Continuing its crackdown on illegal debt relief practices, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today filed suit in West Palm Beach federal court, alleging that a Florida company misled consumers and charged illegal fees for its services.
The complaint is notable because it charges the company, American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc., and its owner, Michael DiPanni, with actions that are not just unfair and deceptive, but also abusive.
While unfair and deceptive are familiar terms in consumer protection law, the term "abusive" is new to the Dodd-Frank Act and has been the subject of much consternation among Republicans in Congress, who have called it too vague.
With this complaint, the CFPB gives what may be its first concrete example of abusive conduct.
The CFPB alleged that American Debt “enrolled in its debt-relief programs consumers whose financial conditions make it highly unlikely that they can complete the programs,” and further, that the company knew this.
The company allegedly collected about $500,000 in fees in from hundreds of consumers in multiple states, charging illegal upfront fees for debt-relief services and “falsely promising them it would begin to settle their debts within three to six months when, in reality, services rarely materialized,” according to the CFPB.
In the complaint, the CFPB specified what elements that made this abusive. “Despite receiving financial information showing that some consumers could not afford the monthly payments under the debt-relief program in which they were enrolled, [American Debt] nonetheless collects ‘enrollment’ fees from these consumers,” the complaint states. “This practice takes unreasonable advantage of consumers’ lack of understanding of how long it will take [American Debt] to settle their debts and therefore how much money they will spend before realizing any benefits from enrolling in [American Debt’s] debt-relief program.”
According to the statute, Section 1036(a)(1)(B) of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, an act or practice is abusive if it “takes unreasonable advantage of . . . a lack of understanding on the part of the consumer of the material risks, costs, or conditions of the product or service.”
The CFPB also said the actions were abusive because consumers reasonably relied on the company to “act in their interest by enrolling them in a debt-relief program that they can be reasonably expected to complete, and which will therefore result in the negotiation, settlement, reduction, or alteration of the terms of their debts.”
The CFPB simultaneously filed a proposed consent order that would settle the matter by halting the company’s operations and imposing a $15,000 fine.
The proposed consent order would award a judgment against the company of approximately $500,000, but suspends the penalty based on the company’s inability to pay.
Earlier this month, the CFPB filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against two lawyers and two debt relief companies. In that complaint, the CFPB did not allege abusive conduct, but said the companies charged thousands of consumers illegal advance fees and left some worse off financially.