Wednesday, November 21, 2012

CFPB and FTC: Warning Letters - Misleading Advertisements

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), in coordination with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has issued warning letters to twelve mortgage lenders and mortgage brokers advising them to remove or revise misleading advertisements. The warnings concern advertisements that target veterans, seniors, and other consumers.*

Additionally, the CFPB announced that it has begun formal investigations of six companies believed to have committed more serious violations of the law.

After reviewing hundreds of mortgage advertisements, the FTC staff has also sent warning letters to twenty companies, warning them that their ads may be deceptive. The FTC sent its warning letters to real estate agents, home builders, and lead generators, urging them to review their advertisements for compliance with the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule and the FTC Act. 

The collaboration between the CFPB and the FTC are characterized as a "sweep" - a review conducted by these agencies of about 800 "randomly selected mortgage-related ads across the country, including ads for mortgage loans, refinancing, and reverse mortgages." The agencies looked at ads in newspapers, on the Internet, and from mail solicitations, and advertisements that were the subject of consumer complaints.

I really can't emphasize enough how important it is to control all the advertising your firm publishes - and I mean advertisements in any media. Just adopting a policy and procedure is insufficient.

In my view, several components must be included in advertising compliance:

a formally adopted policy and procedure;
an advertising manual that is signed for and attested to by the employee;
checklists, model forms, ad formats, and authorizations;
an easy reference guide for employees;
periodic training;
and auditing.

If you are not implementing at least these risk management practices, you are certainly falling short of the controls you need to manage the regulatory challenges posed in advertising of mortgage loan products.

The Sweep
The Rule
The Warning
The Remedy

The Sweep

The following problems were identified by the sweep:

Potential misrepresentations about government affiliation.
For example, some of the ads for mortgage products contained official-looking seals or logos, or have other characteristics that may be interpreted by consumers as indicating a government affiliation (i.e., advertisements containing statements, images, symbols, and abbreviations suggesting that an advertiser is affiliated with a government agency).

Potentially inaccurate information about interest rates.For example, some ads promoted low rates that may have misled consumers about the terms of the product actually offered. These are advertisements offering a very low “fixed” mortgage rate, without discussing significant loan terms (i.e., advertisements “guaranteeing” approval and offering very low monthly payments, without discussing significant conditions on these offers).

Potentially misleading statements concerning the costs of reverse mortgages.For example, some ads for reverse mortgage products claimed that a consumer will have no payments in connection with the product, even though consumers with a reverse mortgage are commonly required to continue to make monthly or other periodic tax or insurance payments, and may risk default if the payments aren’t made.

Potential misrepresentations about the amount of cash or credit available to a consumer.For example, some ads contained a mock check and/or suggested that a consumer has been pre-approved to receive a certain amount of money in connection with refinancing their mortgage or taking out a reverse mortgage, when a number of additional steps would customarily need to be completed before the consumer would qualify for the loan.


The Rule

The Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule ("MAP-AD Rule" or "MAP Rule"), known as Regulation N since rulemaking authority for it transferred from the FTC to the CFPB, is applied to advertising compliance relating to mortgage loan products. (We have discussed the MAP Rule previously. See, for instance, our September 2, 2011 newsletter, FTC: Adopts Mortgage Advertising Rule.)