Wednesday, November 21, 2012

CFPB and FTC: Warning Letters - Misleading Advertisements

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), in coordination with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has issued warning letters to twelve mortgage lenders and mortgage brokers advising them to remove or revise misleading advertisements. The warnings concern advertisements that target veterans, seniors, and other consumers.*
Additionally, the CFPB announced that it has begun formal investigations of six companies believed to have committed more serious violations of the law.
After reviewing hundreds of mortgage advertisements, the FTC staff has also sent warning letters to twenty companies, warning them that their ads may be deceptive. The FTC sent its warning letters to real estate agents, home builders, and lead generators, urging them to review their advertisements for compliance with the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule and the FTC Act. 
The collaboration between the CFPB and the FTC are characterized as a "sweep" - a review conducted by these agencies of about 800 "randomly selected mortgage-related ads across the country, including ads for mortgage loans, refinancing, and reverse mortgages." The agencies looked at ads in newspapers, on the Internet, and from mail solicitations, and advertisements that were the subject of consumer complaints.
I really can't emphasize enough how important it is to control all the advertising your firm publishes - and I mean advertisements in any media. Just adopting a policy and procedure is insufficient.
In my view, several components must be included in advertising compliance:
a formally adopted policy and procedure;
an advertising manual that is signed for and attested to by the employee;
checklists, model forms, ad formats, and authorizations;
an easy reference guide for employees;
periodic training;
and auditing.
If you are not implementing at least these risk management practices, you are certainly falling short of the controls you need to manage the regulatory challenges posed in advertising of mortgage loan products.
The Sweep
The Rule
The Warning
The Remedy
The Sweep
The following problems were identified by the sweep:
Potential misrepresentations about government affiliation.
For example, some of the ads for mortgage products contained official-looking seals or logos, or have other characteristics that may be interpreted by consumers as indicating a government affiliation (i.e., advertisements containing statements, images, symbols, and abbreviations suggesting that an advertiser is affiliated with a government agency).
Potentially inaccurate information about interest rates. For example, some ads promoted low rates that may have misled consumers about the terms of the product actually offered. These are advertisements offering a very low “fixed” mortgage rate, without discussing significant loan terms (i.e., advertisements “guaranteeing” approval and offering very low monthly payments, without discussing significant conditions on these offers).
Potentially misleading statements concerning the costs of reverse mortgages. For example, some ads for reverse mortgage products claimed that a consumer will have no payments in connection with the product, even though consumers with a reverse mortgage are commonly required to continue to make monthly or other periodic tax or insurance payments, and may risk default if the payments aren’t made.
Potential misrepresentations about the amount of cash or credit available to a consumer. For example, some ads contained a mock check and/or suggested that a consumer has been pre-approved to receive a certain amount of money in connection with refinancing their mortgage or taking out a reverse mortgage, when a number of additional steps would customarily need to be completed before the consumer would qualify for the loan.

The Rule
The Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule ("MAP-AD Rule" or "MAP Rule"), known as Regulation N since rulemaking authority for it transferred from the FTC to the CFPB, is applied to advertising compliance relating to mortgage loan products. (We have discussed the MAP Rule previously. See, for instance, our September 2, 2011 newsletter, FTC: Adopts Mortgage Advertising Rule.)
The MAP Rule prohibits material misrepresentations in advertising or any other commercial communication regarding consumer mortgages. The FTC and the CFPB share enforcement authority over non-bank mortgage advertisers such as mortgage lenders, brokers, servicers, and advertising agencies. Mortgage advertisers that violate the MAP Rule may be required to pay civil penalties. HUD mortgagees may be subject to additional sanctions by the Mortgagee Review Board.
The MAP Rule was issued as a Final Rule by the FTC on July 22, 2011 (the day after the CFPB received its enumerated authorities) and given the compliance effective date of August 19, 2011. On July 21, 2011, the Commission’s rulemaking authority for the MAP Rule transferred to the CFPB, but the FTC, the CFPB, and the states all have authority to enforce the MAP Rule.
It applies to all entities within the FTC’s jurisdiction that advertise mortgages - mortgage lenders, brokers, and servicers; real estate agents and brokers; advertising agencies; home builders; lead generators; rate aggregators; and others. The MAP Rule, however, does not cover banks, thrifts, federal credit unions, and other entities that are outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Elizabeth Warren's Interview

In July 2011, I published my interview of Elizabeth Warren, entitled Opening a Dialogue: Elizabeth Warren and the Mortgage Industry.*
I have been told that this interview is one of the last published interviews of Mrs. Warren prior to President Barack Obama's announcement of the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) on July 18, 2011. Until that point, Mrs. Warren was acting in the capacity of the interim director of the CFPB.
In August 2011, Mrs. Warren began to receive substantial political support from many political organizations and private citizens, and on September 14, 2011 she announced her campaign as a candidate for Senator of Massachusetts.
Mrs. Warren is known to be a fierce consumer advocate and is considered by many to be the primary visionary behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB - these days known more and more colloquially as the "Bureau" -  was established by the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and signed into law by President Obama in July 2010. For the first year after the bill's signing, Mrs. Warren worked tirelessly as the CFPB's Special Assistant to the President to “stand up” the Bureau.
But Warren's nomination for the Director's position was not put forward by Mr. Obama because of his conclusion that her nomination would be too politically contentious.
Notwithstanding the political environment, the CFPB received its enumerated authorities on July 21, 2011.
Due to the partisan resistance to virtually any nomination for Director - some members of Congress wanted to disempower the CFPB or defund it – Mr. Obama felt constrained to appoint former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to be the Director of the CFPB in January 2012, through a "recess appointment", over the objections of Republican Senators.
Last week Mrs. Warren, the 63-year-old Harvard Law School professor, was elected the first female U. S. Senator of Massachusetts by the considerable lead of 54% to 46% over Scott Brown, who had been elected in 2010 to fill out the late Edward M. Kennedy’s term. Her acceptance speech included her promise that she would be "a fighter for the middle class".
Soon, Mrs. Warren will take her oath as the junior Senator of Massachusetts.
With this in mind, I thought it would be informative to consider Mrs. Warren's responses to the questions I posed in my interview, in the context of what the CFPB has accomplished to date and has pledged to accomplish in the future.
I have written extensively about the CFPB. If interested, please feel free to view or download these articles, newsletters, and recent papers.
For selected issuances involving the CFPB, visit our library.
Although it is in its infancy, perhaps we can begin to discern the broad outlines of the CFPB’s commitment to the vision of consumer advocacy set forth by Mrs. Warren.
Organizations that Accepted Participation
Organizations that Declined Participation
In Her Own Words
Organizations that Accepted Participation
Nearly all major mortgage industry associations responded to my invitation to provide questions to me to ask Mrs. Warren. Many interview questions, though very important, were also very specific, and it was just not possible for Mrs. Warren to answer such questions of detailed specificity, prior to the CFPB being empowered to evaluate rulemaking and policy alternatives.
Nevertheless, I proffered a wide enough scope of questions that we were able to obtain firm and clear replies.
Organizations that Accepted Participation
Association of Residential Mortgage Compliance Professionals (ARMCP)
Jonathan Foxx, President
Community Mortgage Bankers Project (CMBP) Glen Corso, Managing Director
Impact Mortgage Management Advocacy & Advisory Group (IMMAAG)
Bill Kidwell, President
National Association of Independent Housing Professionals (NAIHP) Marc Savitt, President
National Association of Mortgage Brokers (NAMB)
Don Frommeyer, Them President Elect
National Association of Professional Mortgage Women (NAPMW)
Laurie Abshier, National President
National Association of Realtors (NAR)
Lucien Salvant, Managing Director
National Credit Reporting Association (NCRA) Terry Clemens, Executive Director
National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA)
Daryl Hicks, Vice President, Communications
Real Estate Services Providers Council (RESPRO)
Sue Johnson, Executive Director
Organizations that Declined Participation
American Bankers Association (ABA)
Peter Garuccio, Vice President, Public Relations
Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) John Mechem, Sr. Director - Public Affairs Communications & Marketing

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

CFPB: Compliance Management System

On October 31, 2012, the CFPB issued its first issue of Supervisory Highlights: Fall 2012, a newsletter to the public and the financial services industry about its examination program, including the concerns that it finds during the course of its completed work, and the remedies that it has obtained for consumers who have suffered financial or other harm.
It is written as an Executive Summary, and it will not refer to any specific institution. But it will "signal to all institutions the kinds of activities that should be carefully scrutinized for compliance with the law."
According to the CFPB, it has already taken non-public supervisory actions against financial institutions participating in the credit card, credit reporting, and mortgage markets, confirming "remedial relief" to 1.4 million consumers, and causing the affected financial institutions to correct illegal practices. Importantly, and in consequence to the CFPB's examinations and actions, financial institutions were required to adopt effective policies and procedures to ensure that violations do not recur and, especially, mandating that they implement a robust Compliance Management System (CMS). 
The CFPB maintains that an effective CMS is a "critical component of a well-run financial institution."
After a brief discussion about the CMS concept, I should like to outline these three significant findings derived from the CFPB's examinations:
- Comprehensive CMS Deficiencies Found Through CFPB Supervisory Activities
- Deficiencies Related to Failure to Oversee Affiliate and Third-party Service Providers
- Deficient Fair Lending Compliance Programs
Compliance Management System
Comprehensive CMS Deficiencies
Failure to Oversee Affiliate and Third-party Service Providers
Deficient Fair Lending Compliance Programs
Compliance Management Systems
I consider the term Compliance Management System to be a proxy for the term mortgage risk management. Our firm was founded on the premise that such risk management was the best way to ensure a financial institution's safety and soundness with respect to mortgage banking. At the time, there was only the term "risk management", a catch-all term that was overly broad. So I coined the term "mortgage risk management" to bring mortgage compliance into greater focus, expertise, and application.
Over the years, the prudential regulators and state banking departments have included much guidance in preparedness for their mortgage banking examinations. And now the CFPB has further elaborated the crucial and central importance of managing risk and examination readiness. As recently as July 2012, I published a magazine article about The Rules of Operational Risk, in order to bring into strong relief the practical matters and unique circumstances of mortgage risk management.
The CFPB's conception of a well-conceived CMS is certainly consistent with the foundational features of mortgage risk management.
Both the CFPB and mortgage risk management require effective internal controls and oversight, training, internal monitoring, consumer complaint response, independent testing and audit, third-party service provider oversight, recordkeeping, product development and business acquisition, and marketing practices.
Mortgage risk management and the CMS both expect the development, maintenance, and integration of mortgage compliance practices across a financial institution's framework and applied to its entire loan product and service lifecycle.
As the CFPB states:
"Without such a system, serious and systemic violations of Federal consumer financial law are likely to occur. Further, a financial institution with a deficient CMS may be unable to detect its own violations. As a result, it will be unaware of resulting harm to consumers, and will be unable to adequately address consumer complaints."
Comprehensive CMS Deficiencies
The CFPB has issued findings for financial institutions lacking an effective CMS across the entire consumer financial portfolio, or in which the company failed to adopt and follow comprehensive internal policies and procedures. In these instances, the finding held that this condition resulted in "a significant breakdown in compliance and numerous violations of Federal consumer financial law."
The corrective action required an adopting of appropriate policies and procedures, and establishing an effective CMS to ensure legal compliance, which had to include the "enhancement" of financial institutional regulatory knowledge and expertise to help ensure proper monitoring of business activities and prompt identification of potential risks to consumers.
In this regards, educating about and training employees in a company's policies and procedures should be fully implemented and routinely followed. I suggest a schedule of on-going education and training modules, given to both new hires and all active, affected personnel.
Keep in mind that the CFPB will exam not only the policies and procedures and their communication to employees but also management's inclination to be proactive or passive, preemptive or complacent, knowledgeable or disinterested. According to the CFPB, a financial institution’s CMS is “inadequate” where appropriate policies have been adopted, but management fails to take measures to ensure compliance with those policies.
In a typical CMS examination, the CFPB evaluates both the understanding and application of the financial institutions’ compliance management program by its managers and employees. The CFPB has stated that it has found "one or more situations in which the financial institution had articulated many elements of an appropriate compliance policy, but the policy was not followed."

Monday, November 5, 2012

FinCEN: SAR Narrative, PowerPoint, and Mortgage Loan Fraud

On September 18, 2012 FinCEN held an Informational Webinar regarding the new FinCEN Suspicious Activity Report (SAR).
The corresponding, full PowerPoint presentation of the recorded version of this Webinar is available HERE.
For those interested in actually viewing the Webinar, HERE is the link to the FinCEN webpage.
Recently, FinCEN issued two important reports (available in our Library): 
- SAR Activity Review – Trends, Tips & Issues (Issue 22)
- Mortgage Loan Fraud Update - Suspicious Activity Report Filings in 2nd Quarter 2012 
The first report offers significant insight and guidance in monitoring suspicious activity, and the second report provides important insights regarding SAR filings related to mortgage loan fraud. For years we have worked with our bank clients on auditing their SAR filings and AML compliance, and I can vouch for the practical advantages of reading these on-going FinCEN reports to enhance your risk management responsibilities.
SAR Narrative: "5 W's and the How"
Mortgage Loan Fraud - Statistics and Charts
Foreclosure Rescue Scams on the Rise
California: Highest 2012-Q2 Foreclosure Rescue SARs
SAR Narrative: "5 W's and the How"
In the recent SAR Activity Review, sections are provided that outline the basic aspects toward filing a SAR. In particular, the section  on writing an effective SAR Narrative is important to consider.
FinCEN rightly states that the narrative "is a critical part of the SAR because it is where the filer can summarize and provide a more  detailed description of the activity being reported." For that reason, it is essential that the narrative be clear, complete and thorough.
This section of the FinCEN report offers the "5 W's" that I have written about extensively as a way to develop the SAR narrative. (See, for instance, my magazine article, Anti-Money Laundering Program - Preparation is Protection, August 2012.)
Our clients have learned  how to use this narrative method. The FinCEN report does not mention the "How" narrative that I have advocated - and which I will discuss below. In my view, the Anti-Money Laundering Program should have an appendix devoted exclusively to the SAR Narrative procedures, especially outlining  the "5 W's and the How" method of writing it.
The narrative must be clear, complete and thorough and the method I advocate is an effective means toward accomplishing these  goals.
FinCEN's outline is rather brief, so I will provide a much more extensive set of action steps for you to follow.
The following are the "5 W's" method provided by FinCEN, after which I will add some remarks about narrating the "How".
Who is conducting the suspicious activity?
While one section of the SAR form calls for specific suspect information, the narrative should be used to further describe the suspect or suspects, including occupation, position or title within the business, and the nature of the suspect’s business(es). If more than one individual or business is involved in the suspicious activity, identify all suspects and any known relationships amongst them in the Narrative Section.
While detailed suspect information may not always be available (i.e., in situations involving non-account holders), such information should be included to the maximum extent possible. Addresses for suspects are important: filing institutions should note not only the suspect’s primary street addresses, but also, other known addresses, including any post office box numbers and apartment numbers when applicable. Any identification numbers associated with the suspect(s) other than those provided earlier are also beneficial, such as passport, alien registration, and driver’s license numbers.
What instruments or mechanisms are being used to facilitate the suspect transaction(s)?
An illustrative list of instruments or mechanisms that may be used in suspicious activity includes, but is not limited to, wire transfers, letters of credit and other trade instruments, correspondent accounts, casinos, structuring, shell companies, bonds/notes, stocks, mutual funds, insurance policies, travelers checks, bank drafts, money orders, credit/debit cards, stored value cards, and/or digital currency business services. Specific suspect identifying information is provided in the relevant Suspicious Activity Report for RMLO filings.
In addition, a number of different methods may be employed for initiating the negotiation of funds such as the Internet, phone access, mail, night deposit box, remote dial-up, couriers, or others. In summarizing the flow of funds, always include the source of the funds (origination) that lead to the application for, or recipient use of, the funds (as beneficiary).
In documenting the movement of funds, identify all account numbers at the financial institution affected by the suspicious activity and when possible, provide any account numbers held at other institutions and the names/locations of the other financial institutions, including MSBs and foreign institutions involved in the reported activity.
When did the suspicious activity take place?
If the activity takes place over a period of time, indicate the date when the suspicious activity was first noticed and describe the duration of the activity. Filers will often provide a tabular presentation of the suspicious account activities (transactions in and out).
While this information is useful and should be retained, do not insert objects, tables, or pre-formatted spreadsheets when filing a SAR.
These items may not convert properly when keyed in or merged into the SAR System. Also, in order to better track the flow of funds, individual dates and amounts of transactions should be included in the narrative rather than just the aggregated amount.