As readers of this blog already know, Professor Jeff Sovern and I come at most issues from different sides of the street.  Over the years, through our respective blogs and at various programs, we have engaged in spirited but respectful debate about many consumer finance issues.  For that reason, I was particularly disappointed to read Jeff’s blog post about Andrew Smith’s appointment as Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Despite his comment that he does not “mean that Mr. Smith is a thief,” Jeff’s characterization of Andrew as a “Payday Lender Lawyer” in the title of his blog post coupled with his use of the quote “set a thief to catch a thief,” seems intended to raise questions about Andrew’s integrity based solely on his past representation of payday lenders.  Although we strongly disagree with Jeff’s support for the CFPB’s payday lending rule and his criticism of the payday lending industry, those matters are certainly fair game for debate.  However, Andrew has had an unblemished ethical record as an attorney in private practice and as a government attorney in his previous tenure with the FTC.  Indeed, Andrew is considered to be among the country’s most prominent consumer financial services lawyers, as evidenced by his position as Chair of the American Bar Association Consumer Financial Services Committee, his appointment long ago as a fellow of the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers, and his ranking by Chambers USA which evaluates America’s leading lawyers for business.

We also strongly reject the inference that payday lending is a form of theft and observe that, regardless of how an attorney’s clients are viewed, it is bad policy for a lawyer’s qualifications for government appointment to depend on his or her clients’ reputations.  If that were the standard, white collar criminal lawyers would never qualify for government service.

I am confident that in his new leadership role at the FTC, Andrew will continue to adhere to the highest ethical standards.

I was pleased to see the announcement yesterday afternoon by FTC Chairman Joseph Simons that the FTC has approved the appointment of Andrew Smith to serve as Director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, beginning next week.

As I indicated in my prior blog post, I have known Andrew for many years going back to his tenure at the FTC earlier in his career and have always felt that Andrew was a very fair-minded attorney who studiously called the shots as he saw them.  In addition to bringing his excellent lawyering skills to the FTC, I am confident that Andrew will continue to take an even-handed approach in his new leadership role.

Andrew’s appointment was approved by a 3-2 vote, with both Democratic commissioners, Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter, voting against his appointment.

 

According to media reports, the FTC is expected to appoint Andrew Smith, an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C. who currently represents many industry clients, to lead the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau.  His expected appointment has reportedly met with criticism from two Democratic Senators.

Before entering private practice, Andrew was an attorney with the FTC.  He currently chairs the American Bar Association’s Consumer Financial Services Committee.

I have known Andrew for many years going back to his tenure at the FTC where he served in senior supervisory and policy-making positions.  I always felt that Andrew was a very fair-minded attorney who studiously called the shots as he saw them.  As a leader of the ABA Consumer Financial Services Committee, including in his current position as Committee Chair, he has been very even-handed, always ensuring that the voices of consumer advocates are heard.  The ABA represents all of it members, not just lawyers who work for or represent the consumer financial services industry.

The knee-jerk criticism of Andrew by two Democratic Senators based on his prior legal work for clients and his need to recuse himself from FTC investigations involving those clients is completely unfounded.  If anything, it demonstrates that Andrew is an excellent lawyer and that his services are in high demand.  Indeed, the BTI Consulting Group recently named Andrew to its 2018 “Client Service All-Stars” list, which recognizes “the leaders in superior client service.”  Andrew is one of only three consumer financial services lawyers in the country named to this list.  My partner, Scott Pearson, also received this rare honor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit 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.

The district court determined that the FTC’s 2016 opinion was a reviewable “final agency action” but 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 district 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 ruled on 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.  Having found the restriction, which distinguished between calls to new donors and calls to prior donors or members of the non-profit on whose behalf the calls were made, to be relationship-based rather than content-based and therefore only subject to intermediate First Amendment scrutiny, the district court concluded that the restriction  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”).

The D.C. Circuit, ruling on the trade group’s appeal, concluded that the 2016 opinion did not constitute a “final agency action.”  As a result, the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s opinion and dismissed the trade group’s complaint for failure to state a claim under the APA.  According to the D.C. Circuit, the 2016 opinion did not satisfy one of the two conditions for “final agency action” established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1997 decision in Bennett v. Spear.  The D.C. Circuit determined that the condition that the FTC’s action represent “the consummation of agency decisionmaking” was not satisified because the opinion was informal, expressing the views of the FTC staff, and did not represent “the conclusive view of the Commission.”  The D.C. Circuit also concluded that because the trade group’s First Amendment claims were pleaded only as APA claims, it was required to dismiss such claims “for want of a final agency action.”

The title of the FTC’s blog posting about the D.C. Circuit decision, “Decision bolsters FTC position on soundboard tech FTC staff,” suggests that the FTC staff believes the decision provides support for its view.  The press release reminds marketers that “the message…has not changed,” namely that “FTC staff regard calls using soundboard technology as robocalls for TSR purposes.  This means that companies must have each consumer’s express written consent before calling and that fundraisers can only use soundboard technology to solicit charitable contributions from previous donors: no robocalls to new donors.”

The use of soundboard technology also raises TCPA compliance issues.  In addition to generally prohibiting autodialed calls to wireless numbers without the called party’s prior express written consent, the TCPA generally prohibits calls to wireless numbers using ” an artificial or prerecorded voice.”  The TCPA also prohibits telemarketing calls to residential numbers using “an artificial or prerecorded voice” without the called party’s prior express written consent.

 

 

With the swearing in of four of the five newly-confirmed  FTC commissioners, control of the FTC is now in the hands of Republicans.

Yesterday, Joseph Simons, a Republican, was sworn in as FTC Chairman.  Today, Noah Phillips, a Republican, was sworn in along with Rebecca Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, both Democrats.

Republican Christine Wilson, the fifth newly-confirmed FTC commissioner, was appointed to fill the seat currently held by Maureen Ohlhausen, also a Republican.  Ms. Ohlhausen is awaiting Senate confirmation of her nomination by President Trump to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  Ms. Wilson will be sworn in when Ms. Ohlhausen leaves the FTC.

We will be closely watching future FTC developments to see the impact of the change to Republican control on the FTC’s regulatory and enforcement priorities and initiatives.

 

Last Thursday, the Senate confirmed five individuals—three Republicans and two Democrats—nominated by President Trump to serve as FTC commissioners.  The change to Republican control can be expected to impact the FTC’s future regulatory and enforcement priorities and initiatives.

The confirmed nominees consist of the following individuals:

  • Joseph Simons.  Mr. Simons, a Republican, most recently worked as an attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C., and formerly served as a head FTC antitrust lawyer.
  • Noah Phillips.  Mr. Phillips, a Republican, most recently served as Chief Counsel to Senator John Cornyn, the Republican Whip.
  • Christine Wilson.  Ms. Wilson, a Republican, most recently served as Senior Vice President for Regulatory & International Affairs at Delta Air Lines.
  • Rohit Chopra.  Mr. Chopra, a Democrat, most recently served as a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, formerly served as the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman.
  • Rebecca Slaughter.  Ms. Slaughter, a Democrat, most recently served as Chief Counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader.

The FTC has been operating with just two commissioners consisting of Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen and Commissioner Terrell McSweeny.  Ms. Ohlhausen, a Republican whose term expires in September 2018, has been appointed by President Trump to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  Since Ms. Wilson was appointed to fill Ms. Ohlhausen’s seat and the Senate has not yet confirmed Ms. Ohlhausen as a federal judge, it is uncertain when Ms. Wilson will be sworn in as an FTC commissioner.

Although the term of Ms. McSweeny, a Democrat, expired in September 2017, she continued to serve as an FTC Commissioner, reportedly pursuant to an FTC practice that allows a commissioner to remain in his or her position until a replacement is confirmed.  She has resigned effective April 28.

 

 

The FTC has filed comments on the CFPB’s Request for Information regarding its civil investigative demands and investigational hearings.

In the RFI, the CFPB requested feedback on various aspects of the CFPB’s processes and requirements for issuing CIDs, responding to CIDs, and conducting investigational hearing.  The FTC’s comments primarily describe the FTC’s comparable processes and requirements and highlights changes made in 2017 to the CID process used by the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP).  Those changes included (1) adding more detail about the scope and purpose of investigations to give companies a better understanding of the information sought, (2) limiting the relevant time periods to minimize undue burden on companies and focus the FTC’s resources on investigating harms that have an immediate impact on consumers, (3) shortening and simplifying the instructions for providing electronically stored data, and (4) increasing response times for CIDs, where appropriate.

In addition to describing its own processes and requirements, the FTC makes several specific suggestions for the CFPB to consider including the following:

  • The FTC suggests that the CFPB may wish to consider applying an approach to opening and closing investigations that is similar to the FTC’s approach while remaining consistent with the CFPB’s structure, management, workload, and other relevant considerations.  At the FTC, the BCP Director is responsible for implementing the Commission’s enforcement agenda and meets regularly with the FTC Chairman and the other FTC Commissioners to obtain views about investigations and possible investigations to accomplish that agenda.  On a day-to-day basis, the BCP Director is responsible for ensuring that other BCP managers make opening and closing decisions in conformity with the FTC’s enforcement priorities and objectives.  The BCP Director has regular and frequent communications with other BCP managers, including regular discussions about specific divisional or regional office work, including matters currently under investigation and those as to which an investigation is contemplated.  Other BCP managers check with the BCP Director before opening, continuing, or closing an investigation that might not be in line with FTC priorities and objectives or that might present other challenging or sensitive issues.
  • The FTC observes that its procedures for CID issuance appear to be significantly different from those of the CFPB.  When a BCP staff member believes issuance of a CID is appropriate, he or she drafts the CID along with a supporting recommendation and, once approved  by the BCP Director, he or she submits the proposed CID and recommendation memo to the FTC.  Since any Commissioner is permitted to issue a CID relating to any matter under investigation, a single Commissioner generally reviews the proposed CID and recommendation memo to determine whether to approve, modify, or reject a proposed CID.  The FTC believes that because approval is sought for hundreds of proposed CIDs each year, it is more efficient and less burdensome to have a single Commissioner rather than the full FTC review each CID.  Also, Commissioner-approval ensures that there will be an independent assessment of a CID’s costs and benefits by someone who is not conducting the investigation.  In contrast, at the CFPB, not only the Director but also the Assistant Director and the Deputy Assistant Directors of the Office of Enforcement have authority to issue CIDs.  In addition, it is generally a CFPB Deputy Assistant Director who authorizes the issuance of a CID and that individual may be involved in direct oversight of investigations in a way that an FTC Commissioner is not.  The FTC suggests that because its approach has allowed the FTC to successfully balance the need to obtain information without imposing unnecessary or undue burdens, the CFPB may wish to consider the FTC’s experience, including revising its delegation of authority to one or more senior officials who are not directly involved in an investigation.
  • The FTC suggests that the CFPB may want to consider adopting requirements for processing requests for extending the dates and manner of compliance with CIDs that are similar to the FTC’s requirements.  To ensure that the meet-and-confer process is productive, the FTC requires CID recipients to make available persons who are familiar with the recipient’s information management system and the requested materials.  BCP staff conducts the meet-and-confer sessions, which are usually held telephonically.  After having the meet-and-confer, the appropriate BCP manager with the delegated authority can extend the compliance date if the CID recipient “has demonstrated satisfactory progress toward compliance,” and can also modify the terms of compliance with the CID.  The FTC believes that this combination of the meet-and-confer requirement and the delegated authority to modify the time and manner upon a demonstration of satisfactory progress toward compliance allows the FTC to reduce unnecessary and undue burden while at the same time advancing the purposes of the investigation.
  • The FTC observes that the BCP’s current guidelines for submission of electronically stored information (ESI) appear to be significantly shorter and less complex than the most recently available CFPB production requirements.  As streamlined in 2017, the BCP’s production requirements for submission of ESI in response to a CID are less complex, require the processing and production of fewer fields, and no longer require that each field meet exacting requirements for specialized eDiscovery applications.  By providing ESI in the new streamlined format, data can be used in any subsequent proceedings, obviating the need for the recipient to reproduce the data at a later time.

 

 

 

As we previously reported, on March 23, 2018 in Washington, D.C., the FTC and FCC will co-host a joint policy forum that will cover recent policy changes and enforcement actions as well as the agencies’ efforts to encourage private sector technological solutions.  We believe the event will be of interest to clients who launch legitimate account management or marketing campaigns from autodialers as well as those whose names have been misappropriated by fraudulent telemarketers.

Because it comes on the heels of the D.C. Circuit’s March 16 decision addressing a number of critical issues involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s restrictions on the use of autodialers, the forum is likely to include a discussion of the decision.  Ballard has issued a legal alert summarizing the decision and will hold a webinar on April 3, 2018 in which the participants will address the decision’s implications and its potential impact on pending and future TCPA litigation.  (Our legal alert includes a link to register for the webinar.)

The tentative agenda and other information about the event, including how to access a live video feed, can be found here.

 

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) have announced they will host a joint policy forum (“Forum”) in Washington, D.C. on March 23 titled, “Fighting the Scourge of Illegal Robocalls.” The Forum will cover recent policy changes and enforcement actions as well as the agencies’ efforts to encourage private sector technological solutions. We believe the event will be of interest to clients who launch legitimate account management or marketing campaigns from autodialers as well as those whose names have been misappropriated by fraudulent telemarketers.

The agenda will be posted on the event page when it becomes available. The FCC will likely use the venue to announce a “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” on reducing unwanted calls to reassigned phone numbers, which is scheduled for a vote during the agency’s March 22 meeting.  According to the FCC, the notice would:

  • Propose to ensure that one or more databases are available to provide callers with the comprehensive and timely information they need to avoid calling reassigned numbers.
  • Seek comment on the information that callers who choose to use a reassigned numbers database need from such a database.
  • Seek comment on the best way for service providers to report that information and for callers to access that information, including the following three alternatives:
    • requiring service providers to report reassigned number information to a single, FCC-designated database;
    • requiring service providers to report that information to one or more commercial data aggregators; or
    • allowing service providers to report that information to commercial data aggregators on a voluntary basis.
  • Seek comment on whether, and if so how, the FCC should adopt a safe harbor from liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act for those callers that choose to use a reassigned numbers database.

This follows rules that became effective last month permitting voice service providers to proactively block calls from certain numbers that are suspected to be fraudulent. (You can read our summary of the FCC’s Report and Order adopting these rules here.)

A central theme of the Forum is likely to be collaboration between the FTC and FCC as well as between the agencies and the private sector. Such collaboration helps the agencies prevent and target illegal robocall scams, such as the spoofing scheme that made nearly 100 million robocalls and illegitimately invoked the names of major hotel and travel brands to sell vacation packages, resulting in a $120 million forfeiture order by the FCC in June 2017. Spoofing, which is a common tool used in robocall scam campaigns, involves altering or manipulating caller ID information to hide or falsify the identity or number of the calling party.

On April 23 (one month after the Forum), the agencies will host a “Stop Illegal Robocalls Expo” for consumers. Companies that offer technologies, devices and applications to minimize or eliminate illegal robocalls may request to exhibit at the Expo by contacting the FCC staff listed here by midnight on March 23.

According to its newly-released Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, the FTC received complaints from 2.68 million consumers in 2017, a decrease from 2016 when 2.98 million consumers submitted complaints.  The annual report, which does not include do-not-call complaints, provides national and state-by-state data on consumer complaints received by the FTC.  While the number of complaints declined, consumers reported losing a total of $905 million to fraud in 2017, which was $63 million more than in 2016.

Despite the use of the term “complaints” in the FTC’s press release and numerous references to “complaints” in the new annual report, the new report states that it refers to “consumer reports” rather than “complaints” because “[o]ften, people make these reports after they have experienced something problematic in the marketplace, avoided a loss, and decided to alert others.”

Debt collection was the most-reported category in 2017.  Identity theft was the second-most reported category in 2017, with credit card fraud the most common type of identity theft reported and tax fraud the second most common type.  Imposter scam reports, which the FTC describes as reports about someone pretending to be a trusted person to get consumers to send money or give personal information, was the third-most reported category in 2017.

The other two “top-five” report categories in 2017 were telephone and mobile services (fourth) and banks and lenders (fifth).  For military consumers, identity theft was the top report category in 2017.

The Consumer Sentinel Network is an online database of consumer complaints maintained by the FTC.  Other federal and state law enforcement agencies contribute to the database, including the CFPB and the offices of 20 state attorneys general (who are listed on page 86 of the report).  Private-sector organizations contributing data include the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which consists of all North American Better Business Bureaus.

Any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency can obtain access to the database by entering into a confidentiality and data security agreement with the FTC. Certain international law enforcement authorities are also allowed access.

While the data only reflect ”unverified reports filed by consumers,” regardless of merit, the report nevertheless could significantly affect the industries targeted by the complaints. The FTC and state attorneys general have long used consumer complaints to identify victims and potential targets for investigations, and Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s appointee as CFPB Acting Director has indicated that the CFPB will continue to use complaints in setting its priorities.

Because industries receiving a large number of complaints are more likely to draw a regulator’s attention, minimizing the number of consumers who complain to the FTC, CFPB, or other consumer watchdogs is an essential first step to reducing potential exposure.  To accomplish this, it is important for companies to establish their own systems to track and resolve complaints. CFPB examination procedures specifically instruct examiners to assess the quality of a company’s complaints system.