The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s first enforcement action of 2017 will return more than $17 million to consumers who were deceived into purchasing unneeded credit reporting products. On January 3, 2017, the CFPB issued a consent order against TransUnion, LLC (TransUnion) and Equifax Inc. (Equifax) and their respective subsidiaries and affiliates for making false claims about the usefulness and actual cost of the companies’ credit score services.
TransUnion and Equifax are two of the nation’s three largest credit reporting agencies. They collect consumers’ credit information in order to generate credit reports and scores to be used by businesses to determine whether to extend credit. These companies also sell their own products directly to consumers, including credit scores, credit reports, and credit monitoring.
According to the order, TransUnion and Equifax told consumers that they would receive the same score typically used by lenders to determine their creditworthiness. But that claim was false: in fact, the scores they sold to consumers were rarely used by lenders. Since at least 2011, TransUnion has been using a credit score model from VantageScore Solutions, LLC (VantageScore) — a model not used by the vast majority of lenders and landlords to assess consumers’ credit. Similarly, between July 2011 and March 2014, Equifax used its own proprietary credit score model, the Equifax Credit Score, which was in the form of “education credit scores” and thus intended for consumers’ educational use and rarely used by lenders. In fact, the most widely used scores in lending are FICO scores.
TransUnion and Equifax also falsely advertised the price of their services. They told consumers that their credit scores and credit-related products were free, or in the case of TransUnion, cost only “$1.” In reality, the companies required consumers to sign up for either a seven-day or 30 day free trial period of credit monitoring, which then automatically turned into a monthly subscription costing $16 or more per month, unless the consumer had cancelled by the end of the free trial. This payment structure, called “negative option billing,” was not adequately disclosed in the companies’ ads.
Credit reporting agencies are required by law to provide a free credit report once every 12 months. They are not allowed to advertise add-on services until “after the consumer has obtained his or her annual file disclosure.” The CFPB found that Equifax violated that requirement.
The CFPB has ordered TransUnion to pay more than $13.9 million in restitution to affected consumers, and Equifax to pay almost $3.8 million, in addition to fines of $3 million and $2.5 million respectively. The companies have also been directed to truthfully and clearly describe the usefulness of their credit score products, and to obtain consumer consent before enrolling anyone in automatic billing.
Consumers who want access to their credit reports for free should go to the official source: www.annualcreditreport.com. They can stagger their requests by ordering one report from each of the Big Three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) every four months, essentially obtaining “credit monitoring for free.” In addition, many consumers can now get a FICO score for free through the FICO Open Access program from participating credit card companies or nonprofit credit counselors.
This month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took action against three reverse mortgage companies for promising seniors a financial product that was too good to be true. The CFPB’s investigation determined that several of the claims the companies made in TV and print ads were not true. All three companies “tricked consumers into believing they could not lose their homes” with a reverse mortgage, CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement accompanying the Bureau’s announcement of the settlements it has reached with Reverse Mortgage Solutions, Aegean Financial, and American Advisors Group, which is the largest reverse mortgage lender in the United States.
A reverse mortgage is a special type of home loan for homeowners who are 62 or older, that converts a portion of the equity that has been built up over years of paying a mortgage, into cash. Homeowners do not have to repay the loan until they pass away, sell, or move out of the house, or fail to meet the obligations of the mortgage. These three companies promised consumers that their reverse mortgages would eliminate debt without any monthly payment obligation. In fact, a reverse mortgage is itself a debt and consumers are required to make regular payments related to the home, including for property taxes, insurance and home maintenance. Consumers can default on a reverse mortgage and lose their home if they fail to comply with the terms of the loan, including making such payments.
The CFPB settlement requires the three companies to make clear and prominent disclosures of the possible dangers of reverse mortgages in their future adds, and to pay a combined $800,000 in penalties
The CFPB provides information for consumers about reverse mortgages on its website.
— Veronica Meffe
 Consent Order in the Matter of American Advisors Group, No. 2016-CFPB-0026 (Filed Dec. 7, 2016), at 6 (“American Advisors Group Consent Order”). Id., at 11. Id., at 9.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed a lawsuit against Access Funding, LLC (Access Funding) for operating an illegal scheme that took advantage of victims of lead-paint poisoning. “Many of these struggling consumers were victimized first by toxic lead, and second by a company that saw them as little more than income streams to be courted and harvested,” the CFPB said.
Access Funding is a structured-settlement factory company that purchases payment streams from personal-injury settlement recipients in exchange for an immediate lump sum that is usually much lower that the long-term payout. Forty-nine states have enacted laws, known as Structured Settlement Protection Acts (SSPAs), which require judicial approval to protect injured people from scams.
According to the CFPB’s November 21 lawsuit, Access Funding and its partners aggressively pressured consumers to accept up-front payment amounting to about 30 percent of the present value of the money due to them, and lied to them by saying that once they had received a cash advance they were legally obligated to proceed with the transaction. Knowing that many of the consumers in this case had suffered cognitive impairments from lead poisoning, the CFPB’s complaint alleges that the companies exploited their “lack of understanding” in order to lock them into these arrangements.
About 70 percent of Access Funding’s deals were done in Maryland, where it was headquartered. Many SSPAs, including Maryland’s, require consumers to consult with an independent professional advisor (IPA) before a court can approve such a deal. According to the lawsuit, Access Funding steered almost all its Maryland consumers to a single attorney, Charles Smith, who purported to act as the IPA, while having both personal and professional ties to Access Funding and its partners. Smith, who was paid directly by Access Funding, gave virtually no advice to the consumers.
The lawsuit charges Access Funding with violating the federal prohibition on unfair, abusive, and deceptive acts in consumer financial transactions. Reliance Funding, a successor company to Access Funding, was also named in the action, along with Michael Borkowski, CEO of Access Funding; Raffi Boghosian, Chief Operating Officer of Access Funding; Lee Jundanian, former CEO of Access Funding; and Charles Smith, the attorney who facilitated the scam. The CFPB is seeking to end the company’s unlawful practices and obtain compensation for victims, as well as a civil penalty against both companies and their partners. — Veronica Meffe
 Complaint at 7, CFPB v. Access Funding, LLC, No. 1:16-cv-03759-JFM (D. Md. Filed Nov. 21, 2016) (“Complaint”).  Press Release, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, CFPB Sues Access Funding for Scamming Lead-Paint Poisoning Victims Out of Settlement Money (Nov. 21, 2016) (“Press Release”).  Complaint at 8-9.  Press Release.
A lawsuit filed by the CFPB earlier this month underscores the importance of its efforts to take on the abuses of the debt-collection industry, both by enforcing the law, and through a rulemaking process that is already underway.
The lawsuit – against two debt-collection magnates operating out of Buffalo, N.Y. – involves a nationwide operation that is said to have engaged in outrageous practices, causing massive harm to millions of people. In its filing, the Consumer Bureau describes the two men, Douglas MacKinnon and Mark Gray, as the “ringleaders” of a network of companies that “harassed, threatened, and deceived” consumers, making tens of millions of dollars a year in the process. Since 2009, the action charges, McKinnon, Gray and their companies have been buying up payday loans and other defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar, routinely adding $200 to each acquired debt (regardless of whether the law allows that), and using a variety of illegal practices to collect. Some consumers have reportedly been pressured to pay as much as six times more money than they really owed.
Employees of MacKinnon’s and Gray’s companies, the lawsuit charges, impersonated law-enforcement officials (sometimes using “call-spoofing” programs to create the impression that they were phoning from government offices) and threatened legal action they had neither the power nor the intent to actually take – arresting a consumer for “check fraud,” for example.
According to the suit, MacKinnon and Gray manage three Buffalo-based debt collection companies – Northern resolution Group, LLC (NRG), Enhanced Acquisitions, LLC (Enhanced), and Delray Capital, LLC (Delray), and have set up a network of at least 60 firms “to collect on the debt portfolios that NRG, Enhanced, and Delray purchased.” The defendants directed and encouraged these illegal acts, and profited significantly from them, the lawsuit holds, adding that “tens of millions of dollars annually” were “funneled back to MacKinnon, his relatives, and Gray through payments to various sham companies controlled by them.
The lawsuit charges MacKinnon and Gray with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Acts, which prohibit unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the consumer financial marketplace. The Bureau is seeking to shut down their operation and secure compensation for victims as well as a civil penalty against the companies and its partners. “[T]his suit sends the message that debt collectors that employ abusive tactics will be held accountable,” New York Attorney General Schneiderman said in a joint announcement of the action. — Veronica Meffe
Wall Street will set still another record for political spending this election cycle.
So far in 2015 and 2016, banks and financial interests have put more than $1.4 billion into efforts to elect and influence holders of national political office, according to Wall Street Money in Washington, a new report released this week by Americans for Financial Reform based on data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
That spending total works out to more than $2.3 million a day!
Financial sector companies, employees, and trade associations have reported making nearly $800 million in campaign contributions since the start of 2015, more than twice the spending level of any other specific business sector in the Center for Responsive Politics database.
Some of the financial industry’s biggest donors have been hedge funds, with James Simons’ Renaissance Technologies and Paul Singer’s Elliot Management leading the way at $37.5 million and $20.2 million respectively. Of the campaign contributions that can be clearly linked to one political party or the other, 61 percent have gone to Republicans and 39 percent to Democrats.
The financial industry’s expenditures – about $667 million through the second quarter of 2016 – place the sector in third place, behind a category of “Miscellaneous Business” companies and trade associations at $780 million and health-related companies at $775 million.
These figures do not count much of the so-called “dark money” contributed to nonprofits that engage in political advocacy or the money spent on lobbying-related research and support activities. Nor do they include spending by “Miscellaneous Business” entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a national business group that lobbies extensively on financial issues.
Wall Street political spending has increased sharply since 2009 and 2010, when industry forces were trying to blunt or defeat the reform legislation that came to be known as Dodd-Frank. The legislation was eventually enacted over industry objections in 2010, but that just marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
Since Dodd-Frank’s passage, big banks and other financial interests have been working nonstop to block, delay, and weaken important elements of that law – as well as the agencies responsible for carrying it out. At the same time, they’ve also been working to stymy efforts in Congress to move forward on the next steps needed to make sure Wall Street serves Main Street, instead of continuing to put us all at risk.
Another new AFR report, Where They Stand on Financial Reform: Votes Cast in the 114th Congress, details many of the financial industry’s latest efforts to avoid needed reform. Wall Street has enjoyed some real success in this lower-visibility phase of the battle, using a “must pass” 2014 budget bill, for example, to repeal an important provision of Dodd-Frank and let big banks go back to using insured deposits and other taxpayer subsidies to gamble on the riskiest of financial derivatives.
Since 2010, Wall Street-backed deregulation proposals have continuously clogged the legislative pipeline. In the current Congress alone, lawmakers friendly to Wall Street have introduced 10 separate legislative proposals to limit the authority or political independence of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Meanwhile, despite polls that show lopsided majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents favoring tougher Wall Street regulation, Congress has yet to vote on a single bill that would move things in that direction.
The $2.3 million a day Wall Street executives are spending on politics certainly rates as a lot of money. But measured against the many special privileges that the financial industry and its execs continue to enjoy, that expenditure amounts to a smart investment – for Wall Street.
Recently, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) suggested that it took the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) too long to find out about the bank’s misconduct. Yet Chairman Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act includes provisions that would make it harder for the CFPB to learn about future abuses by banks and lenders.
The Financial CHOICE Act would preserve the financial industry’s use of forced arbitration, a relatively new phenomenon designed to allow corporations to keep misconduct out of public view, evade the law, and escape accountability. Buried in the fine print, “ripoff clauses” force consumer and worker claims into arbitration – a secretive, rigged system where the corporation gets to pick the arbitration provider and which rules will apply – and bars people harmed in similar ways from joining together in class actions to challenge systemic abuses.
Because agencies have limited resources, individual and class action lawsuits brought by consumers and workers often act as the canary in the coal mine to alert agencies to fraud and abuse. The CFPB is in the midst of a rulemaking that would restore consumers’ right to join together to hold banks accountable for predatory behavior like the Wells Fargo scandal. Since May, more than 100,000 individual consumers and 281 consumer, civil rights, labor, and small business groups wrote in to support the proposed rule.
The CHOICE act would bar CFPB from restoring consumers’ rights to take banks to court –preserving the secrecy and lack of accountability that allowed Wells Fargo to get away with this misconduct for so long.
Background on the Wells Fargo Scandal
At least 3,500 Wells Fargo employees opened approximately 1.5 million bank accounts and approximately 565,000 credit cards without the consent of their customers. According to the CFPB, its “investigation found that since at least 2011, thousands of Wells Fargo employees took part in these illegal acts to enrich themselves by enrolling consumers in a variety of products and services without their knowledge or consent.” In February 2012, Wells Fargo started using forced arbitration clauses in all of its customer checking and savings account agreements, shortly after evidence began emerging that it was defrauding its customers.
Customers have been trying to sue Wells Fargo over fraudulent accounts since at least 2013. However, the bank forced those customers into secret, binding arbitration by invoking fine print in consumers’ legitimate account agreements to block them from suing over fake accounts. This practice helped keep Wells Fargo’s massive fraud out of the spotlight for so long.
Shariar Jabbari & Kaylee Heffelfinger et al. v. Wells Fargo (U.S. District Court, N.D. Cal.)
Consumers filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo claiming that the bank unlawfully opened a series of accounts in their names and then charged fees in connection with those unauthorized accounts. The lawsuit specifically alleged the existence of a corporate policy compensating employees based on the number of accounts opened.
Since this practice was so widespread, the consumers filed their suit on behalf of all consumers subjected to this conduct. In 2015, Wells Fargo vigorously denied the allegations, describing its culture as “focused on the best interests of its customers and creating a supportive, caring, and ethical environment for our team members.”
Shariar Jabbari opened two accounts in January 2011. By April 2011, two additional accounts were opened in his name, with $100 transferred to each from his savings account. By June 2011, five more accounts were opened for Jabbari without his knowledge or consent.
Wells Fargo invoked its newly-added arbitration clause to dismiss the complaint, arguing that disputes, including any dispute over whether the clauses applied at all, must be decided by a private arbitrator hired by the bank. The bank claimed that these customers “agreed” to arbitrate everything because the fake accounts “could not have been opened had [the customer] not opened the legitimate accounts which he admits to opening.” Therefore, even completely unauthorized accounts could not escape the “expansive terms of the arbitration agreements.”
Another customer in the class action, Kaylee Heffelfinger, claimed that Wells Fargo opened two accounts in her name in January 2012, weeks before she opened legitimate accounts in March 2012. Wells Fargo argued that “it is at least plausible that [its] employees generated the unauthorized accounts in January 2012 after Heffelfinger initiated a relationship with, and provided information to, the Wells Fargo branch where her legitimate accounts were opened” and thus even those claims should be forced into arbitration.
Incredibly, the federal district court granted Wells Fargo’s demand for individual arbitration on each of these claims. The customers appealed, and on September 8, 2016 – the day the CFPB announced its enforcement action – Wells Fargo settled with the customers on the condition they not disclose the details of their case.
David Douglas v. Wells Fargo (Superior Ct of Los Angeles, CA)
A customer named David Douglas tried to sue Wells Fargo on his own after he learned that three of the local employees at his Wells Fargo branch used his personal information to open at least eight accounts under his name without his permission, charging him fees for those accounts. More than three years ago, Douglas alleged that Wells Fargo “routinely use[d] the account information, date of birth, and Social Security and taxpayer identification numbers…and existing bank customers’ money to open additional accounts.”
Wells Fargo moved to compel forced arbitration over the disputed accounts, suggesting that “[s]ince the information allegedly misused was provided in connection with the original account, by definition any such claim of misuse arises out of or relates to the original account.” The bank similarly claimed that Douglas’ allegation that Wells Fargo transferred money into these fake accounts without his permission “is the most routine kind of claim covered by the Arbitration Agreement that one can imagine.”
Douglas opposed these arguments, adding that he never could have signed a forced arbitration agreement for those unauthorized accounts because they were opened without his knowledge. Incredibly, the court granted Wells Fargo’s demand for arbitration, relying on the arbitration clause from his original, non-fraudulent account with Wells Fargo which claimed to cover “all disputes” between him and the bank.
By pushing these cases into secret arbitration, Wells Fargo was able to keep this scandal out of public view for years and continue profiting from massive fraud. This culture of secrecy was pervasive. As CFPB Director Richard Cordray described at the Senate Banking Committee hearing on September 20, when the Los Angeles City Attorney brought an action against the bank, “one of the first things Wells Fargo did…was aggressively seek a protective order to keep the proceedings as much as possible from public view.” These actions, along with forced arbitration, allowed the bank to evade accountability and transparency for at least five years.
Senate Banking Committee Hearing on September 20
At the Senate Banking Committee hearing, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf if the bank would continue to argue in court that mandatory arbitration clauses covering real accounts should apply to fake accounts, forcing defrauded consumers into arbitration. Stumpf was non-committal, replying that he would “have to talk to my legal team, and we can get back to you on that.”
During the second panel, Senator Brown asked Director Cordray, how the agency’s proposed rule to restrict forced arbitration in consumer financial contracts would have helped customers that sued the bank over fraudulent accounts. Cordray replied that Wells Fargo’s arbitration clause might defeat a class action, noting that “as happened here, when there’s massive wrongdoing on a wide scale, but small amounts of harm to individual consumers, it will be very difficult to get any relief other than through a class action.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) then asked Director Cordray if he thought that “forced arbitration clauses make it easier for big banks to cover up patterns of abusive conduct, including the years of misconduct by Wells Fargo in this case.” Cordray answered, “I do think so, yes.”
Senator Warren went on to note that the CFPB has “proposed strong new rules that would ban forced arbitration clauses that prevent consumers from joining together to bring a public action in court,” and “[i]f we had class actions on this back in 2010, 2009, 2008, then the problem never would have gotten so out of hand.”
House Financial Services Committee Hearing on September 29
At the House Financial Services Committee Hearing, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Stumpf if he would continue to invoke ripoff clauses to deprive consumers of their day in court in light of this scandal. Stumpf refused to end this practice.
On Friday, the Federal Reserve finally responded to years of calls to re-examine the role of big banks in commodity markets. Numerous observers, ranging from Senate investigators to regulators, have found evidence that banks have manipulated these crucial markets. Sherrod Brown, the Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee, has been a leader in the effort to control bank commodity activities, holding multiple hearings on the issue and urging the Federal Reserve to implement rules limiting bank commodities activities. Americans for Financial Reform has also called on the Fed to take strong action to establish firewalls between banking and commodity markets.
The Federal Reserve has now advanced a real proposal to limit commodities involvement by banks. The proposal substantially increases capital charges for commodities holdings by banks, meaning that banks will have a significant economic incentive to exit these markets. It also improves disclosures and bans banks from a number of specific commodity markets activities that permit control of commodity supplies, including directing the specific activities of storage and transportation facilities, and being involved in energy management and tolling. All of these activities have been linked to commodity market manipulation.
Along with the Federal Reserve’s recent report on the activities and investments of supervised banks, which recommended that Congress place additional limits on bank activities in commercial markets, this proposal indicates that the Fed is finally taking more seriously the need to restructure banks to better comply with the separation between banking and commerce that is laid out in the Bank Holding Company Act and a long tradition of American banking law. While these measures are still too limited to reverse the enormous expansion of universal banks that has taken place over the last few decades, they are a good step.
But on one topic (you’ll be surprised which), they actually agreed: Breaking up too big to fail banks. Both parties’ platforms include calls to re-instate the Glass Steagall firewall between boring banking (you know, lending money to people and businesses) and risky casino-style investment banking (think “credit default swaps”).
Election day is fast approaching and Congress’s approval rating has barely improved from a few years back when it lagged behind root canals. So you’d think agreement on a major policy — particularly one with broad and deep public support — might be occasion for swift enactment of a bi-partisan bill. Indeed, the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act is championed by both Elizabeth Warren and John McCain, popular leaders in their respective parties. Instead, with Congress set to adjourn this week until after election day, Congressional leaders have yet to take a single step to live up to the words of their platforms.
Wells Fargo’s CEO John Stumpf deserves every bit of the anger that the Senate Banking Committee directed at him for leading Wells Fargo while it created more than 2 million fake deposit and credit-card accounts, and then charged unknowing customers for them.
Stumpf has tried to lay the blame at the feet of workers. But this was not the behavior of a few out-of-control workers. The problem was systematic, and it followed from Wells Fargo’s use of high-stakes sales quotas for its employees. As the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office explained in its lawsuit, these quotas were often impossible to fulfill, and yet employees who fell short were often fired.
But Wells Fargo’s failure points to a broader problem. After all, this is hardly the first time Wells has faced scrutiny for illegal acts. As Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) pointed out, this is only one of 39 enforcement actions that Wells has faced in the last ten years.
Last week, we learned from an important joint enforcement action by the CFPB, OCC and Los Angeles City Attorney that Wells Fargo had opened accounts for 2 million customers without their consent. Bank employees had been pressured to do so by aggressive sales quotas that could not be met through actual sales. This week, we are appalled by the further news that the executive who oversaw the unit responsible for this fraud was not fired, and in fact is retiring with nearly $125 million in compensation.
Regulators have a tool in front of them to make it harder for bank executives to get away with giant pay packages in cases of lawbreaking and abuse. Section 956 of Dodd-Frank and Section 39 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act give the watchdogs a mandate to stop banks from rewarding executives for practices designed to produce short-term gains with long-term risks. The regulatory agencies should exercise their existing authority to compel banks to use pay-clawback mechanisms, and they should make sure the final rule implementing Section 956 requires banks to take back pay from executives who oversee lawbreaking. In addition, the CFPB and OCC should refer their findings to the Department of Justice for a full investigation.
In the meantime, it is important that the penalties resulting from the illegal activity at Wells fall on the executives responsible for putting an abusive system in place and allowing it to continue. Wells Fargo and its CEO John Stumpf should claw back the $125 million going to the company’s head of consumer banking, Carrie Tolstedt, who supervised the employees directly engaged in these illegal acts. The company should also recover the bonuses received by Stumpf himself during the time period covered by the abuses. This money should be used to pay the penalties and refunds.cfp
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