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.

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.

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.