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The launch of the CFPB financial coaching initiative

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Today, we launched our financial coaching initiative. The launch featured remarks from Director Richard Cordray and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, as well as other key program participants.

The live event has now ended, but we’ll have a recording available here soon.

Our financial coaching initiative

Whether you’re a veteran who has recently transitioned to life in the civilian world, or a consumer facing economic challenges, having a trusted, well-informed advisor can increase your odds of success. Our financial coaching initiative will provide guidance to recently-transitioned veterans and vulnerable families in places where they’re already going for help. We’ve joined forces with the DOL and more than two dozen non-profit social-services providers to place 60 certified coaches in DOL American Job Centers and community-centered non-profits across the country. These professionals will provide one-on-one free coaching to help these consumers craft a personalized plan for financial success.

You can download a printer friendly list of financial coaching delivery sites.

Updated on May 26, 2015 to include the financial coaching delivery sites.

Here’s what we’re hearing from Servicemembers and their families

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Today, we’re releasing our third Snapshot of Complaints Received from Servicemembers, Veterans and their Families. The report details the data and trends from consumer complaints we’ve received from members of the military community since July 2011.

Here are just a few highlights:

  • Debt collection complaints have continued to rise since our last report, and now make up 39 percent of total complaints. It is our largest category of complaints from the military community.
  • Credit reporting remains a top category of concern. 72 percent of these complaints are about incorrect information on credit reports. This remains a significant issue for the military community, one that we highlighted earlier this year.
  • Student loans are another concern. 49 percent of these complaints are about problems dealing with a lender or servicer. In these complaints, we continue to see long-standing trends, such as servicemembers complaining about not being provided their Servicemembers Civil Relief Act rights.

This year our report also highlights our outreach efforts that allowed us to connect with thousands of members of the military community, as well as three of our enforcement actions that recovered millions of dollars for affected consumers, primarily servicemembers, veterans, and their families. These figures represent the positive impact of the work we continue to do on behalf of those who serve.

Problems with account services

Basic account servicing stands out as a significant area of concern for servicemembers. Most consumers can call their financial institution, visit a branch, or connect online to try and get the help they need to maintain their account. Unfortunately, for military personnel and their families, the realities of military life, including deployments, frequent moves, and a high operational tempo, can sometimes make access to those services extremely challenging.

We found that servicemembers were often subject to a variety of account maintenance or penalty fees, as well as account-access restrictions, which were triggered due to aspects of their military service.

These problems raise concerns that financial institutions may not have a true understanding of the servicing needs of their military customers and may lack proper procedures and protections for them. Detailed examples of servicemember experiences can be found in Section II of the report.

Check out the snapshot to learn more.

We’re listening

As always, if you have a problem with a consumer financial product that you can’t resolve on your own; or if you know someone in that situation, please remember that you can submit a complaint online or by calling (855) 411-2372. We make your voice heard.

The VA doesn’t send you mortgage ads

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We’re announcing an enforcement action against a lender that wrongfully used the logos of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). RMK Financial Corporation (also doing business as Majestic Home Loans) sent out ads to veterans and other VA-eligible borrowers that misled consumers to think that RMK’s products were endorsed by the VA, or even sent by the VA, and they misrepresented the terms and costs of the mortgages themselves. This is the fifth enforcement action we’ve completed in the past two months against companies using deceptive mortgage advertising.

Deceptive advertising to mislead consumers

RMK sent out mailings to over 100,000 consumers across the country. These ads used the name, seal, and logos of the VA, giving the impression that the VA had sent the ad or endorsed the product. Also, the ads misrepresented the price of the advertised mortgages, including whether the interest rate was fixed or variable. Sometimes, important disclosures about loan rates were hidden on the back of the ads or buried in fine print. Envelopes were plastered with warnings about “fines or imprisonment” under US law.

Two years ago, along with the Federal Trade Commission, we warned companies that were placing mortgage ads directed at consumers, some of which targeted those eligible for VA benefits. Since then, we’ve continued to investigate mortgage lenders, including RMK.

The VA won’t advertise to you

Mike Frueh, Director of the VA Home Loan Program, had this to say about mortgage offers that represent themselves as coming from the VA:

“VA will never email or mail out solicitations for our loan program. VA does not endorse or sponsor any particular lender; instead, we work to ensure all Veterans and Servicemembers can safely use the benefit they’ve earned, at the lender of their choice. If you have any questions about your home loan benefit, please visit the VA website, or call VA at (877) 827-3702.”

Here’s what you can do

While we may not reduce the volume of your junk mail as a result of today’s action, we hope that we’ve called attention to a significant problem. Here’s how you can avoid being taken in by similar offers:

  • Be a savvy consumer— look at everything an advertiser has to say about the product they’re selling. Today’s action involved a mortgage lender that placed flashy seals and logos front and center, but hid important disclosures in the fine print on the back of their ads.
  • Get information from trusted sources — even if an ad is plastered in official-looking seals and impressive endorsements, check with a trusted source to learn all you can about the product being advertised. Learn more about VA loans and refinances. Ask CFPB also has answers to some common questions.
  • Let us know about misleading ads— if you see an ad that looks deceptive or misleading, or just looks too good to be true, submit a complaint to us. We accept complaints about mortgages and other financial products marketed to veterans, such as consumer loans. Information you provide informs our work every day.

Consumer advisory: 3 pension advance traps to avoid

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Many retirees depend on a pension to cover day-to-day as well as occasional unexpected expenses, such as health emergencies or home repairs. We’ve heard that some retirees with pensions who are facing financial challenges have responded to ads for cash advances on their pensions. Although pension advances may seem like a “quick fix” to your financial problems, they can eat into your retirement income when you start paying back the advance plus interest and fees.

A pension advance is a cash advance in exchange for a portion, or all, of your future pension payments. Pension advance companies typically charge high interest rates and fees and often target government retirees with pensions. Former servicemembers should also be on guard. Military retirees and veterans who receive monetary benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have been offered pension advances even though it’s illegal for lenders to take a military pension or veterans’ benefits. Many of those companies use patriotic-sounding names or logos and even claim they are endorsed by the VA as a way of enticing potential customers.

If you or a loved one is considering a pension advance, consider your alternatives. A financial coach or credit counselor can help you weigh your options and plan for new or unexpected financial demands. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) provides a list of member agencies around the country. You can also search for local credit counseling agencies on the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCA)’s website.

Here are 3 things you can do to protect your retirement pension:

  1. Avoid loans with high fees and interest. Pension advance companies may not always advertise their fees and interest rates, but you will certainly feel them in your bottom line. Before you sign anything, learn what you are getting and how much you are giving up.
  2. Don’t sign over control of your benefits. Companies sometimes arrange for monthly payments to be automatically deposited in a newly created bank account so the company can withdraw payments, fees and interest charges from the account. This leaves you with little control.
  3. Don’t buy life insurance that you don’t want or need. Pension advance companies sometimes require consumers to sign up for life insurance with the company as the consumer’s beneficiary. If you sign up for life insurance with the pension advance company as your beneficiary, you could end up footing the bill, whether you know it or not.

You can also get a printer-friendly version of this information to share with friends or clients who are considering pension advances.

If you know someone who’s received a pension advance offer, we want to hear about their experiences, good and bad. Please ask them to share their story at consumerfinance.gov/your-story/.

Are unpaid debts a military career-killer?

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Military personnel who have trouble handling their personal finances can very quickly find their duty status, potential promotions and even military careers in jeopardy. And, over time, the lingering burden of debt can add stress to their personal relationships and damage their credit profile. But does that debt have to be a career-killer?

Servicemembers, veterans and military families have submitted more than 11,000 debt collection complaints to the CFPB since we began accepting them in July 2013 – our fastest-growing category of complaints. Among other things, we’ve received reports that some debt collectors are threatening servicemembers by claiming that they will report the unpaid debt to their commanding officer, have the servicemember busted in rank or even have their security clearance revoked if they don’t pay up.

The threat of losing a clearance is a hot-button item for servicemembers – and some debt collectors have been known to use that threat as leverage to get a servicemember to pay. Do they really have the power to get your clearance revoked?

Practically speaking, debt collectors aren’t able to contact your security manager about your debts nor do they have the authority to influence the manager’s decisions about your security clearance. However, your failing to pay your debts on time can result in negative information being reported to the credit reporting bureaus. And that negative information on your credit report may cause your security clearance to be pulled when it’s up for review.

If you find that your finances have put your security clearance in jeopardy, you should do your best to show that your financial problems resulted from circumstances beyond your control (not a pattern of irresponsible behavior) and that you acted as responsibly as you could under the circumstances. This may include showing that you’re currently living within your means, that you’re making a good-faith effort to resolve your unpaid debts, and that you’re disputing debts that aren’t yours.

When a financial problem arises, you should speak with your installation’s Personal Financial Manager (PFM) and/or JAG office to get free, expert advice and assistance. Be sure to keep documentation of all your commitments, efforts to resolve delinquencies, and any disputes about debts – it could be helpful to you later.

If you do receive notice that your security clearance eligibility is being denied or revoked, DoD regulations give you the right to a hearing before an Administrative Judge of the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). This hearing is your opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with an official, independent of your chain of command, to explain your situation and the steps you’ve taken to address the issues identified in a written Statement of Reasons (SOR).

According to DoD, DOHA hearings are designed to be user-friendly. If you don’t have an attorney, you can represent yourself or bring a non-attorney representative to assist you. DOHA hearings allow you to present any statements or documents that are relevant to your situation. In other words, the DOHA hearing is your chance to present your side of the story. It’s there to make sure that your voice is heard and that you are being treated fairly.

Be alert to the deadlines in the SOR process, seek expert assistance, ask for the opportunity to appear personally before a DOHA Administrative Judge, and bring whatever documentation and character witnesses you can.

A written transcript of your testimony and the testimony of any witnesses whom you bring to the hearing will be provided to you free of charge. That transcript, along with copies of any documents you submit (such as canceled checks, receipts, bank statements, tax returns, settlement agreements, character recommendations, etc.), and the Administrative Judge’s recommendations will become a significant part of the record that is forwarded to the officials deciding your security clearance eligibility.

Check out the DOHA website for more information on hearings and process.

Managing your debts, expenses, income and other personal finance matters is more than just a tactic to guard your security clearance. It’s also a day-to-day exercise that can help lead you and your family to financial security. If you need help planning, hit a bump or need assistance with a problem you can’t fix along the way, there are a number of resources available to you.

Like your installation’s PFM, the Department of Defense’s Military OneSource offers free financial counseling that can help you better manage your money. If you need a fast and accurate answer to a money question, you can check out Ask CFPB – we have more than 1,000 answers that you can search. Finally, if you have a problem with debt collection or another consumer financial product or service, you can submit a complaint to us online or by calling (855) 411-2372. We are here to help.

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.