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Freedom Stores to provide over $2.5 million in refunds and penalties

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Today we, along with the Attorneys General of Virginia and North Carolina, announced an enforcement action against a chain of stores doing business outside military bases across the United States. Under the terms of a proposed consent order, Freedom Stores, Inc., Freedom Acceptance Corporation, and Military Credit Services LLC, as well as their owners and chief executives will be required to provide over $2.5 million in consumer redress and penalties for unfair and abusive debt-collection practices, including illegal lawsuits, unauthorized withdrawals from third-party accounts, and calls to servicemembers’ commanding officers.

Our investigation found that the companies illegally filed thousands of lawsuits in Virginia against consumers who didn’t live or purchase goods there: over 3,500 lawsuits in Norfolk, Virginia in two-plus years, almost all resulting in default judgments against consumers, some of whom didn’t even know they’d been sued until they discovered their bank accounts had been garnished.

The companies also buried a clause in the fine print of their contracts that supposedly gave the companies permission to contact the servicemember’s commanding officer. Freedom Acceptance and Military Credit Services then went on to tell servicemember’s chain-of-command about the debts, effectively pressuring the servicemember into paying the companies. These are unfair practices against military personnel, who are afraid of losing rank, pay, or even a security clearance if their commanding officer feels they are not living up to their financial obligations. We’ve heard from a number of servicemembers that they even paid a debt they knew they didn’t owe, just to avoid getting in trouble with their commander.

Like many companies dealing with servicemembers, Freedom Acceptance and Military Credit Services used the military allotment system as a quick and convenient way to get paid. But the companies also required customers to provide them with a back-up payment source in case the allotment didn’t go through for some reason. And if the companies’ allotment processor predicted that a servicemember’s allotment might fail, they went ahead and charged the back-up account without waiting to see if the allotment went through or not. So those servicemembers, when their allotment payment did go through after all, ended up making double payments, without their advance knowledge or consent, leading to overdraft fees, insufficient funds charges and problems paying their other bills.

Additionally, the companies’ debt collectors would sometimes simply take money from checking or credit accounts they had on file of family members or friends who had previously made a payment on the servicemembers’ behalf. These debits were made without notifying the family member or friend or getting consent for the charges – simply taking the cash because the companies had the account access numbers on file from a previous transaction.

We get more complaints about debt collection from servicemembers, veterans and their families than any other issue. This case is a perfect illustration of bad practices that are perpetrated against military personnel who owe a debt.

Our military families deserve better than the treatment they received from Freedom, and I applaud the action taken today by both the CFPB and state authorities to call Freedom Stores and its affiliates and owners to account.

If you are a commanding officer who is receiving calls from someone trying to collect a debt, or a servicemember who is getting threatened or victimized about a debt, we’d like to hear from you. Your complaints can help us spotlight and stop illegal actions like the ones in this case.

Social Security disability income shouldn’t mean you don’t qualify for a mortgage

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More than 15 million people receive Social Security disability income every year. For those relying on this income, qualifying for a mortgage can unfortunately become a challenge when lenders ask for proof of how long they will receive their benefits.

Today, we’re reminding lenders that placing unnecessary documentation requirements on recipients of Social Security disability income, including disabled veterans, may raise fair lending concerns. Following the guidelines and standards noted in the bulletin may help lenders comply with fair lending laws.

Difficult to prove your income

Generally, when you apply for a mortgage, you must show to mortgage lenders that you have a stable income. However, those who depend on Social Security disability income usually don’t have any documentation saying how long this income will continue. The Social Security Administration (SSA) normally only provides proof that consumers are currently receiving benefits.

Unfortunately, some consumers have reported that loan officers have asked them for a specific description of their disabilities or a statement from a doctor to prove that their Social Security disability income is likely to continue.

What our rules require

To verify income for Qualified Mortgage debt-to-income ratios, our rules require lenders to look at whether the SSA benefit verification letter or equivalent document includes a defined expiration date for payments. Unless the SSA letter specifically states that benefits will expire within three years of loan origination, lenders should treat the benefits as likely to continue.

Similar standards

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a similar standard for documenting income for FHA-insured mortgages, and emphasizes that a lender shouldn’t ask a consumer for documentation or about the nature of his or her disability under any circumstances.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) allows lenders to use Social Security disability income as qualifying income for VA-guaranteed mortgages and emphasizes that it’s not necessary to obtain a statement from the consumer’s physician about how long a medical condition will last.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have issued similar guidelines for loans that are eligible for their purchase, allowing consumers to use Social Security disability benefits as qualifying income for a mortgage.

Everyone deserves to qualify based on their income

Persons with disabilities should be able to qualify for mortgages they can afford based on their stable income, including from Social Security disability income. And anyone with disabilities, including disabled servicemembers, should not be prevented or hindered from buying a home by unnecessary barriers or requirements.

Together, these standards and guidelines should help lenders avoid unnecessary documentation requests and help individuals who receive Social Security disability income receive fair and equal access to credit.

Submit a complaint

If you are having an issue with a financial product or service, you can submit a complaint online or call (855) 411-CFPB. We can assist people in over 180 languages. We’ll forward your issue to the company, give you a tracking number, and keep you updated on the status of your complaint.

Veterans: Take advantage of student loan forgiveness, but don’t let it damage your credit

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For some veterans, their time in uniform caused a severe service-connected disability. This dramatically impacts their life after transition out of the military.

For 100-percent service-disabled veterans who have student debt, the Department of Education offers a valuable benefit to help them avoid financial distress – the chance to have their loans discharged (forgiven). Under federal law, veterans can seek federal student loan forgiveness if they receive a 100 percent disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Private student lenders are not required to offer this benefit, but some do on a case-by-case basis, so be sure to ask.

We encourage all consumers to check their credit report regularly, but we want to especially encourage veterans who use this benefit to be sure that their student loan servicer (the company that collects payments) is providing correct information about their loan discharge to credit bureaus (the companies that compile and sell credit reports).

We continue to hear from veterans and servicemembers about the unique servicing obstacles they face as they seek to pay off student loan debt. We are concerned that, in some circumstances, when veterans are able to discharge their student loans due to their disability, they may experience damage to their credit report if their student loan servicer provides incorrect information to the credit bureaus. These mistakes, if uncorrected, can result in a negative entry on their credit report that makes it harder and more expensive for these disabled veterans to get credit, buy a car or take out a mortgage.

For example, one service-disabled veteran submitted a complaint to us describing how his credit score fell by 150 points as a result of this type of error. His score went from a nearly perfect “super prime” credit score to a much lower score simply because he received loan forgiveness.

I can’t get anyone to listen to me! I am a 100 percent disabled Veteran who has had his credit score ruined by a broken credit scoring system. I had my student loans…discharged…in August 2013…I went from 800 to 650 in less than 2 months. I am fighting to survive because a company from my own country is killing me.

Consumers are harmed when companies furnish inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies. An error in a credit report could make a big difference in whether someone receives a loan, qualifies for a low interest rate, or even gets offered a job. These credit-reporting problems, if uncorrected, can hurt veterans in this situation for decades.

For example, here’s what could happen if a veteran tried to buy a home after a credit reporting error caused similar damage to her credit profile and score and this damage went uncorrected. If she used a VA home loan to buy a $216,000 home, she could pay more than $45,000 in additional interest charges over the life of her mortgage (depending on the length and terms of the mortgage), since this error would cause her to qualify for a much more expensive loan.

Here are two important reminders for service-disabled veterans who have discharged their federal student loans:

    1. Check your credit report.

    If you received loan forgiveness due to your service-connected disability, your credit report should not state that you still owe the debt. Other borrowers who receive a disability discharge are monitored for three years by the Department of Education. But if you received a discharge based on VA documentation, you don’t have to worry about this step and your credit report should show that you no longer owe the loan, not that it was “assigned to government” for monitoring. And remember, you can check your credit report for free.

    If you have discharged older federal loans made by banks, pay even closer attention.

    Most federal loans taken out before 2010 – loans generally made by banks and other private entities but guaranteed by the federal government – require your lender to update the information on your credit report after your loan has been discharged. Even though no new loans are issued under this program, there are still millions of borrowers repaying this type of loan. Veterans who have discharged these loans should be sure to check their credit report regularly, since the rules regarding disability discharge changed in 2013.

    2. If something doesn’t seem right, contact the credit reporting company and dispute the error.

    Understanding how discharged loans show up on your credit report can be complicated. If you file a dispute and it still doesn’t get corrected, submit a complaint with us and we’ll work to get you a response from the company. You can call us at (855) 411-2372 or submit a complaint online.

Last year, we put companies on notice that they must investigate disputed information in a credit report, and that we will take appropriate action, as needed. We will also continue to closely monitor complaints from veterans and other disabled student loan borrowers to make sure student loan servicers are furnishing correct information to the credit bureaus about disability discharges. All financial services providers that serve veterans should redouble their efforts to ensure that veterans are not penalized for receiving the benefits they earned and deserve for their sacrifices.

Holly Petraeus is Assistant Director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs and Rohit Chopra is the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman.

Hosting a financial coach in your community

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It’s no secret that having a trusted, well-informed advisor or financial coach can increase your odds of financial success. We know that some people who are transitioning, perhaps from military service, being unemployed, or another tough financial situation, might especially benefit from this one-on-one service focused on their financial and life goals.

That’s why we announced an initiative last year to place trained financial coaches in organizations to provide coaching to consumers, including veterans and those who are low-income or economically vulnerable. Following a full and open competitive procurement process, in April 2014 we contracted with the Armed Forces Services Corporation (AFSC), a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business (SDVOB), to run this initiative. The financial coaches will work in organizations that are already providing other services, including job training, education, social, and housing services.

Here’s how you or your organization can help

AFSC is looking for 20 organizations, in geographically diverse locations across the country that serve economically vulnerable consumers, to host financial coaches. To be clear, this is not an opportunity for a grant, contract, sub-contract, or funding – just to have a financial coach placed on-site at an existing service delivery location. Check out the criteria and see if your organization or one in your community might be the right fit to host a financial coach. If you think it is, send a submission by October 15, 2014.

Protecting servicemembers from predatory auto loans: Harry and Ari’s story

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Protecting consumers from predatory financial products and services is part of our mission and something we take very seriously. We received a Tell Your Story from the father of a servicemember that led to us opening an investigation into an auto loan program. The program, which targeted servicemembers, was found to have deceptive marketing and lending practices. The investigation led to an enforcement action against auto lenders requiring them to refund approximately $6.5 million to over 50,000 servicemembers. Ari, a servicemember, and his father Harry, shared their story with us, and here’s what they had to say:

“It’s very important to speak up because there are people within the government that are there to help us get through challenging financial situations,” Harry said. “It’s very important for any citizen to speak up and just tell your story.” Ari mentioned that: “The fact that the CFPB took action in the name of servicemembers across the entire country… really shows us that someone’s in our corner.”

We were glad to be there for Harry and Ari – they shared their story with us and got the help they needed. To learn more about their story, share your own, or find resources for servicemembers check out consumerfinance.gov/yourstory.

Working together to protect student veterans

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We’re joining the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA), Defense (DoD), and Education (ED) to better protect servicemembers, veterans, and their family members who are attending college. We’ve signed an agreement to carry out a comprehensive strategy to strengthen our enforcement and compliance work.

This new agreement is part of a larger effort to prevent abusive and deceptive recruiting practices by schools serving servicemembers, veterans, spouses and other family members. This includes working to ensure that these servicemembers and others have the right information to make informed choices with their education benefits and that colleges are providing these students high-quality academic and student support.

Our agreement requires the agencies to:

  • Have a point of contact for sharing information
  • Share complaints about schools
  • Alert each other of suspected fraud, deception, or misleading practices; and/or
  • Notify each other of any agency action that could lead to a college’s loss of eligibility, a suspension of enrollment, or a termination of license

Before this agreement, an agency could have been looking into a particular school or even taking away the school’s eligibility for federal funds without the other agencies knowing about it. Now, we have a system for sharing important information and coordinating efforts.

Recently, we also worked with VA, DoD, and ED to launch an online student complaint system. Here, students can report negative experiences at schools and training programs. The complaints are forwarded to schools and also shared with other law enforcement agencies. The student complaint system has already received over two thousand complaints.

We look forward to even more successful work together in the future.