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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lead Generation Company: Managing the Risks

Jonathan Foxx
President & Managing Director

Generating leads is an important way to reach consumers. It is also fraught with regulatory risk. A lead is consumer information that signals consumer interest or inquiry into products or services offered by a business, such as residential mortgage lenders and originators. There are several factors to be considered, not just licensing. I will list some rudimentary guidelines in this article, specifically with respect to contact with the consumer. Caution is urged to consult with a risk management professional to ensure compliance with federal and state guidelines required by a marketing campaign to generate leads. Although my focus is primarily on the online lead generation process, virtually all the guidelines provided herein may be extrapolated for use in offline lead generation campaigns.

My firm often is requested by clients to vet a lead generator, which I will call a Lead Generation Company. Careful risk management advice should be considered when developing and managing leads, whether obtained from an outsourced entity or a loan originator’s own website, in-house, or through online lead generation advertisements. Certainly, any loan originator that uses leads must have an internal compliance function that accounts for proper licensing of the Lead Generation Company (where required), monitoring of the data integrity derived therefrom, testing conformance with the originator’s policies, and training of staff in the appropriate use of lead generated, consumer data.

Banking departments these days are not just looking at licensing qua licensing. They are looking for loan originator compensation violations that are triggered by lead generation. For instance, they know that loans may have different cost structures depending on how the loans were initially received by the lender. A lead generated by the loan originator may be compensated differently than those generated by the creditor. As long as this doesn’t constitute a proxy for a loan term or condition, it is generally acceptable; that is, the loan officer may also be reimbursed for lead generation and other legitimate business costs, but the creditor must beware of how this may serve as a proxy for terms and conditions. It is up to the lender to make this determination (and properly document it).

Four Rules

In any lead generating marketing, the following four rules should be implemented:

1.     Complete, accessible, and straightforward disclosure of all parties’ intent regarding data collection and usage is essential;
2.     Data should not be brokered or sold without consent (or notice and choice) of all parties involved, including the consumer and the loan originator;
3.     Both the consumer, Lead Generation Company, and the loan originator should be made aware, through clear notices, of all parties involved in data collection and sharing; and,
4.     All parties should be educated and aware of current regulations regarding consumer protection and privacy.

These four rules become the bases of the policies, procedures, contractual arrangements, and protocols that ensure a viable marketing campaign that relies, in whole or in part, on lead generation.

Regulatory Focus

The regulators involved in enforcement of compliance with lead generation rules include, but are not limited to, state banking departments, state Attorneys General, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”),[i] and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“Bureau”). We already know that the Bureau examines for whether the lead generator is a third-party provider and reviews the terms and appropriateness of the relationship. The Bureau reviews advertisements and advertising sources. It will review TV, radio, print media, Internet, scripts, recordings, and so forth. It will determine if there was proper consumer disclosure all along the way, from point of contact with the consumer to point of contact with the lender, including any intimation of fees and other terms and conditions. Plus, a review is conducted for online data security and sharing of consumer information.

Although the new loan originator qualification standards do not impose licensing requirements, every lender must ensure that each loan originator in its employ is licensed and registered in compliance with laws related to Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act (SAFE), if applicable. Further, entities engaged in lead generation and marketing activities, as well as the companies that do business with such entities, need to pay particular attention to their activities to ensure that they do not inadvertently engage in loan originator activity. If they do, they’ll need to make sure that they meet the new loan originator qualification standards, including licensing requirements. Failure to meet these standards will give rise to severe civil liability that could impair the collectability of the loan.

The Bureau has stated that anytime a consumer gives out sensitive personal and financial information on the Internet there are risks involved to the consumer. In the context of Pay Day Loans, for instance, the Bureau has already warned consumers that if a consumer applies for a loan online, the consumer could be increasing risk significantly.

The Bureau has expressed concern that an online application or form that consumers fill out could be sold to a loan originator that offers to originate a loan on behalf of the consumer. Indeed, the Bureau also has indicated it has concerns that multiple lenders or other settlement service providers could pay for this information, thereby causing them to contact or email the consumer.

Consumer Advocacy

In a November 11, 2013 announcement to consumers, the Bureau stated, “Lead generators might not find you the lowest cost loans, and you should be cautious of sites that promise they will. Many consumers can also be confused about who actually made the loan, which makes getting help when you need it harder.”[ii] In addition, the Bureau has provided caution regarding key words, tags, and tactics.

Importantly, the Bureau’s view toward the Pay Day lead generator should be applied to residential mortgage lenders and originators that purchase leads from a Lead Generation company. Here’s the point: the Bureau has clearly issued an answer to the question, "What is the difference between an online payday lender and one with a storefront?" Its answer was that consumers need to make sure the online website is licensed to do business in the consumer's state and whether the lead generator follows the state's [payday] lending laws. Consider it a warning to all residential loan originators!

Therefore, when the Bureau starts looking at online lead generation involving residential mortgage loans, it is somewhat certain that it applies an even stricter standard to the Lead Generation Company that solicits mortgage information or a mortgage conversation from consumers and sells it or even passes it on to a loan originator. Questions that the Bureau would resolve, either by promulgating rules or through enforcement action, will likely be: (1) Is the Lead Generation Company violating the SAFE Act if it is not licensed in the state it is operating in?, and (2) If it is licensed under SAFE will it be violating the broadly defined Loan Officer Compensation Rule?

Lead Generation as Advertising

Depending on the advertising used to find a consumer for a loan originator, the Bureau may deem the communication to be an advertisement to generate a lead by using certain phrases, such as “Let us help you find a mortgage! Call us! Or Click Here for More Information!” If deemed an advertisement, the Bureau will move to the view that such advertising is a solicitation for a mortgage conversation from a consumer. The outcome of that position would likely lead to a violation of SAFE, because most states consider such a solicitation a violation of SAFE even if no payment is made by the lender or loan officer to the Lead Generation Company - because this type of solicitation would trigger a license requirement.

Even if the Lead Generation Company is properly licensed under a particular state's SAFE Act, if it sells that lead to an unlicensed loan originator in that state the Bureau could pursue an action against the Lead Generation Company because it assisted or facilitated a consumer’s information to be sold to an unlicensed entity, pursuant to various third party vendor management bulletins.

Some states already require a Lead Generation Company collecting consumer information to be licensed as "mortgage brokers" such as Arizona and Virginia. The licensing requirement varies from state to state. Referencing Pay Day lenders, most of the Pay Day lenders in Ohio, for example, have become Mortgage Brokers under the SAFE Act as it takes them out of the state usury statute for Pay Day lenders.

Three Concerns

What type of online Lead Generation Company could cause issues of concern?

(1) Unlicensed Lead Generation Company that tells consumers, for instance, whether they are "Qualified for a Loan or Not";

(2) Online Lead Generation Company that collects any sort of non-public personal information data (the definition of what is “NPI” may vary from state to state, but is also federally settled in Gramm-Leach-Bliley, et alia) and fails to inform and obtain the consumers consent that their information will be shared with a third party; and,

(3) Online Lead Generation Company where it has spoken directly with the consumer and then transfers the "Live Handoff" over to the loan originator (especially if the Lead Generation Company is not licensed, where required by state law). If the Lead Generation company acts as a special kind of mortgage broker then it may be best to stay away because this could violate the standards associated with the Loan Officer Qualifying Rule, mentioned above, which became effective on January 1, 2014.

Additionally, please note that the Bureau has broad authority to enforce Fair Lending Laws, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, Mortgage Lending and Regulations, Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule, and most certainly Unfair, Deceptive and Abusive Acts or Practices (UDAAP).[iii]