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Consumer Bureau Loses Fight to Allow Class-Action Suits Against Finance Giants

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Senate Republicans on Tuesday killed a new rule that would have made it easier for Americans to file class-action lawsuits against big Wall Street banks. 

Vice President Mike Pence cast a critical vote to break a 50-50 tie, giving the Street its first major victory since the Trump administration took office in January.  

Implications for consumers 

In the regulatory overhaul following the housing slump, Congress directed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to write the rule preventing financial firms from imposing arbitration when consumers wished to band together in class-action cases to resolve disputes. 

For years, financial companies have included class-action waivers in new contracts offering a consumer financial product or service. The arbitration clauses forced consumers to waive their rights to join class-action lawsuits. 

CFPB’s proposed rule, issued in July, would have banned financial institutions from inserting such clauses in standard contracts. Consequently, it would have restored individuals’ ability to pool resources and fight against banks and credit card companies in court.  

“Tonight’s vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country,”  Richard Cordray, the director of the consumer bureau, said in an emailed statement to MagnifyMoney. “Wall Street won and ordinary people lost.” 

He added, “As a result, companies like Wells Fargo and Equifax remain free to break the law without fear of legal blowback from their customers.” 

What’s arbitration? 

When a company includes a mandatory arbitration clause in a contract, it generally means disputes will be handled as individual cases in small claims court or settled outside the court system, through arbitration. A neutral third party — an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators — listens to the arguments and decides on a resolution.  

Arbitration is said to be faster, simpler and cheaper than litigation. But opponents of arbitration say its downsides include questionable neutrality on the arbitrator’s part, a lack of transparency and a lack of recourse. For example, in a court case, a losing party could appeal — an option that doesn’t exist in arbitration.  

The CFPB argues that reducing consumers’ options to private arbitration or an individual lawsuit makes it easy for companies to avoid accountability for actions that can affect thousands or millions of people. 

Why now? 

The Trump administration and Republicans have pushed to curtail the CFPB as part of a broader effort to weaken the Obama administration’s tighter federal grip over financial institutions.  

The arbitration rule had sparked a political firestorm in Washington. Over the summer, members of the Senate Banking Committee pledged that they would take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to overturn the CFPB rule.  

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, D-Texas,  introduced a companion measure in the House. 

Under the Congressional Review Act, Republicans had about 60 legislative days to overturn the rule. In ensuing months, financial institutions and their Republican allies in Congress joined forces, making serious efforts to block the arbitration rule.  

The Treasury Department on Monday released a report against the rule. “The Bureau failed to meaningfully evaluate whether prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts would serve either consumer protection or the public interest — its two statutory mandates,” according to the report. 

On Tuesday, the White House applauded the move by Senate Republicans. 

“The evidence is clear that the CFPB’s rule would neither protect consumers nor serve the public interest,” the White House said in a statement. “Rather, under the rule, consumers would have fewer options for quickly and efficiently resolving financial disputes.” 

Shen Lu
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Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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New CFPB Rules Get Tougher With Payday-Lender Debt Traps

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In early October, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced it would implement long-awaited new rules aimed at limiting the power of payday and title lenders. The bureau director, Richard Cordray,  has been a vocal critic of the nonbank lenders, and the agency has been working on new rules to regulate lenders in this space for several years.

“The CFPB’s new rule puts a stop to the payday debt traps that have plagued communities across the country,” Cordray said in a statement. “Too often, borrowers who need quick cash end up trapped in loans they can’t afford. The rule’s common sense ability-to-repay protections prevent lenders from succeeding by setting up borrowers to fail.”These rules will apply to both brick-and-mortar and online lenders.

What changes are happening

Lenders are going to have to prove that a borrower can afford to repay the loan

One of the major rules is a “full-payment test” that will determine if borrowers can “afford the loan payments and still meet basic living expenses and major financial obligations.” Payday lenders typically don’t run a credit report on borrowers and only usually look at a pay stub to determine if you qualify.

Most consumers end up unable to repay the loan when it comes due, usually a couple weeks later. According to the CFPB, more than 80 percent of all payday loans are rolled over or renewed. The same is true for title loans, with 20 percent of borrowers losing their vehicle to title loan companies. Because there is little regulation on interest rates, these loans usually have APRs of 300 percent or more.

However, borrowers can avoid the full-payment test if the lender meets the following requirements: It must make 2,500 or fewer covered short-term or balloon-payment loans per year and earn no more than 10 percent of its revenue from such loans.

It won’t be as easy for lenders to access funds in borrowers’ bank accounts

Another issue is that many payday and title loans require access to the user’s bank account, where payments will be automatically debited. If the user does not have the amount available in his or her account, the account will be overdrawn. This usually results in the consumer being charged overdraft fees on top of the hefty interest already going to the payday lender.

According to the CFPB, “these borrowers incur an average of $185 in bank penalty fees, in addition to any fees the lender might charge for failed debit attempts, specifically, a late fee, a returned-payment fee, or both.”

One of the rules that the CFPB installed is a limit on attempted debits, so the lender has to get authorization from the consumer to debit the account more than twice. The CFPB also hopes to limit the amount of times a loan can be extended, as a way to decrease the fees the borrower must pay.

Borrowers can repay debt more gradually

To avoid the full-payment test, payday lenders can lend up to $500 if they structure the payments so the borrower can pay them off “more gradually.” However, there will be strict rules in place for this type of loan.

For example, lenders won’t be able to offer gradual repayment plans to customers who have recent or outstanding short-term or balloon-payment loans. They also can’t make more than three loans in quick succession and can’t make loans under this option if the consumer has already had more than six short-term loans or been in debt for more than 90 days on short-term loans over a rolling 12-month period.

Few options for borrowers in need

The CFPB’s long-awaited rules may help protect borrowers from predatory lenders, but don’t solve a key issue: There just aren’t that many viable alternatives for people who need to borrow small sums quickly.

A report from the Milken Institute, “Where Banks Are Few, Payday Lenders Thrive,” found that neighborhoods with more banks tend to have fewer payday lenders, and vice versa. There was also a strong correlation between payday lenders and neighborhoods with higher African-American and Latino populations as well as a greater instance of payday lenders where there are fewer high school and college graduates.

Jennifer Harper, who researched predatory lending in Chattanooga, Tenn., as part of the Financial Independence Committee for the Mayor’s Council for Women, said she hopes there will be a solution for consumers that doesn’t require them to take out a payday loan.

“We want to find an alternative to payday lending that would still allow people to access they need, without those crazy interest rates,’ she said. “Getting that quick access to cash may be fine for that day, but then it really puts a burden on the borrower long-term.”

Jason J. Howell,  a certified financial planner and fiduciary wealth adviser in Virginia, agrees with the new regulations taking place.

“The CFPB is taking the opportunity to protect the most vulnerable consumers: lower-income borrowers that are typically ‘un-banked,’” he said. “The proposed rule would reduce fees that make payday loans especially hard to pay back; and that could also reduce the issuance of these loans in the first place.”

Zina Kumok
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Zina Kumok is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Zina here

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More Than 40% of U.S. Adults Struggle to Make Ends Meet

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You may be struggling to pay bills every month, but so are plenty of other people.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Tuesday reported that 43 percent of American adults struggle to make ends meet, based on the results of a national survey conducted in 2016 on the financial well-being of U.S. consumers.

About 34 percent of all consumers surveyed reported experiencing material hardships —  these include running out of food, not being able to afford a place to live or lacking the money to seek medical treatment — in the past year, the bureau said.  

In the survey, the bureau asked more than 6,000 participants from all walks of life to answer 10 questions about current and future financial security and freedom of choice, and to give a score from 0 to 100 on each question. The average consumer score was 54 in the survey. Not surprisingly, consumers surveyed said that their financial conditions were closely tied to their level of education, income and employment status, according to the bureau. 

Young adults are especially susceptible to financial hardships, the agency found. 

Millennials — those age 34 and below — reported an average score of 51 for their financial well-being, 10 points lower than seniors ages 65 and up and three points lower than the national average. 

The report, what the bureau calls “the first of its kind,” not only provides a view of the the overall state of financial conditions in the U.S., it also sheds light on how individuals from different demographics are faring financially. 

Adults with scores of 50 or below have a high likelihood — more than 50 percent — of struggling to pay bills and of experiencing difficult financial situations, according to the report. 

In contrast, those who reported scores of 61 and above had a much lower probability — less than 10 percent — that they would have trouble paying for basic needs.  

 Savings = stability  

Of all the factors examined, the bureau found that the amount of savings and financial cushions is the most important when it comes to disparities in people’s financial situations. 

The average financial well-being for adults with savings of less than $250 — the lowest level — is 41. That compares with 68 for people with the highest level of savings — $75,000 or more, according to the report. 

Similar differences in scores were seen with the ability to absorb unexpected expenses.  

“These findings highlight the importance of savings and other safety nets in helping people to feel financially secure, one of the basic elements of financial well-being,” the report said. 

Having some sort of financial knowledge appears to benefit financial well-being. 

The survey found that individuals with higher levels of financial confidence, knowledge and day-to-day money management behaviors tend to report better financial conditions. 

Apart from the survey, the bureau initiated  an interactive online tool allowing consumers to measure their own financial well-being.  

 7 tips to improve your financial health: 

  1. Have “rainy day” cash available. Often, people who feel they are broke don’t have the means to absorb unexpected expenses. We’ve ranked the best options for when you need cash fast.  A good rule of thumb is to set aside at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.   
  2. Save. Save. Save. It’s never too early to start saving for retirement. Financial planners often suggest you stash at least 10 percent of your income every month. 
  3. Focus on paying down high interest debts. Sometime it makes more sense to pay off debt than to save, especially if you have high-interest debt like credit cards.  Here are four fast ways to achieve that goal.
  4. Consider changing your lifestyle. Lifestyle inflation is the ultimate budget-killer — a widespread phenomenon that occurs when people spend more as their incomes increase.
  5. Learn to ignore the Joneses. Focusing on your needs and goals rather than aligning them with the people in your life or in your social media feed is critical to being happy with the state of your finances and your life.
  6. Come up with strategies to help break your negative spending habits. For example, we’ve written about a simple $20 rule that can help break your credit card addiction. Explore other ways to break bad money habits here.
  7. Educate yourself. The more you know about your finances, the better off you’ll be. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply using an app to track your spending or asking your HR department for a review of your retirement savings options are good places to start. The key is to engage in day-to-day money management and establish a habit of saving and budgeting. 
Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Student Debt Relief Could Be Coming to Thousands of Borrowers

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Tens of thousands of students struggling with insurmountable student loan debt are about to get a little breathing room.

The National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, a creditor that holds billions in private student loans, reached a settlement Sept. 18 with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in which the trusts were ordered to refund at least $21.6 million toward refunds and penalty fees for affected borrowers.

As MagnifyMoney’s Kelly Clay reported in August, National Collegiate sued dozens of former students who had defaulted on their private student loans. But in court National Collegiate failed to prove they owned the loans. This happens often when loans are sold to another lender or otherwise handed to another account manager and paperwork gets lost. Ultimately, the courts dismissed the lawsuits, citing the fact that National Collegiate had no way of proving they owned the debts in the first place.

In the settlement with the CFPB, the trusts agreed to set aside $3.5 million for reimbursements to borrowers who had already made payments after being sued for loans unlawfully. If a student loan lender can’t prove it owns a debt — for example, if it lacks the proper documentation to prove ownership — it can’t legally collect on it. Likewise, if the statute of limitations has passed, the lender can continue to try to collect on the debt, but it can no longer take legal action against the borrower.

Although there are usually limited circumstances under which student loans are forgiven, this ruling may result in many borrowers eventually having their debts wiped out. The CFPB ordered National Collegiate to have each of its 800,000 loans reviewed by an independent auditor, and the trusts will not be allowed to go forward with collection actions on any loans that they can’t prove they own.

“The National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts and their debt collector sued consumers for student loans they couldn’t prove were owed and filed false and misleading affidavits in courts across the country,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.

What does this mean for you?

If you borrowed educational funds from a private lender who sold your debt to the National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, and you were sued between November 2012 and April 2016, it’s possible you’re due a refund. According to The New York Times, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase are among the private lenders who sold private student loan debt to the trusts.

StudentDebtCrisis.org, a nonprofit dedicated to higher education funding reform, tweeted: “Thousands of Americans with student debt could see their loans cut under a @CFPB agreement with Wall Street trusts.”

If you’re owed restitution, the company will reach out to you. No action is required on your part. However, if you’d like to make a formal complaint, you can contact the CFPB.

What you can do if you’ve fallen behind on your loan

It can be tough to keep up with your student loan payments. If you’re behind, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It takes about nine months (270 days) of nonpayment for a federal student loan to go into default.

But many private student loans default when you are only 120 days late. Sometimes missing one or two payments can send you into default.

So make sure you carefully read your loan contract to better understand what constitutes a default and to know your rights, if you happen to default on your loan.

If you default, don’t panic. While it’s your responsibility to pay what you owe, you have rights, and it is against the law for the debt collector to harass you.

The student loan creditor must provide a written “validation notice” indicating how much you owe, the name of the creditor, what rights you have if you think you don’t owe the debt, and how to obtain information about the original creditor.

You may have options for setting up a repayment plan. Familiarize yourself with the terms of your loan and contact the CFPB if you have concerns about the practices of your lender.

‘I defaulted, and I’ve been sued. Now what?’

If you default on your loan and you’ve been sued, it can be stressful, but don’t give up. You’ve not automatically lost just because the creditor has taken legal action.

Here are four steps to take if you receive a summons.

Stick to the deadlines.

If you ignore the summons or don’t show up in court, this may result in a default judgment against you.

Verify your debt.

Is the amount correct? Is the debt valid? If there’s any discrepancy between what your records show and what the credit agency is alleging, you need to document that.

One way to do that is to send your lender or debt collector a debt verification letter. This is a formal way to ask them to verify the amount, that you are the owner of the debt, and that it’s valid. If they don’t respond to the letter within 30 to 60 days, they must cease attempting to collect the debt.

Know your rights.

Unlike federal student loans, private loans are bound to a statute of limitations. Once that statute of limitations has run out, the lender can no longer take legal action. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying to collect on that debt. And that’s where you should be careful. If you pay even $1 toward an old debt after the statute of limitations is up, it automatically restarts the clock, and the lender can once again take legal action. Find out what the statute of limitations is in your state.

You have a legal right to tell debt collectors to stop contacting you entirely.

If all else fails, hire an attorney.

Hopefully you won’t need one, but every situation is different. If you don’t have the money to pay your student loans, chances are you don’t have the money to pay a lawyer.

But if you find yourself in a situation where you really need someone to simplify the complexity of your case and speak to a creditor on your behalf, you may consider consulting a student loan attorney. Private loans are subject to state law, and a licensed attorney may be the best person to help you navigate those waters. The CFPB has a tool that can help you find an affordable lawyer in your state.

KaToya Fleming
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KaToya Fleming is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email KaToya here

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GOP Moves to Block Rule That Allows Consumers to Join Class Action Lawsuits

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A rule that would make it easier for consumers to join together and sue their banks might be shelved by congressional Republicans or other banking regulators before it takes effect.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee announced Thursday that they will take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to stop a new rule announced earlier this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (D-Texas) introduced a companion measure in the House of Representatives.

The CFPB rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week and would take effect in 60 days, bans financial firms from including language in standard form contracts that force consumers to waive their rights to join class action lawsuits.

The congressional challenge is one of three potential roadblocks opponents might throw up to overturn or stall the rule before it takes effect in two months.

So-called mandatory arbitration clauses have long been criticized by consumer groups, who say they make it easier for companies to mistreat consumers. But Senate Republicans, led by banking committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), say the rule is “anti-business” and would lead to a flood of class action lawsuits that would harm the economy. They also say the CFPB overstepped its bounds in writing the rule.

“Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), referring to the CFPB director. “This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington’s most powerful bureaucracies.”

Congress’s financial reform bill of 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, directed the CFPB to study arbitration clauses and write a rule about them. The rule permits arbitration clauses for individual disputes, but prevents firms from requiring arbitration when consumers wish to band together in class action cases.

Consumer groups were quick to criticize congressional Republicans.

“Senator Crapo is doing the bidding of Wall Street by jumping to take away our day in court and repeal a common-sense rule years in the making,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “None of these senators would want to look a Wells Fargo fraud victim in the eye and say, ‘you can’t have your day in court,’ yet they are helping Wells Fargo do just that.”

Meanwhile, the new rule also faces a challenge from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, made up of 10 banking regulators. The council can overturn a CFPB rule with a two-thirds vote if members believe it threatens the safety and soundness of the banking system. A letter from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, a council member, to the CFPB on Monday asked the bureau for more data on the rule, and raised possible safety and soundness issues. Any council member can ask the Treasury secretary to stay a new rule within 10 days of publication. The council would then have 90 days to veto the rule via a vote. It would be the first such veto.

The CFPB rule also faces potential lawsuits from private parties.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Barring action by Congress, the CFPB rule is slated to take effect in late September 2017, with covered firms having an additional 6 months to comply, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

Bob Sullivan
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It Could Get a Lot Easier to Sue Your Bank Thanks to This New Regulation

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Update: The CFPB arbitration rule is officially dead.

With looming existential threats from both the Trump administration and the federal court system, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went ahead on Monday with a controversial rule that will change the way nearly all consumer contracts with financial institutions are written.

The end of forced arbitration?

The rule will ensure that all consumers can join what CFPB Director Richard Cordray called “group” lawsuits — generally known as class-action lawsuits — when they feel financial institutions have committed small-dollar, high-volume frauds. Currently, many contracts contain mandatory arbitration clauses that explicitly force consumers to waive their rights to join class-action lawsuits. Instead, consumers are forced to enter individual arbitration, a step critics say most don’t bother to pursue.

Consumer groups have for years claimed waivers were unjust and even illegal, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with corporate lawyers, paving the way for even more companies to include the prohibition in standard-form contracts for products like credit cards and checking accounts.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Monday’s rule is slated to take effect in about eight months, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

“By blocking group lawsuits, mandatory arbitration clauses force consumers either to give up or to go it alone — usually over relatively small amounts that may not be worth pursuing on one’s own,” Cordray said during the announcement.

“Including these clauses in contracts allows companies to sidestep the judicial system, avoid big refunds, and continue to pursue profitable practices that may violate the law and harm large numbers of consumers. … Our common-sense rule applies to the major markets for consumer financial products and services under the Bureau’s jurisdiction, including those in which providers lend money, store money, and move or exchange money.”

A long road ahead for the CFPB

The ruling was several years in the making, initiated by the Dodd-Frank financial reforms of 2010, which called on the CFPB to first study the issue and then write a new rule. But it almost didn’t happen: With the election of Donald Trump and Republican control of the White House, the CFPB faces major changes, including the expiration of Cordray’s term next year.

Also, House Republicans have passed legislation that would drastically change the CFPB’s structure. Either of these could lead to the undoing of Monday’s rule. When I asked the CFPB at Monday’s announcement what the process for such undoing would be, the bureau didn’t respond.

“I can’t comment on what might happen in the future,” said Eric Goldberg, Senior Counsel, Office of Regulations.

Cordray cited the recent Wells Fargo scandal as evidence the arbitration waiver ban was necessary. Before the fake account controversy became widely known, consumers had tried to sue the bank but were turned back by courts citing the contract language.

Under the new rules, consumers would have an easier time finding lawyers willing to sue banks in such situations. No lawyer will take a case involving a single $39 controversy, but plenty will do so if the case potentially involves thousands, or even millions, of clients.

Consumer groups immediately hailed the new rule.

“The CFPB’s rule restores ordinary folks’ day in court for widespread violations of the law,” said Lauren Saunders, association director of the National Consumer Law Center. “Forced arbitration is simply a license to steal when a company like Wells Fargo commits fraud through millions of fake accounts and then tells customers: ‘Too bad, you can’t go to court and can’t team up; you have to fight us one by one behind closed doors and before a private arbitrator of our choice instead of a public court with an impartial judge.’”

The CFPB and Monday’s rule also face an uncertain future because a federal court last fall ruled that part of the bureau’s executive structure was unconstitutional. The CFPB is appealing the ruling, and a decision may come soon. Should the CFPB lose, it will be easier for Trump to fire Cordray immediately, and companies may have legal avenue to challenge CFPB rules.

On the other hand, enacting the rule now may give supporters momentum that will be difficult for the industry to stop — a situation similar to the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. While the Trump administration took steps to stop that rule from taking effect, many companies had already begun to comply, and simply continued with that process.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was heavily critical of the new rule.

“The CFPB’s brazen finalization of the arbitration rule is a prime example of an agency gone rogue. CFPB’s actions exemplify its complete disregard for the will of Congress, the administration, the American people, and even the courts,” the Chamber said in a statement.

“As we review the rule, we will consider every approach to address our concerns, and we encourage Congress to do the same — including exploring the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, we call upon the administration and Congress to establish the necessary checks and balances on the CFPB before it takes more one-sided, overreaching actions.”

But consumer groups called Monday’s ruling a victory.

“Forced arbitration deprives victims of not only their day in court, but the right to band together with other targets of corporate lawbreaking. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for lawbreakers,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “The consumer agency’s rule will stop Wall Street and predatory lenders from ripping people off with impunity, and make markets fairer and safer for ordinary Americans.”

Bob Sullivan
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How the “Financial Choice Act” Could Impact Your Wallet

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

 

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A plan to repeal major aspects of Dodd-Frank — legislation enacted to regulate the types of lender behavior that contributed to the 2008 economic crisis — crossed its first major hurdle last week when the U.S. House passed the Financial Choice Act.

The bill still has to pass the U.S. Senate and be signed by the president before becoming a law. However, if it does, significant changes would be made to some regulations that might require consumers to pay more attention to their financial decisions.

“[The Financial Choice Act] stands for economic growth for all, but bank bailouts for none. We will end bank bailouts once and for all. We will replace bailouts with bankruptcy,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), House Financial Services Committee chairman, said in a press release. “We will replace economic stagnation with a growing, healthy economy.”

What’s at stake with the Financial Choice Act, and how does it impact your finances? We’ll explore these questions in this post.

What did the Dodd-Frank Act do, anyway?

Bailouts: After it was implemented in 2010 by President Barack Obama, one of the law’s main pillars was enacting the “Orderly Liquidation Authority” to use taxpayer dollars to bail out financial institutions that were failing but considered “too big to fail” — meaning their collapse would significantly hurt the economy. In addition, Dodd-Frank created a fund for the FDIC to use instead of taxpayer dollars for any future bailouts.

Consumer watchdog: Dodd-Frank also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent government agency that focuses on protecting “consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices and take action against companies that break the law.”

In one of its most high profile cases to date, the CFPB in 2016 fined Wells Fargo $100 million for allegedly opening accounts customers did not ask for.

The CFPB’s actions against predatory practices in a number of industries, including payday lending, prepaid debit cards, and mortgage lenders, among others, have won the agency many fans among consumer advocates.

“In fewer than six years, [the CFPB has] returned $12 million to over 29 million Americans, not just harmed by predatory lenders or fly-by-night debt collectors, but some of the biggest banks in the country,” says Ed Mierzwinski, director of the consumer program for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for consumers.

And how would the Financial Choice Act change Dodd-Frank?

No more bailouts: The Financial Choice Act would replace Dodd-Frank’s Orderly Liquidation Authority with a new bankruptcy code. So financial institutions would have a path to declare bankruptcy in lieu of shutting down completely.

Fewer regulations for banks: The act will provide community banks with “almost two dozen” regulatory relief bills that will lessen the number of rules small banks need to comply with, making it easier for them to operate.

A weaker CFPB: It would convert the CFPB into the Consumer Law Enforcement Agency (CLEA) and make it part of the executive branch. The Financial Choice Act also gives the president the ability to fire the head of the newly created CLEA at any time, for any reason, and gives Congress control over it and its budget. These changes will take away much of the power the CFPB holds to monitor the marketplace and pursue any unfair practices.

“It not only took the bullets out of [the CFPB’s] guns, it took their guns away,” Mierzwinski says.

Specifically, he says the CFPB would no longer be able to go after high-cost, small-dollar credit institutions, such as payday lenders and auto title lenders.

However, some experts see benefits from taking the teeth out of the CFPB.

“I personally think that’s a good thing because I think the way that the CFPB is structured is fundamentally flawed,” says Robert Berger, a retired lawyer who now runs doughroller.net, a personal finance blog. “You basically have one person with very little meaningful oversight that can have a huge impact on the regulations of the financial industry.”

The bill also would roll back the U.S. Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, which isn’t part of Dodd-Frank, but requires retirement financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. It went into partial effect on June 9.

What does this mean to consumers?

If the Financial Choice Act becomes law, opponents say it could mean that consumers will have to be even more careful with their financial choices and who they trust as a financial adviser because there will be less government oversight.

“If you’re a consumer, you’re going to have to watch your wallet even if you have a zippered pocket with a chain on your wallet,” Mierzwinski says.

If the bill passes the Senate, it could still face some hurdles. Any changes to Dodd-Frank regulations would need to be approved by the heads of the Federal Reserve System and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Comptroller of the Currency.

Jana Lynn French
Jana Lynn French |

Jana Lynn French is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jana Lynn here

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5 Ways the CFPB is Changing the Rules on Prepaid Debit Cards

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

 

happy girl at ATM

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Wednesday finalized long-awaited regulations that will add federal protections for millions of Americans who use prepaid debit accounts. The agency’s new rule has been more than four years in the making and will equip prepaid card accounts with federal protections similar to those of credit card accounts. The rule officially goes into effect in October 2017.

Consumer advocate groups largely supported the agency’s rules. “The CFPB’s rule on prepaid cards is a big win for consumers,” said Nick Bourke, director of consumer finance for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “First and foremost, it keeps the cards free from overdraft penalties — which aligns with consumers’ preferences. Research shows many consumers turn to prepaid cards to control spending and to avoid overdraft fees.”

However, the Network Branded Prepaid Card Association criticized the final rule, saying it will create onerous restrictions on prepaid debit card issuers and ultimately lead to fewer options for consumers.

“Instead of fostering financial innovation and inclusion, the CFPB’s rule will ultimately limit access to an essential mainstream consumer product that helps millions of Americans participate in the digital economy, affordably manage funds, and safely hold money,” Brad Fauss, NBPCA president and CEO said in a statement.

According to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts, use of general purpose reloadable prepaid accounts among U.S. adults jumped more than 50% between 2012 and 2014. The accounts are widely used as budgeting tool or an alternative to traditional bank accounts for people who have poor banking histories. But they can also be used to issue federal benefits like Social Security, student loan refunds, tax refunds, and even paychecks.

5 ways the New Rule Will Affect Prepaid Account Customers:

Easy Access to Information

The final rule grants prepaid accounts similar protections to credit card accounts. It requires financial institutions to make account information such as account balances, transaction history, and charged fees, easily accessible and free to consumers. Consumers also will have access to the information over the phone, online, and in writing upon request, unless the institution issues periodic statements.

A Standardized Dispute Process

The new rule also means that financial institutions will have to cooperate with customers to fix errors such unauthorized or fraudulent charges in a timely manner. If you’ve registered your card and the financial institution can’t complete the investigation within 10 business days, it will have to credit the disputed amount to your account while it completes the investigation. Investigations are usually required to be completed within 45 days.

Limited Liability

Under the new rule, a customer’s losses are limited in the event that funds are stolen, similarly to debit accounts. So as long as you report the loss within two business days of finding out about it, your losses are limited to $50. If the institution is notified after two business days, then the loss is limited to $500. The rule limits liability for unauthorized charges and creates a way for consumers to get their money back as long as they notify the financial institution in a certain amount of time.

Know Before You Owe”

There’s a disclosure included in the new rule, coined “Know Before You Owe.” It requires institutions to give customers more information about the prepaid accounts available upfront, before someone elects to sign up to make comparison shopping easier.

The information has to be presented to you in two forms before you sign up: long and short. The short form would be a more concise overview of the account’s terms and fees that can fit on store packaging, while the long form would have more detailed list of fees and information. Card agreements also have to be publicly available, and posted on card issuers’ websites.  Institutions must also submit all of their agreements to the CFPB, which will post them in the future on a public site maintained by the bureau in the future.

Credit Protections

Some prepaid accounts can be paired with credit lines that provide funds for purchases if a customer doesn’t have sufficient funds in their prepaid account. The accounts are laden with hidden fees and considered a potential debt trap by some critics.

Prepaid companies now have to wait at least 30 days and make sure the consumer has the ability to pay back the debt before they offer a line of credit to a prepaid debit card user. The rule also requires prepaid companies to give consumers regular statements and at least 21 days after the statement is issued to make a payment before charging a late fee. Late fees have to be “reasonable and proportional” to the corresponding violation and can’t total more than 20% of the consumer’s credit limit during the first year the credit account is open.

The rule also puts a wall between the cardholder’s prepaid funds and their credit debt so that companies can no longer take funds from the prepaid account to repay the credit bill without the consumer’s consent.

Which Accounts Are Impacted by the New Rule?

The rule applies to general purpose reloadable cards as well as a growing number of electronic prepaid accounts. That includes mobile wallets such as Apple Pay or Google Wallet, person-to-person payment products like PayPal or Venmo, and other electronic prepaid accounts that can store funds. Other prepaid accounts like payroll cards, student financial aid disbursement cards, tax refund cards, and certain federal, state, and local government benefit cards such as those used to distribute unemployment insurance and child support are included under the rule.

Until the rule goes into effect next fall, consumers should make sure they are informed of the financial institution’s policies regarding fees, errors, and possible fraud because how they will be handled will depend on the card, company, and circumstances.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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CFPB’s New Rules for Debt Collectors: The 5 Most Exciting Changes

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

family in debt

There’s good news for the 70 million Americans who are being pursued by debt collectors: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rolled out new plans to overhaul the debt collections industry.

The CFPB’s long-awaited plans to tackle the multi-billion-dollar business of debt collection were laid out in a proposal Thursday. The proposal would require debt collectors to gather “more and better information about the debt before they collect.”

“This is about bringing better accuracy and accountability to a market that desperately needs it,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.

Here are the 5 most remarkable changes in the CFPB’s new rules:

Collectors must know that they are collecting the right amount of debt from the right person.  Oftentimes, debt passes through the hands of so many debt buyers and sellers that by the time they reach a consumer, they could have lost important identifying information along the way. This proposed rule would put the onus on collectors to verify the debt they are pursuing before they begin contacting the consumer. Millions of consumers are pursued by collectors for debts they don’t actually owe, or for amounts of debt that are incorrect.

Collectors would only be able to contact consumers six times per week. As it stands, credit card companies allow collectors to call consumers up to 15 times per day.  The new proposed rules would limit all contact — phone, email, snail mail, etc. — to only six times per week.

No more zombie debt collections. The CFPB is proposing a rule that would force debt collectors to tell a consumer when they are contacting them about a debt that is too old to collect. As it stands, debts can only be collected for a certain number of years (this varies by state). But it’s almost impossible for a consumer to know when they no longer have a legal obligation to repay a debt. That makes it easy for collectors to pursue people for debts that are too old. The nastiest part about this tactic is that by enticing consumers to make even the smallest payment, they effectively restart the clock on that old debt, and the consumer is once again legally obligated to pay up. If this passes, this would be a major game changer in the debt collections industry.

Consumers could easily find out more information about their debts. The CFPB would have every debt collector include a “tear-off” sheet that consumers to fill out and return to them to dispute the debt. If they mail the dispute to a collector within 30 days, then the collector would have to send a detailed debt report and could no longer pursue the debt until that report is sent.

No more passing on unverified debts to other debt buyers. Debt is bought and sold at a rapid rate. Important information can easily be lost along the way, making it difficult for consumers to know if a debt actually belongs to them. The CFPB would stop debt collections agencies from selling debts that have not yet been verified.

Not everyone was cheering the CFPB’s new rules.

The National Consumer Law Center, a consumer legal advocacy group, is already calling on tougher rules than the CFPB lays out.

“Instead of simply requiring collectors to have full and accurate information, the CFPB proposal sets up a complicated and inadequate system that lets collectors rely on information that may be inaccurate,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

The rules are also missing a key component, according to the NCLC: Stiffer penalties for bad actors.

“We are also disappointed that the proposal does nothing to increase penalties for abusive collectors,” said April Kuehnhoff, an NCLC attorney who specializes in debt collection. “Stronger penalties are essential to stop especially abusive collectors from continuing business as usual.”

What’s next?

Settle in for the long haul. This list of proposed rules is just the first step in what could be a year-long (or more) process to implement these new rules. The CFPB has to send this proposal to a panel of industry experts who will no doubt want to weigh in and propose their own changes. You can make your voice heard by submitting a public comment through the CFPB’s website.

Have you been pursued by a debt collector for a debt you don’t owe? File a complaint with the CFPB.

Mandi Woodruff
Mandi Woodruff |

Mandi Woodruff is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mandi at mandi@magnifymoney.com

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The One Tool That’ll Help You Find the Best Mortgage Rates

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

The One Tool That’ll Help You Find the Best Mortgage Rates

Well it happened. The first interest rate hike in almost a decade occurred at the end of 2015.

If you’re in the market for a house right now, the rate hike may have been a bit of a downer, but fear not, there’s still time to find great deals. This current hike was a relatively small one (moving interest rates from 0% to 0.25% to 0.25% to 0.5%), but mortgage rates will rise, so if you are looking for that dream home, it may be time to get serious about your research.

Luckily, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is here to help.

Their nifty tool, which you can find here, is a great way to compare interest rates from actual lenders with information that gets updated on a daily basis. You’ll need some basics to start the process — your credit score, state, home price and down payment percentage — but you’ll be rewarded with a graph of lenders and interest rates specific to where you’re shopping for a home.

Let’s go through an example. Say Carry is looking for a house in her Colorado hood. She has a credit score of 625 (the average credit score for millennials), and she’d like to purchase a home for $250,000 with a 15% down payment. According to a quick CFPB tool search, in Colorado, most lenders are offering rates at or below 4.625%, while two lenders are actually offering rates of 4.090%.

Armed with this information, Carry can head into her pre-approval meetings with the knowledge of what’s a “good” offer and what’s not-so-great, which makes her odds of negotiating successfully that much greater.

Carry can even do a quick Google search to see which lenders are offering the 4.090% because the CFPB unfortunately doesn’t provide the names of lenders.

If you’re ready to start the house hunting process and you’ve already armed yourself with knowledge from the CFPB tool, check out this piece about when it’s smart to apply for a mortgage without your spouse, and this one about why you can’t afford a 3% down payment mortgage.

Cheryl Lock
Cheryl Lock |

Cheryl Lock is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Cheryl at cheryl@magnifymoney.com

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