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CFPB Highlights Debt Relief Practices in Student Lending

Student Lending CFPB Enforcement:
Alleging Impermissible Debt Relief Service Advance Fees

Director Kraninger has outlined in various settings, the Bureau’s focus on protecting those often most vulnerable, including the elderly, military personnel and veterans, as well as students, sometimes collectively referred to special populations. Recently, the Bureau took aim at several businesses, which according to the CFPB’s complaint were exploiting students by charging impermissible advance fees in connection with purported debt relief services.  We should expect further activity in 2021 with the change of administration, potential extension of certain COVID-19 pandemic-related student lending forbearance orders, and other potential student lending protection efforts. 

The complaint asserts five causes of action under the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 6102(c), 6105(d) (“TCFAPA”); the Telemarketing Sales Rule (“TSR”), 16 C.F.R. pt. 310; and the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 (“CFPA”), 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536(a), 5564, 5565, in connection with the marketing and sale of debt relief services. According to the complaint, “Defendants Performance SLC, LLC and Performance Settlement, LLC, along with their owner and manager Defendant Daniel Crenshaw, are engaging in debt relief activities that have harmed consumers nationwide by charging illegal advance fees, failing to make required disclosures, and engaging in deceptive sales practices.”

Penalties & Injunctive Relief Requested

In its filing announcement the CFPB stated that “Consumers would pay between $1,000 and $1,450 in fees to PSLC for it to file paperwork with [the U.S. Department of Education], even though student loan borrowers can do this themselves for free.” The Bureau claims “that PSLC had some consumers pay this prohibited upfront fee through high-interest financing from a third party.”  The complaint seeks injunctive relief to prevent the potential on-going violations of the TSR and the CFPA; consumer “monetary relief including but not limited to the refund of monies paid, restitution, disgorgement or compensation for unjust enrichment, and payment of damages;” imposition of civil money penalties against Defendants, and an award of costs to the Bureau. The complaint alleges that “[f]rom 2016 to 2019, PSLC enrolled more than 6,500 customers in multiple states” and that certain “Trust Plan Customers paid more than $4,300,000 in fees to PSLC” and other customers “paid more than $4,900,000 in loan principal and interest” on allegedly improper loans arising from Defendants’ activities.

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New Regs Will Change How Colleges Offer Bank Accounts to Students

On October 30, 2015, the Department of Education issued regulations to impose requirements on the marketing and terms of deposit and prepaid accounts offered to students at educational institutions that participate in Federal student aid programs. According to the DOE, the regulations are intended to ensure that students have convenient access to their title IV, Higher Education Act program funds, do not incur unreasonable and uncommon account fees on their title IV funds, and are not led to believe that they must open a particular financial account to receive Federal student aid. Most of these new rules take effect on July 1, 2016.

On December 16, the CFPB published a Safe Student Account Toolkit “to help colleges evaluate whether to co-sponsor a prepaid or checking account with a financial institution.” The Toolkit includes a Scorecard that can be used by schools when selecting a third-party vendor for student accounts and an Administrator Handbook designed to help school administrators gather relevant information to review, compare and evaluate accounts offered by different financial institutions.

The CFPB’s Toolkit provides guidance on the new DOE regulations, but with a focus on those provisions that are designed to protect students. The CFPB can bring and has brought enforcement actions against colleges under federal consumer protection laws. Their issuing of the Toolkit should be understood as a warning that they also will be enforcing the consumer protection portions of the DOE rules, though perhaps under their unfair, deceptive and abusive practices statute.

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CFPB Continues Scrutiny on Student Loan Servicing

In a recent press release, the CFPB announced a public inquiry into student loan servicing.  The CFPB is seeking information about: “industry practices that create repayment challenges, hurdles for distressed borrowers and economic incentives that may affect the quality of service.”  According to the CFPB, student loans account for the nation’s second largest consumer debt market.  The agency states there are more than 40 million federal and private student loan borrowers and those consumers owe more than $1.2 trillion.  About $240 billion in such loans are either in default or forebearance.

The CFPB is acting because of numerous borrower complaints about their loan servicers.  Complaints include billing problems associated with payment posting, prepayments and partial payments.  Borrowers have stated that payments have been processed in ways that make their borrowing more expensive.  Servicers are also accused of losing records and slow response times to fix errors.  The CFPB thinks student loan servicers fail to provide adequate customer service because they are typically paid a flat fee for each loan so they have no incentive to maintain high standards of serving.

Unlike credit card and mortgage servicers, no comprehensive system for overseeing the student loan servicing industry currently exists, according to the CFPB.  Given the CFPB’s penchant for promulgating more and more regulations, we believe this heightened scrutiny by the CFPB will lead to numerous new regulations affecting the student loan servicing industry.

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