In the 29nd edition of its Supervisory Highlights, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) focused on the impact of so-called “junk” fees in the mortgage servicing, auto servicing, and student loan servicing industries, among others.
CFPB Issues New Edition of Supervisory Highlights:
On March 8, the CFPB published a special edition of its Supervisory Highlights, addressing supervisory observations with respect to the imposition of junk fees in the mortgage servicing and auto servicing markets – as well as for deposits, payday and small-dollar lending, and student loan servicing. The observations cover examinations of participants in these industries that the CFPB conducted between July 1, 2022 and February 1, 2023.
With respect to auto servicing, the CFPB noted three principal categories of findings the Bureau claims constitute acts or practices prohibited by the Consumer Financial Protection Act (“CFPA”).
First, examiners asserted that auto servicers engaged in unfair acts or practices by assessing late fees: (a) that exceeded the maximum amount stated in consumers’ contracts; or (b) after consumers’ vehicles had been repossessed and the full balances were due. With respect to the latter, the acceleration of the contract balance upon repossession extinguished not only the customers’ contractual obligation to make further periodic payments, but also the servicers’ contractual right to charge late fees on such periodic payments. The report notes that in response to the findings, the servicers ceased their assessment practices, and provided refunds to affected consumers.
Second, examiners alleged that auto servicers engaged in unfair acts or practices by charging estimated repossession fees that were significantly higher than the average repossession cost. Although servicers returned excess amounts to consumers after being invoiced for the actual costs, the CFPB found that the assessment of the materially higher estimated fees caused or was likely to cause concrete monetary harm – and, thus, “substantial injury” as identified in unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices (“UDAAP”) supervisory guidance – to consumers. Further, consumers could have suffered injury in the form of loss of their vehicles to the extent that they did not want – or could not afford – to pay the higher estimated repossession fees if they sought to reinstate or redeem the vehicle. Examiners found that such injuries: (a) were not reasonably avoidable by consumers, who could not control the servicers’ fee practices; and (b) were not outweighed by a countervailing benefit to consumers or competition. The report notes that in response to the findings, the servicers ceased the practice of charging estimated repossession fees that were significantly higher than average actual costs, and also provided refunds to consumers affected by the practice.
Third, examiners claimed that auto servicers engaged in unfair and abusive acts or practices by assessing payment processing fees that exceeded the servicers’ actual costs for processing payments. CFPB examiners noted that servicers offered consumers two free methods of payment: (a) pre-authorized recurring ACH debits; and (b) mailed checks. Only consumers with bank accounts can utilize those methods; all those without a bank account, or who chose to use a different payment method, incurred a processing fee. The CFPB reported that as a result of “pay-to-pay” fees, servicers received millions of dollars in incentive payments totaling approximately half of the total amount of payment processing fees collected by the third party payment processors.
In examining mortgage servicers, CFPB examiners noted five principal categories of findings that related to the assessment of junk fees, which were alleged to constitute UDAAPs and/or violate Regulation Z.
First, CFPB examiners found that servicers assessed borrowers late fees in excess of the amounts permitted by loan agreements, often by neglecting to input the maximum fee permitted by agreement into their operating systems. The examiners found that by instead charging the maximum late fees permitted under state laws, servicers engaged in unfair acts or practices. Further, servicers violated Regulation Z by issuing periodic statements that reflected the charging of fees in excess of those permitted by borrowers’ loan agreements. In response to these findings, servicers took corrective action including: (a) waiving or refunding late fees that were in excess of those permitted under borrowers’ loan agreements; and (b) corrected borrower’s periodic statements to reflect correct late fee amounts.
Second, CFPB examiners found that servicers engaged in unfair acts and practices by repeatedly charged consumers for unnecessary property inspections (such as repeat property preservation visits to known bad addresses). In response to the finding, servicers revised their policies to preclude multiple charges to a known bad address, and waived or refunded the fees that had been assessed to borrowers.
Third, CFPB examiners noted two sets of findings related to private mortgage insurance (“PMI”). When a loan is originated with lender-paid PMI, PMI premiums should not be billed directly to consumers. In certain cases, the CFPB found that servicers engaged in deceptive acts or practices by mispresenting to consumers – including on periodic statements and escrow disclosures – that they owed PMI premiums, when in fact the borrowers’ loans had lender-paid PMI. These misrepresentations led to borrowers’ overpayments reflecting the PMI premiums; in response to the findings, servicers refunded any such overpayments. Similarly, CFPB examiners found that servicers violated the Homeowners Protection Act by failing to terminate PMI on the date that the principal balance of a current loan was scheduled to read a 78 percent LTV ratio, and continuing to accept borrowers’ payments for PMI after that date. In response to these findings, servicers both issued refunds of excess PMI payments and implemented compliance controls to enhance their PMI handling.
Fourth, CFPB examiners found that servicers engaged in unfair acts or practices by failing to waive charges (including late fees and penalties) accrued outside of forbearance periods for federally backed mortgages subject to the protections of the CARES Act. The CARES Act generally prohibits the accrual of fees, penalties, or additional interest beyond scheduled monthly payment amounts during a forbearance period; however, the law does not address fees and charges accrued during periods when loans are not in forbearance. Under certain circumstances, HUD required servicers of FHA-insured mortgages to waive fees and penalties accrued outside of forbearance periods for borrowers exiting forbearances and entering permanent loss mitigation options. CFPB examiners found that servicers sometimes failed to complete the required fee waivers, constituting an unfair act or practice under the CFA.
Finally, CFPB examiners found that servicers engaged in deceptive acts and practices by sending consumers in their last month of forbearance periodic statements that incorrectly listed a $0 late fee for the next month’s payment, when a full late fee would be charged if such payment were late. In response to the finding, servicers updated their periodic statements and either waived or refunded late fees incurred in the referenced payments.
The CFPB determined that two overdraft-related practices constitute unfair acts or practices: (i) authorizing transactions when a deposit’s balance was positive but settled negative (APSN fees); and (ii) assessing multiple non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees when merchants present a payment against a customer’s account multiple times despite the lack of sufficient funds in the account. The CFPB has criticized both fees before in Consumer Financial Protection Circular 2022-06, Unanticipated Overdraft Fee Assessment Practices.
According to the report, tens of millions of dollars in related customer injury are attributable to APSN fee practices, and redress is already underway to more than 170,000 customers. Many financial institutions have abandoned the practice, but the CFPB noted that even some such institutions had not ceased the practice and were accordingly issued matters requiring attention to correct the problems. As for NSF fees, the CFPB found millions of dollars of consumer harm to tens of thousands of customers. It also determined that “virtually all” institutions interacting with the CFPB on the issue have abandoned the practice.
Student Loan Servicing
Turning to student loan servicing, the CFPB found that servicers engaged in unfair acts or practices prohibited by the CFPA where: (a) customer service representative errors delayed consumers from making valid payments on their accounts, and (b) those delays led to consumers owing additional late fees and interest associated with the delinquency. Contrary to servicers’ state policies against the acceptance of credit cards, customer service representatives accepted and processed credit card payments from consumers over the phone. The servicers initially processed the credit card payments, but then reversed those payments when the error in payment method was identified.
Payday and Small Dollar Lending
The CFPB determined that lenders, in connection with payday, installment, title, and line-of-credit loans, engaged in a number of unfair acts or practices. The first conclusion they made was that lenders simultaneously or near-simultaneously re-presented split payments from customers’ accounts without obtaining proper authorization, resulting in multiple overdraft fees, indirect follow-on fees, unauthorized loss of funds, and inability to prioritize payment decisions. The second such conclusion concerned charges to borrowers to retrieve personal property from repossessed vehicles, servicer charges, and withholding subject personal property and vehicles until fees were paid. The third such determination related to stopping vehicle repossessions before title loan payments were due as previously agreed, and then withholding the vehicles until consumers paid repossession-related fees and refinanced their debts.
The CFPB’s focus on “junk” fees is not new – it follows on an announcement last January that the agency would be focused on the fairness of fees that various industries impose on consumers. (We have previously discussed how the CFPB’s actions could impact mortgage servicing fee structures.) Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission has previously considered the issue of “junk fees” in connection with auto finance transactions.
By focusing specifically on the issue in a special edition of the Supervisory Highlights, the CFPB is drawing special attention to the issue of these fees in the servicing context. Mortgage, auto, and student loan servicers might use this as an opportunity to review their current practices and see how they stack up against the CFPB’s findings.