What’s at Risk at CFPB: Ability to Deliver Relief to Victims of Financial Flimflams

When a financial flim-flammer scatters to the wind or goes bankrupt, its victims are typically out of luck. But when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is on the case, the story can have a better ending.

Just in the past three months, the CFPB has sent over $100 million to an estimated 60,000 victims of a sham debt-relief company, Morgan Drexen, that went bust after collecting up-front fees for services it mostly never delivered.

The CFPB’s ability to bring a measure of justice to Morgan Drexen’s defrauded customers rested on authority granted by Congress. It works like this: When a solvent company is caught breaking the law, the bureau orders that company — Wells Fargo, let’s say — to make restitution to its victims. But that is only part of the remedy. The Dodd Frank Act, which set up the CFPB, gives it the additional power to levy a civil penalty — both to discourage further wrongdoing by the company involved, and as a warning to others. That money goes into a fund that the CFPB can use to deliver relief to those ripped off by malefactors who are no longer in a position to pony up.

By this means, the CFPB has delivered nearly $500 million in relief to hundreds of thousands of people, including the victims of scammers who, among other things:

Will the bureau be able to go on providing that sort of help? OMB Director Mick Mulvaney arrived at the bureau on Monday claiming to be its interim director. One of the first things he did was to announce that payments from the victim compensation fund would be suspended for at least 30 days.

No big surprise, perhaps, from an anti-consumer ideologue who has called the CFPB a “sick, sad joke,” and, as a congressman, voted again and again for measures to curb its authority, funding, and political independence.

The victims of the Morgan Drexen scam were particularly lucky to have the CFPB on their side. Down to their last dollars in many cases, they had turned to the firm to reduce their debt burden, only to get swindled. Restitution came as a happy surprise to most of them. One grateful Florida man received a check for $1550. A real helping hand for real people. — Jim Lardner

What Will Become of the CFPB’s Case Against Santander?

More eyes than ever will be on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now that a federal judge has refused to immediately block the Trump Administration’s effort to install OMB director Mick Mulvaney as acting director. One thing to watch will be the fate of a planned lawsuit against the U.S. arm of the Spanish megabank Santander.

The agency was reportedly on the brink of filing such an action last week. Its lawsuit, according to Reuters, would accuse Santander of overcharging customers on auto loans through the aggressive marketing of an often unneeded add-on product known as “Guaranteed Auto Protection” or GAP insurance.

Santander has a long rap sheet. Over the past few years, the bank has been investigated for a variety of offenses by a variety of agencies, with corroborating testimony from its own employees in a few cases.

In 2015 the CFPB hit Santander with a $10 million fine for deceptively marketing so-called overdraft “protection” and signing up customers without their consent. (Santander blamed the problems on a contract telemarketer.) Also that year, the company agreed to pay more than $9 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit over the illegal repossession of cars belonging to members of the military. In another troubling story, Santander call-center workers complained about being pressured into predatory lending and debt-collection practices and not being given the time or support to treat customers fairly.

What will happen with the auto-loan case? Here are a few grounds for concern.

Mulvaney, in his congressional days, belonged to a bloc of lawmakers known for taking the financial industry’s campaign money (more than a quarter of a million dollars over four successful House campaigns) and parroting its talking points. He has described the Consumer Bureau as a sick joke and backed legislation to abolish it. A longtime Mulvaney aide, Natalee Binkholder, recently went to work for Santander as a lobbyist. In that capacity, she was deeply involved in Wall Street’s successful effort to get Congress to oveturn a CFPB rule guaranteeing the right of consumers to band together and take banks to court over accusations of systematic illegality.

By the time Mulvaney made his first appearance at the bureau Monday morning, an acting director, Leandra English, was already in place. The White House, in announcing Mulvaney’s appointment, cited a quickie legal ruling from the Justice Department in favor of the President’s right to name someone — despite language to the contrary in the Dodd-Frank Act, which set up the agency. (The DOJ opinion, we now learn, was written by an assistant attorney general who just a year ago represented an offshore payday lender facing a CFPB lawsuit.)

The CFPB was the first federal financial regulator with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profitability of banks. In its short life, the agency has delivered $12 billion in financial relief to more than 29 million wronged consumers. It has stood up for the victims of for-profit colleges, defended veterans and servicemembers against financial scams, gone to bat for the victims of fraudulent for-profit colleges, and made Wells Fargo pay $100 million in penalties for opening millions of bogus accounts.

The immediate question is about the Bureau’s leadership. The bigger question is whether this vitally important agency will be allowed to go on doing its job.

— Jim Lardner

Two different trials of payday lenders, same old story

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Payday lenders Scott Tucker and Charles Hallinan are each facing trials for doing what payday lenders do best: cheating consumers out of their hard earned paychecks.

Hallinan and Tucker have each been charged for veiling their businesses as other entities to enter the payday loan market in states where payday lending is illegal or restricted. In Hallinan’s case, he allegedly paid someone else to claim that they were the sole owner of his payday lending business. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “That alleged swindle, prosecutors now say, helped Hallinan escape legal exposure that could have cost him up to $10 million.” He is facing charges of racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, and fraud–the typical charges associated with a mobster. And this is the man considered the payday industry’s pioneer.

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wannabe Scott Tucker, is also accused of committing fraud by trapping customers into paying fees that were not advertised in order to illegally take more than $2 billion out of the pockets of over four million consumers. What did he do with that cash? He bought six ferraris and four porsches. Not a car or a pair of cars, but a fleet. Apparently, for Scott Tucker, “cool” cars are of more value than consumers, communities, or the law. Scott Tucker even has a hack brother who devised his own hack scam based on older brother Scott. In fact, just last week, a federal judge ruled that Joel Tucker has to pay $4 million in fines for his own misdeeds.

Looking beyond this sheer pulp fiction, these predatory practices are actual tragedies for their victims, and, unfortunately, they are not aberrations. Usury is a staple of the payday lending industry. Hallinan even admitted to what he thought was a colleague, “‘in this industry,’ he said, ‘to build a big book, you have to run afoul of the regulators.’” Plain and simple–these guys are loan sharks. Luckily, due to strong protections and federal oversight, prosecutors and regulators like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are working to stop these payday lending scams. But if Charles Hallinan, a pioneer in the payday loan industry, is facing racketeering charges, it just may show that the whole payday lending model is a racket.

We must protect our communities by supporting protections issued by the Consumer Bureau and state governments against this corrupt industry. Without fair rules and strong enforcement, con artists like Tucker and Hallinan will continue to make billions off the backs of poor people.

— Owen Evans

Payday Lenders Have a Pal at the White House

During a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” unofficial Trump advisor Corey Lewandowski called forthe removal of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

His statement seemed to come out of nowhere, prompting NBC’s Chuck Todd to seek an explanation: Did Lewandowski happen to have “a client that wants” Cordray fired?

“No, no,” he insisted, “I have no clients whatsoever.”

That emphatic denial stood unchallenged for two days – until the New York Times revealed Lewandowski’s ties to Community Choice Financial, an Ohio-based company that was a major client of his former consulting firm before offering his new firm a $20,000-a-month retainer for “strategic advice and counsel.”

Community Choice is one of the country’s biggest players in the world of triple-digit-interest payday and car-title loans. Majority-owned by Diamond Castle Holdings, a private equity firm with $9 billion in assets, the company has more than 500 storefronts and does business (factoring in its online as well as physical operations) in 29 states.

The company’s CEO has described the Consumer Bureau as “the great Darth Vader” of the federal government, and the source of that ill-feeling is plain to see.

The Consumer Bureau is getting ready to issue a set of consumer-lending rules that, if they resemble a proposal put forward last year, will require verification of a borrower’s ability to repay. That simple concept runs directly counter to the business model of the payday industry,  which is to keep its customers in debt indefinitely, making payments that put little or no dent in the principal. Many people end up spending more in loan charges than they borrowed in the first place.

Like other payday lenders, Community Choice Financial has been a magnet for complaints and investigations. A California class-action lawsuit filed last year accuses the company, along with its subsidiary Buckeye CheckSmart, of violating a federal telephone-harassment law. That is also the theme of dozens of stories submitted to the Consumer Bureau’s complaint database. “This company,” says one borrower, “called my elderly parents issuing threats against me to ‘subpoena’ me to court…”

Another complainant describes a series of phone calls and “threats of criminal prosecution… on a loan I know nothing about, did not apply for or receive, and have never received any bills for.” Community Choice and its subsidiaries – companies with names like Easy Money, Cash & Go, and Quick Cash – figure in more than 650 Consumer Bureau complaints, over unexpected fees, uncredited payments, bank overdraft charges triggered by oddly-timed electronic debits, and collection efforts that continue even after a debt has been fully repaid, among other recurring issues.

Community Choice has also been a pioneer in in the subspecialty of evading state interest-rate caps. In Ohio and Texas, among other states that have tried to ban payday loans, Community Choice’s payday shops have camouflaged their predatory loans by using bank-issued prepaid cards with credit lines and overdraft charges; calling themselves mortgage lenders instead of consumer lenders; and registering as credit repair companies in order to charge separately for their supposed assistance in resolving people’s financial troubles.

The success of these legal workarounds tells us that it will be very hard for the states to address the scourge of payday lending without help. That’s why payday lenders are pushing Congress to strip the Consumer Bureau of its authority over them. And, that’s why Community Choice brands CheckSmart and Cash Express have been generous contributors to sympathetic members of Congress, and why – with the help of Lewandowski and other mouthpieces – the industry is trying to get the Trump administration to remove the Bureau’s director (even if there is no legal basis for doing so) and replace him with someone who can be depended on to leave payday lenders alone.

Lewandowski may be too embarrassed for the moment to continue raising his voice on the industry’s behalf. We can hope that’s true, at any rate. With or without his assistance, however, the industry’s campaign will continue, and the Lewandowski episode has made the stakes very clear: Will the Consumer Bureau be allowed to go on doing the job it was created to do, standing up to the financial industry’s power and insisting on basic standards of transparency and fair play? Or will some of the financial world’s fastest and loosest operators find a way to undermine this agency and keep it from cracking down on their abuses at great long last?

— Jim Lardner

The CFPB Turns Six (and Ten)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is marking a double birthday. As an institution, it turns six this week. As an idea, it goes back ten years – to the summer of 2007 and an article by a little-known expert on bankruptcy and household debt named Elizabeth Warren.

Writing in the wonky pages of Democracy magazine, then-Professor, now-Senator Warren pointed out that you couldn’t buy a toaster with “a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house.” And yet it was entirely possible “to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.”

One big reason for that difference, Warren wrote, was the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which had been watching over the world of toasters, power saws, baby cribs and the like since 1972. By contrast, the task of guarding consumers against defective financial products was scattered across half a dozen federal agencies; and their main concern, as she noted, was “to protect the financial stability of banks and other financial institutions, not to protect consumers.” Indeed, one of those agencies, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, had repeatedly encouraged banks to thumb their noses at the handful of state regulators who were trying to crack down on predatory lending in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

As a remedy, Warren urged Congress to establish a watchdog agency with the full-time job of guarding consumers against deceptive and unfair practices in the financial marketplace, removing dangerous products before they could be peddled to the public.

Five years later, Warren was free to run for the U.S. Senate because the financial industry and its allies had blocked her appointment as director of the agency that Congress had gone ahead and created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. (Another birthday there: Dodd Frank was signed into law in July 2010 – seven years ago.)

Fortunately, President Barack Obama found a highly capable candidate in former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. Under his leadership, the Consumer Bureau has racked up an impressive record of accomplishment. All told, CFPB enforcement actions have delivered more than $17 billion in financial relief to roughly 29 million consumers cheated in various ways by financial companies large and small.

Through its rulemaking and supervision as well as enforcement work, the Bureau has challenged a number of the financial industry’s cherished tricks and traps, like mortgages with teaser rates that adjust sharply upward after a year or two, and auto loan incentives that cause borrowers of color to be charged more than white borrowers of the same credit-worthiness. The CFPB has gone after abusive practices on the part of debt collectors, check cashers, private student lenders, and bogus “credit repair” services, as well as large-scale fraud committed by some of the country’s biggest banks, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

In short, this is an agency that has been doing its job, standing up for ordinary consumers and resisting the power of the financial industry. But that power remains very great.

Since last fall’s elections, Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Congress and the Trump administration have waged an all-out campaign to undermine the Bureau’s funding and authority as well as a number of its specific actions. Just this week, they launched an effort, with wide backing in both the House and Senate, to undo a CFPB rule reining in the industry’s use of fine-print forced arbitration clauses with class-action bans.

The industry’s attachment to this practice is easy to understand. Arbitration can be a just and efficient mechanism for resolving disputes between relatively equal parties who voluntarily agree to it. But the process works very differently when one party is a huge corporation and the other is a lone consumer required by a take-it-or-leave-it contract to direct all complaints of illegality to a private arbitration firm – one that has typically been chosen and paid by the company. The damages suffered by any one victim, moreover, are almost never large enough to justify the cost of pursuing a grievance, regardless of the venue. Thus the great majority of wronged consumers, once they learn that individual arbitration is the only path open to them, decide to do nothing. That’s just what happened, for example, with many of the victims of Wells Fargo’s phony accounts, enabling the bank to keep its scam under wraps for years.

In the same way, payday lenders have used these clauses to go on making triple-digit interest loans in defiance of state laws. Arkansas, for example, has a 17-percent interest rate cap inscribed in its constitution; yet it took authorities many years to make headway against lenders who continued to operate there, relying on arbitration clauses to squelch resistance.

This fight is crucial because forced arbitration, in practice, functions as a Get Out of Jail Free card for banks and lenders, allowing them to chisel lots of money out of lots of people, a little at a time. Naturally, the lobbyists and their political allies claim to be defending the “right” of consumers to choose arbitration. In reality, consumers have no say in the matter. The point of the CFPB rule is precisely to give them a choice.

Unsurprisingly, the great majority of Americans support the CFPB on this question, just as they want the Consumer Bureau itself to survive as a strong and effective agency.

It will if lawmakers heed their constituents and stop regurgitating Wall Street’s nonsensical talking points.

— Jim Lardner

Sham Poll Tells Lobbyists What They Want to Hear

In its relatively short life, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has brought basic rules of fairness and transparency to credit markets, while holding predatory lenders and financial wrongdoers like Wells Fargo accountable. It has also delivered – so far – nearly $12 billion in relief to more than 29 million consumers cheated by financial companies of one kind or another.

Across party lines, poll after poll shows overwhelming support for the actual work the CFPB has been doing, and for more, not less, Wall Street regulation in general. Even most Trump voters, according to one recent survey, oppose efforts to weaken or eliminate the Consumer Bureau, and would rather see the Dodd Frank financial reforms (which created the CFPB) maintained or expanded than scaled back or repealed.

Misleading Industry-Funded Poll

So what should we make of a new industry-funded poll that supposedly demonstrates wide backing, in eight battleground states, for a move to turn the Consumer Bureau into a “bipartisan commission”?

“This poll is a quintessential example of a survey that has been designed to produce a specific result — one that is at odds with everything else we know about public opinion on consumer protection and Wall Street reform,” according to Celinda Lake and Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research Partners.

Here’s something it proves beyond any doubt: if you write a poll question artfully, you’ll get the answer you’re after. Put the label “bipartisan” on just about anything, for example, and people will say they’re for it.

Wall Street Wants Gridlock Not Bipartisanship

“This poll is built on leading language in support of what is framed as the ‘bipartisan’ option for the CFPB, and offers no alternative scenario,” Lake and Gotoff say. “In essence, it tells us that voters have a favorable disposition to the term ‘bipartisan,’ but reveals very little about how people feel about the CFPB.”

But the warm and fuzzy picture that word conjures up – of political independence, cooperation, and roll-up-your sleeves pragmatism – is a very far cry from the reality of the “bipartisan commission” sought by the lobbyists who commissioned this survey. Gridlock would be the far more likely outcome.

A truly telling survey would provide voters with information about the entities that the CFPB regulates, highlight the importance of independence — non-partisan action — in this position, according to Lake and Gotoff.

Public Backs Strong Enforcement Agencies

Polling and focus groups with transparent professional methodologies show that large majorities of voters from every demographic favor giving federal agencies the tools they need to enforce the law on the financial services industry.

Just consider the record of the various commissions charged with regulating the financial industry in the years leading up to the 2008 financial and economic meltdown. Two of them, the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, could have done a lot to prevent that disaster. Neither did much of anything.

That’s the historical pattern, and that’s why the industry is so fond of this regulatory structure. The impetus for making the CFPB a commission isn’t coming from voters or consumers; it’s coming financial industry executives and lobbyists like the ones who paid for this poll – and from the far too many elected officials who seem to be prepared to do their bidding with little regard for the wishes or interests of their constituents.

— Jim Lardner

What should be done to stop banks like Wells Fargo from scamming us?

Image via Peg Hunter (CC BY-NC 2.0) / Cropped from original

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.

Wells Fargo has racked up over $10 billion in fines for offenses from racial discrimination in mortgage lending, tomortgage fraud, to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So what should be done to stop banks from scamming us? Americans for Financial Reform has five specific proposals.

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Wells Fargo execs should not profit from the company’s misdeeds

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

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

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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.”


Americans for Financial Reform is a nonpartisan coalition of over 200 organizations fighting for a safer and fairer financial system. To learn more, join our email list!

Understanding the SAFE Act

Payday lenders may seem to be everywhere, but they were not always there. The first payday stores opened in the early 1990s – a byproduct of the same anything-goes deregulatory mania that led to a wave of booby-trapped mortgages and the financial and economic meltdown of 2008.

Almost as soon as they appeared on the scene, faith leaders and consumer and civil rights advocates called for rules to rein in the abuses of an industry whose business model is to advertise a form of “help” that consistently makes things worse, trapping people in long-term high-cost debt and imposing more economic distress on communities.

After a quarter of a century, these efforts are making progress. Fourteen states have meaningful regulations and the first nationwide rules are being developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the new agency established after the 2008 crisis to bring basic standards of fairness to the financial marketplace.

But the industry is also pressing ahead, employing new loan models and a battery of technological and legal ploys intended to skirt the rules, both existing and anticipated.

Senator Jeff Merkley D-Ore.), a longtime champion of consumer rights, has introduced legislation to address some of these evasive maneuvers. His Stopping Abuse and Fraud in Electronic Lending (SAFE) Act would make it easier to uphold the interest-rate caps and other measures taken by the states. Merkley’s bill would also bolster the effectiveness of the Consumer Bureau’s efforts to require payday-style consumer lenders to do what other lenders do: verify a borrower’s ability to repay before a loan can be issued.

One big problem, for the CFPB as well as the states, is the fact that more and more payday lenders now do business online. Some companies hide from view, using anonymous domain registrations and websites with no physical contact information. Others, while describing themselves as payday lenders, turn out to be “lead generators” who collect personal information and then auction it off to lenders and other marketers. It is very hard to take legal action against criminals who have encased themselves in online camouflage. It gets even harder when they claim to be doing business from overseas or from Native American reservations in order to assert tribal-sovereignty privileges.

Online or out on the street, the basic formula is the same. These lenders charge triple-digit interest rates (nearly 400% on average) and are prepared to issue a loan as long as they can gain access to someone’s bank account – regardless of whether the borrower can actually afford the loan. Their standard, in other words, is the ability to collect, not to repay. In fact, while the industry promotes its products as short-term loans, most of its profits come from people who remain on the hook for months at a stretch and often end up paying more in fees than they borrowed in the first place.

Those who borrow online face special perils. They are often required to provide personal and financial information in loan applications – data that may be bought and sold by unregulated lead generators, loan brokers, lenders, and others. In some cases, this information is used to defraud people two or three times over.

Senator Merkley’s bill seeks to address these problems in three ways – by helping consumers regain control of their own bank accounts; by establishing standards of transparency for online lenders; and by cracking down on lead generators and other third-party predators. More specifically, the SAFE Act would require banks and other lenders to abide by the rules of the states where they do business; prevent third parties from using remotely created checks (RCCs) to withdraw money without an account-holder’s express pre-authorization; prohibit overdraft fees on prepaid cards issued by payday lenders in order to gain access to consumers’ funds and pile on extra charges; and ban lead generators and anonymous lending.

The great majority of Americans, regardless of political party, favor strong action to end the scourge of abusive payday, car-title, and other high-cost, debt-trap consumer loans. By supporting the SAFE Act and standing up for the complementary efforts of the states and the CFPB, members of Congress can heed this loud, bipartisan call from their constituents.

— Gynnie Robnett

Robnett is Payday Campaign Director at Americans for Financial Reform. This piece was originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.