Equifax Information Services LLC, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it improperly sold lists of consumers who were late on their mortgage payments. In two separate actions, both Equifax and the companies that allegedly bought and resold the information from it will pay a total of nearly $1.6 million to resolve charges that they violated the FTC Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
The two settlements are part of the FTC’s ongoing efforts to protect consumers in financial distress and to protect consumer privacy. Equifax will pay $393,000 to resolve allegations that its inadequate procedures led to the sale of lists of consumer information to firms that should not have received them. According to the FTC, Equifax sold more than 17,000 prescreened lists of consumers to companies including Direct Lending Source Inc., which subsequently resold some lists to third parties, who used their data to pitch loan modification and debt relief services to people in financial distress.
As part of a separate settlement, Direct Lending Source will pay a $1.2 million civil penalty,and will be barred from using or selling pre-screened lists without a permissible purpose, or in connection with solicitations for debt relief or mortgage assistance relief products or services.
The FTC alleges that, between January 2008 and early 2010, Equifax sold Direct Lending and its affiliates lists of people who met selected criteria—known as pre-screened lists. According to the agency’s complaint, the lists contained information about millions of consumers, including sensitive information such as credit scores and whether they were 30, 60, or 90 days late on their mortgage payments.
According to the FTC, neither Direct Lending nor its affiliates, Bailey & Associates Advertising Inc. and Virtual Lending Source LLC, had a legally permissible purpose to obtain the pre-screened lists. Under the FCRA, the only permissible purpose for obtaining a prescreened list is to make “firm offers of credit or insurance” – which are offers that will be honored if consumers meet pre-selected criteria. Using a prescreened list for general marketing purposes is not allowed. The FTC charged that Direct Lending sold the information to third parties that then used it to market products to consumers in financial distress, including companies that have been the subject of law enforcement investigations.
The FTC alleges that, in addition to providing the lists to entities without a permissible purpose and having inadequate procedures to prevent this from happening, Equifax failed to properly investigate when it learned Direct Lending was violating Equifax’s internal policies on pre-screening. The FTC also alleged that Equifax knew or should have known that in many cases Direct Lending resold the lists without telling Equifax who would end up using the information. Despite these failures, the FTC alleged Equifax continued selling prescreened lists to Direct Lending. The FTC alleged that Equifax’s failure to employ appropriate measures to control access to sensitive consumer information was unfair, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.
Direct Lending and its affiliates and principals allegedly violated the FTC Act and the FCRA by:
►Obtaining pre-screened lists without having a permissible purpose;
►Reselling the reports without disclosing to the consumer reporting agency that provided them who the end users would be;
►Failing to maintain reasonable procedures to ensure that prospective users had a permissible purpose to get them;
►To the extent that firm offers of credit were made, failing to maintain a record of the criteria used to select consumers for these offers; and
►Failing to employ appropriate measures to control access to sensitive consumer financial information.
In addition to requiring the payment of $393,000, the proposed settlement with Equifax prohibits the company from:
►Furnishing pre-screened lists to anyone that it does not have reason to believe has a permissible purpose to receive them;
►Failing to maintain reasonable procedures to limit the furnishing of pre-screened lists to anyone except those who have a permissible purpose to receive them; and
►Selling pre-screened lists in connection with offers for debt relief products or services and mortgage assistance relief products and services, when advance fees are charged, with limited exceptions.
The court order settling the FTC’s charges against the Direct Lending defendants imposes a $1.2 million civil penalty and prohibits them from:
►Using or obtaining consumer reports without a permissible purpose;
►Using or selling consumer reports in connection with solicitations for debt relief or mortgage assistance relief products or services offered by entities that charge advance fees;
►Failing to disclose to the consumer reporting agency that originally furnishes the report the identity of the end user of the report, and each permissible purpose for which the report is being provided to an end user; and
►Failing to establish and comply with reasonable procedures designed to ensure that a report is resold only for a purpose for which it has been furnished.