unnecessary regulations that are no longer in the public interest.
  • The FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection is actively reviewing closed data security investigations to extract key lessons for improved guidance and transparency.
  • The FTC 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.
  • Acting Chairman Ohlhausen has established a new capability within her office to collect and review ideas on process streamlining and operational efficiency opportunities from across the agency.

The CFPB, which originally modeled many of its own investigatory processes on the FTC model, should consider whether any of these reforms make sense for its own CIDs, which have been frequently criticized as being expansive in scope, vague, and unduly burdensome.

As part of its “Class Action Fairness Project,” the FTC is seeking comment on its plans to use an Internet panel to conduct research on class action notices.  According to the FTC’s Federal Register notice, the project “strives to protect injured consumers from settlements that provide them with little to no benefit and to protect businesses from the incentives such settlements may create for the filing of frivolous lawsuits.”  Actions taken by the FTC as part of the project include monitoring class actions and filing amicus briefs or intervening in appropriate cases; coordinating with state, federal, and private groups on important class action issues; and monitoring the progress of legislation and class action rule changes.  Comments in response to the FTC’s notice will be due on or before August 17, 2017.

In 2015, the FTC announced its plans to study whether consumers receiving class action notices understand the process and implications for opting out of a settlement, the process for participating in a settlement, and the implications for doing nothing (Notice Study).  It also announced that it planned to conduct a study to determine what factors influence a consumer’s decision to participate in a class action settlement, opt out of a class action settlement, or object to the settlement (Deciding Factors Study).

In the new notice, the FTC states that as part of the Notice Study, it proposes to conduct an Internet-based consumer research study to explore consumer perceptions of class action notices.  Using notices sent to class members in various nationwide class action settlements and “streamlined versions designed by the FTC staff,” the study will focus on notices sent to individual consumers via email and will examine whether variables such as the sender’s email address and subject line impact a consumer’s perception of and willingness to open an email notice.  The FTC plans to send an Internet questionnaire to participants drawn from an Internet panel with nationwide coverage maintained by a consumer research firm that operates the panel.

While the FTC plans to assess consumer comprehension of the options conveyed by the notice, including the process for participating in the settlement and the implications of consumer choice, in the Notice Study, it no longer plans to examine whether consumers understood the implications of opting out of a settlement,  According to the FTC, it has determined that the opt-out issue is more appropriately addressed in the Deciding Factors Study.

In November 2015, the FTC issued orders to eight claims administrators requiring them to provide information on their procedures for notifying class members about settlements and the response rates for various methods of notification.  While the FTC notes that it has used data obtained through the orders to inform the Notice Study and that such data will also be used to inform its Deciding Factors Study, it does not provide any information about what such data revealed.  We had commented that the response rate data provided to the FTC by the claims administrators was expected to show extremely low response rates (i.e., less than 5 percent) in most cases, providing support for critics of the CFPB’s proposed rule to prohibit providers of certain consumer financial products and services from using a pre-dispute arbitration agreement that contains a class action waiver.

That rule has now been finalized and like the CFPB’s proposed rule, is based on the CFPB’s view that consumers obtain more meaningful relief through class actions than in arbitration.  Low average response rates would be further evidence that the CFPB’s premise is incorrect and arbitration is more beneficial to consumers than class actions.

 

 

 

 

 

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.