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Electronic Fund Transfer Act

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CFPB Guidance On Recurring Electronic Debits

On November 23, 2015, the CFPB issued a Bulletin alerting companies that they must obtain proper authorization from consumers before automatically debiting their accounts. The Bulletin relates to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act requirements for “preauthorized electronic fund transfers,” which are EFTs scheduled in advance to recur at substantially regular intervals. The preauthorized EFTs in the CFPB’s spotlight are those that debit a consumer’s account.

Regulation E of the EFTA provides that preauthorized EFTs from a consumer’s account must be authorized by a “writing signed or similarly authenticated by the consumer.” The authorization must be readily identifiable as such and have clear terms, and the person obtaining that authorization must provide a copy to the consumer. It’s important to keep in mind that these are two separate requirements. The Bulletin clarifies how a company can obtain the consumer’s authorization, and describes the critical elements of that authorization, but leaves unanswered certain questions about delivering a copy of the authorization to the consumer when it is obtained by telephone.

Content of the Authorization

As noted above, the consumer’s authorization must be readily identifiable as such and must have clear terms. The Bulletin states that companies sometimes provide consumers with notices of terms for preauthorized EFTs that fail to disclose “critical information.” The CFPB explains that the authorization must be clear as to the recurring nature of the transfers and the amount and timing of the payments agreed to. Of course the authorization also needs to identify the consumer and the account to be charged. Regardless of how the consumer’s authorization is obtained, which is discussed below, all of this information needs to be in the authorization and in the copy provided to the consumer.

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New Legislation Introduced on ATM Notices

Legislation has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives that, if passed, would relieve banks of the responsibility of installing and monitoring the presence of physical notices on their ATMs notifying customers about the imposition of ATM transaction fees.

On April 17, 2012, Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) and David Scott (D-GA) introduced H.R. 4367 which seeks to amend the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to limit the fee disclosure requirement for operators of ATMs to the electronic notice alone. The electronic notice allows a consumer to choose whether the consumer wishes to continue with the ATM transaction and pay the fee or exit the transaction.  This proposed bill comes in the wake of class action litigation filed against banks and other ATM operators nationwide (and most recently against several Georgia community banks) alleging that the banks failed to post or maintain the physical notice on their ATMs.

As currently written, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal.  Currently, there are statutory penalties for failure to comply with the Act.  While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”

Even where banks have been in full compliance with the physical notice requirements, many banks have found that their fee notice placards have mysteriously disappeared or have been removed by persons as yet unknown in the time periods preceding the institution of litigation against them.

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Class Actions Filed Against Four Georgia Banks Over ATM Physical Fee Disclosure

Four class action complaints have been filed in the last two weeks against four different Georgia community banks alleging that the banks have violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act.  The complaints were filed in the federal courts and all allege that the banks imposed fees on consumers who withdrew cash from the bank’s ATMs and that the banks allegedly failed to post a physical notice on the ATMs that a fee would be imposed for such services.

The Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal.  There are statutory penalties for a failure to comply with the Act.   While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs.  There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”

The attorneys associated with these cases have filed similar class actions, alleging the same violations of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, against other banks, hotels and retailers around the country.

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