Consumer Bureau and NY Atty Gen’l Go After First Responder Scam

The list of hazards faced by first responders to the Sept 11th terror attacks is a long one. In addition to cancer, respiratory disease, and post-traumatic stress, the perils include financial scammers out to raid their medical compensation benefits.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the New York Attorney General’s Office accuse a New Jersey company, RD Legal, of targeting firefighters, paramedics and police officers who rushed into the rubble of the World Trade Center.

“We allege that this company and its owner lined their pockets with funds intended to cover medical care and other critical expenses for people who are sick and sidelined,” Consumer Bureau  Director Richard Cordray said.

RD Legal’s modus operandi, according to the CFPB’s complaint, was to “swoop in” after victims had been awarded compensation but before they received it. The company would offer to “convert your settled cases into immediate cash,” and then charge illegally high interest on top of fees buried in the fine print of a long contract; some of its loans ended up costing the equivalent of 250% annual interest, the two agencies allege.

The Consumer Bureau was created after the 2008 financial crisis to do a simple job: get banks and lenders to treat people fairly. One way it does this is through enforcement actions which have so far delivered nearly $12 billion in refunds and relief to some 17 million Americans cheated by financial companies large and small.

In the RD Legal case, the Bureau is seeking to end the scam, impose monetary penalties, and force the company to return what could be millions of dollars to affected consumers. One of the potential beneficiaries is Elmer Santiago, a NYC police officer who was living in his jeep when he agreed to borrow $355,000. Eighteen months later, RD Legal handed him a bill for $860,000.

The company also pitched its services to former football players entitled to compensation from the NFL for neurological diseases such as CTE, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Contracts labeled “assignments and sale agreements” did not disclose interest rates because, RD Legal claimed, “the transaction is not a loan.”

Some people may have been seduced by the company’s promises to “cut through the red tape” and speed up their compensation. In fact, RD Legal provided no such help, according to the lawsuit.

RD Legal is a hedge fund and a player in what is known as the litigation finance industry, using wealthy investors to bankroll cash advances for lawsuits and settlements.The owner and founder of RD Legal, Roni Dersovitz, was named in the action, along with two affiliate entities. Dersovitz was previously sued by the SEC for defrauding investors and exploiting Beirut bombing victims.

— Madison Moore and Jim Lardner

 

Two of the Nation’s Three Largest Credit Reporting Agencies Deceived Consumers About the Value and Cost of their Products

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.

— Veronica Meffe

CFPB Stops Companies from Lying to Seniors about Reverse Mortgages

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.[1]

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[2] and consumers are required to make regular payments related to the home, including for property taxes, insurance and home maintenance.[3] 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

[1] Consent Order in the Matter of American Advisors Group, No. 2016-CFPB-0026 (Filed Dec. 7, 2016), at 6 (“American Advisors Group Consent Order”).
[2] Id., at 11.
[3] Id., at 9.

CFPB Sues to Stop Scam Against Lead Poisoning Victims

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,[1]  and lied to them by saying that once they had received a cash advance they were legally obligated to proceed with the transaction.[2] 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.[3]

The lawsuit charges Access Funding with violating the federal prohibition on unfair, abusive, and deceptive acts in consumer financial transactions.[4] 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

[1] Complaint at 7, CFPB v. Access Funding, LLC, No. 1:16-cv-03759-JFM (D. Md. Filed Nov. 21, 2016) (“Complaint”).
[2] 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”).
[3] Complaint at 8-9.
[4] Press Release.

CFPB Stops and Punishes Bank’s Deceptive Telemarketing Fueled By Sales Quotas

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has taken an enforcement action to force Santander Bank to stop enrolling customers in overdraft protection without their informed consent. The bank has also been ordered pay a $10 million fine.

Santander, which has nearly 700 branches in 8 northeastern states, sold high-cost overdraft protection through a telemarketing contractor that enrolled some customers without their consent and lied to other customers about its cost.

The CFPB also found that the telemarketer’s employees were incentivized to cut corners by unrealistic sales quotas. Employees were fired or had their hours reduced when they failed to hit a specific sales target, a practice that encouraged the illegal behavior. As the Committee for Better Banks, the National Employment Law Project, and AFR have previously documented, sales quotas create widespread risks for consumers in the banking industry. Recognizing the problem with these employment practices, the CFPB’s order bars Santander from using outside telemarketers or imposing sales quotas on its employees to sell its overdraft products.

Santander is not the only bank to use high overdraft fees as a profit center. Banks charge billions in overdraft fees per year, costing the average consumer who pays an overdraft fee $225 per year.

On the CFPB’s Fifth Birthday, Senator Warren Celebrates the Bureau’s Achievements

EW woo hoo freeze frame

This week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) turns five years old. AFR and a large number of consumer, civil rights, and community-based groups celebrated the anniversary, noting that life is better for American families and neighborhoods because the CFPB is at work fighting predatory lending and financial abuse. In addition to winning the praise of advocates, recent polling has shown that there is overwhelming, bipartisan support by the public for the work of the Bureau.

Senator Elizabeth Warren also delivered her own accolades to the Bureau in a video message that stresses the importance of its good work. In it, she notes that in just five short years, the CFPB has “ returned over $11 billion to consumers who were cheated on their mortgages, credit cards, checking accounts, and other financial products.”


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Special Protections for Wall Street, No Day in Court for the Rest of Us

scales of justice

Image Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week, some members of the House Financial Services Committee lavished praise on a piece of legislation they said would “restore due process rights to all Americans.”

“All the bill says is that if somebody wants their day in court, they should have their day in court,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), explained, adding that “preserving the rights of Americans to defend themselves in a fair and impartial trial…is one of the most fundamental rights, and it is enshrined in our Constitution.”

Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chair of the committee, championed the measure as well. “Every American deserves to be treated with due process,” Rep. Hensarling declared. “They ought to have the opportunity to have a trial by jury. They ought to be able to engage in full discovery. They ought to be subject to the rules of evidence.”

A listener might have thought these legislators were standing up against forced arbitration – “rip-off clauses” that big companies bury in the fine print of contracts to prevent people from suing them, even if they have broken the law.

Astoundingly and unfortunately, the legislators were actually moving in the opposite direction. They were extolling HR 3798, the so-called “Due Process Restoration Act,” which would extend special legal protections to Wall Street banks and other financial firms charged with violating federal securities law by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This piece of legislation does nothing to restore due process to ripped-off consumers and investors. Instead, the “Due Process Restoration Act” makes it harder for the SEC to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable when they break the law.

Big banks and others charged in SEC hearings already possess several crucial legal protections that their investors and consumers lack in forced arbitration: robust opportunity for discovery, a public hearing, a trained adjudicator bound to make a ruling based in law, and – crucially – the right to two full appeal processes, including a review in federal court. Yet HR 3798 would make it harder for the SEC to prove its case and allow the accused party to unilaterally terminate the proceedings, forcing the SEC to either drop the charges or refile in federal court.

According to Professor Joseph Carcello of the University of Tennessee, giving companies this right to “choose the venue is unlikely to be in the best interest of society, and will almost certainly make it more difficult for the SEC to deter and punish securities law violations, including fraud.”  Professor Carcello further emphasized that if fairness is a concern for members of the committee, then it is more unfair for citizens to be forced into arbitration in their contracts with financial institutions.

An amendment offered by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) threw the gap between the words and actions of HR 3798’s supporters into particularly stark relief. The amendment would have ensured that firms using forced arbitration against consumers and investors could not benefit from the bill’s special protections. Yet, in a display of staggering hypocrisy, this commonsense amendment was defeated on party lines.

Despite grandiose claims of due process, HR 3798 would only further tilt the playing field in favor of special corporate interests when it comes to battling financial fraud and corporate rip-offs.  If lawmakers truly wish to “restore due process rights to all Americans,” they should pass legislation to ban forced arbitration and support the upcoming Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rulemaking on this abusive practice.

Wall Street firms and brokers accused of breaking federal law do not need special legal protections, but the right of ordinary Americans to have their day in court very much does need defending. Lawmakers should legislate accordingly.

— Amanda Werner

Fact-checking Politifact on the Consumer Bureau

In the latest GOP Presidential debate, Carly Fiorina attacked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), calling it an agency with “no congressional oversight.” That statement is not just “half true” as it was rated by Politifact, a fact-checking website run by the Tampa Bay Times. It’s untrue.

The CFPB, as Politifact said, does not get its funding through annual congressional appropriations. But the Bureau is a bank regulator, and not a single one of the other bank regulators – the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) – is funded that way either. And for good reason: as far back as 1864, when the OCC was created, this country has sought to bolster the independence of bank regulators by insulating them from the politically-charged congressional appropriations process.

In reaching its judgment that “the bureau has an unusually low amount of congressional oversight,” Politifact appears to have relied on two known critics of the agency, Todd J. Zywicki of George Mason University and Brenden D. Soucy, a Miami lawyer.

By consulting a wider range of authorities, Politifact would have gotten a fuller picture. Arthur Wilmarth of George Washington University Law School, for example, has described the CFPB’s powers, governance and funding arrangements as “hardly unprecedented among federal financial regulators.” Like virtually all regulators, the Consumer Bureau is subject to the many requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act. In addition, as Adam Levitin of Georgetown University Law Center pointed out to a House committee in 2011, the Bureau’s budget, unlike that of the other financial oversight agencies, is capped at a specified percentage of the Federal Reserve’s operating budget, while its decisions are uniquely subject to review and rejection by a council of other regulators.

When all the facts are taken into account, it is clearly neither true nor even half-true to characterize the CFPB as “a vast bureaucracy with no congressional oversight that’s digging through hundreds of millions of your credit records to detect fraud.” Fiorina, in making that statement, is simply repeating a false narrative developed by banks and lenders against the first and only and financial oversight agency with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profits of the financial industry. By giving Fiorina credit for being even partially correct, Politifact, too, is buying into that narrative.

Lending Discrimination No More Excusable Than Other Forms of Discrimination, Wade Henderson Says

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on a bill – H.R. 1737, the Reforming CFPB Indirect Auto Financing Guidance Act – that would make it harder for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on auto lending practices that lead to consistently higher interest rates for Black as well as Hispanic and Asian-American car buyers. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued this statement in response:

“Discrimination undermines the civil rights of all Americans, whether in in voting rights, access to quality schools, or racial profiling by law enforcement. Lending discrimination is no different. When lenders redlined Black residents out of homeownership or gouged them on mortgages, we passed laws like the Fair Housing Act. But the vestiges of lending discrimination remain alive and well in the auto industry. We cannot allow auto lenders to charge Black borrowers more than Whites simply because of their skin color. A vote in support of this bill is a vote to ignore lending discrimination.”

 

 

Will Congress Endorse Discrimination in Auto Lending?

If you’re a person of color taking out a car loan, odds are you’ll pay a significantly higher interest rate than you would if you were white. Since 2013, the Consumer Bureau has begun to tackle this long-neglected, well-documented problem, both through enforcement and by issuing a guidance on fair lending law compliance for lenders working with dealerships to finance auto purchases. Congress should be praising the Bureau for its fight against auto-loan discrimination. Instead, a shameful number of members of the House voted last month to curtail the CFPB’s work in this area.

On November 18, the House passed a bill, H.R. 1737, which would invalidate the existing guidance and impose burdensome and unnecessary new procedures on any future CFPB efforts to address the issue. The final vote was 332-96, with 88 Democrats voting in favor.

AFR and our allies will do all we can to keep this bad bill from gaining traction in the Senate or being added as a policy rider to a year-end spending measure. Thus far, over 52,000 Americans have signed petitions urging Congress to reject HR 1737. (You can add your name to AFR’s petition here). And ColorOfChange, Working Families, Center for Popular Democracy and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) delivered over 50,000 of those petitions to the offices of House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Representative G.K. Butterfield, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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