The CFPB recently brought legal action against a number of companies, including Universal Debt & Payment Solutions, for defrauding consumers by using threats, deception, and harassment to collect “phantom debts” that the consumers did not owe to the collectors or, in most instances, to anyone else. In this instance, consumers collectively paid millions of dollars to the debt collectors after being subject to illegal threats and false statements, including threats of arrest or wage garnishment. In some cases, the phony collectors took money out of consumers’ accounts without any authorization at all.
In a noteworthy move, the CFPB’s complaint named not only the debt collectors, but also the various companies alleged to have been “service providers” to the debt collectors—those serving as payment processors, without whom the scammers could not have collected the consumer’s debit and credit card payments. With this enforcement, the CFPB is insisting that payment processors—and not just the companies directly dealing with consumers—are also subject to its enforcement authority under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA).
The Bureau’s complaint charges that while the debt collectors in this case were guilty of threatening and intimidating consumers over debts that were falsely claimed to be owed, the payment processors were also in the wrong for their role in facilitating the debt collectors’ actions in this scheme—ignoring clear signs that the collectors were committing fraud.
In one example that the complaint highlights, two payment processors, Global Payments and Pathfinder, ignored extremely high chargeback rates. (‘Chargebacks’ occur after a consumer successfully disputes a charge as unauthorized or otherwise improper and the payment is reversed.) Chargebacks are rare in legitimate card transactions, and every chargeback requires an inquiry. The major debt collection company in this suit as well as an affiliate had chargeback rates of close to 30% in some months, rates that should have prompted termination of the processing agreement. Another payment processor, EMS, ignored complaints from consumers who reported unauthorized payments taken out of their accounts and fraud detection reports that flagged the collectors because there was “[n]othing found to confirm the existence of the business.”
The CFPB’s actions in this case are in some ways similar to steps the Department of Justice has taken though Operation Choke Point, where the DOJ is holding banks responsible for processing payments despite evidence of fraud or other illegal activity. All three DOJ cases filed as part of Operation Choke Point are instances – like this one – in which the banks or payment processors in question knowingly facilitated illegal activity that did serious harm to consumers. See this new fact sheet from NCLC outlining the three cases brought by the Department of Justice, against CommerceWest Bank, Plaza Bank, and Four Oaks Bank & Trust. Banks and payment processors that comply with their responsibilities to know their customers and look out for signs of fraud, as most do, play important roles in safeguarding consumers. Actions by the CFPB and DOJ against banks and payment processors who enable fraud are critical to cut off fraudsters from access to the payment system.
— Rebecca Thiess