The National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute
Center for Consumer Protection Monthly June 2020
Consumer Chief of the Month: Benjamin Wiseman, District of Columbia
As a fourth generation Washingtonian, it has been an absolute thrill to work for the residents of my hometown.
Prior to Attorney General Racine's election in 2014, the D.C. Attorney General was appointed by the Mayor. As the first elected Attorney General, General Racine put an emphasis on expanding the office's affirmative work to protect the District's residents. One of the key components of that initiative was the creation of a stand-alone Office of Consumer Protection in 2015.
At that time, I was in private practice and by chance met General Racine and our former Chief Deputy, Natalie Ludaway at a lunch at our firm. We briefly spoke and I got a pitch that would change the course of my career: come work for your hometown. A few months later, I joined the office as an Assistant Attorney General, the first external hire for the newly created Office of Consumer Protection.
The Swift Policy Response to Mortgage Delinquencies During COVID-19
Patrick Madigan, Assistant Attorney General, Iowa Attorney General's Office
In March 2020, only 3.6% of mortgages were in some form of delinquency; only 1.2% were seriously delinquent (the lowest level since June of 2000), and only 0.4% of loans were in some stage of the foreclosure process, which was the lowest level in 21 years.
This good news came to a screeching halt with COVID-19. Virtually overnight, large segments of the United States economy shut down in order to deal with this serious health threat. Very early on it was recognized that many borrowers would have difficulty making their mortgage payments due to this unprecedented and sudden economic disruption. Even more unique was the public health need for Americans to shelter in place and socially distance from others. These circumstances demanded a swift public policy response to help ensure that homeowners were not dispossessed of their property during a pandemic.
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Federal Consumer Protection News
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:
- By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or "Bureau"), which is "led by a single Director, who serves for a longer term than the President and cannot be removed by the President except for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance," violates the separation of powers doctrine. Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, No. 19-7. In particular, it violates the principle that "[i]n our constitutional system, the executive power belongs to the President, and that power generally includes the ability to supervise and remove the agents who wield executive power in his stead." The Court went on to hold (by a 7-2 vote) "that the CFPB Director's removal protection is severable from the other statutory provisions bearing on the CFPB's authority. The agency may therefore continue to operate, but its Director . . . must be removable by the President at will."
- The CFPB announced a settlement with Main Street Personal Finance, Inc. and its subsidiaries ACAC, Inc., which conducts business under the name Approved Cash Advance, and Quik Lend, Inc. (collectively, "Approved Cash"). The companies offer payday and auto-title loans and own and operate about 156 stores in eight states. The Bureau found that Approved Cash provided deceptive finance charge disclosures in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), violated the CFPA and TILA by failing to refund overpayments on its loans, and violated the CFPA by engaging in unfair debt collection practices. The consent order prohibits Approved Cash from engaging in this unlawful conduct in the future and requires it to pay consumer redress and a civil monetary penalty.
- The CFPB released an online resource to help communities form networks to increase their capacity to prevent and respond to elder financial abuse. The Elder Fraud Prevention and Response Networks Development Guide offers planning tools, templates, and exercises to help communities create a collaborative network to fight elder fraud or refresh or expand an existing network. The CFPB will be offering presentations and webinars in the coming weeks to walk stakeholders through the guide and provide tips on how to use it.
- The CFPB issued two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRMs) to address the impending expiration of the Government-Sponsored Enterprises Patch (GSE Patch). The GSE Patch is scheduled to expire in January 2021 or when the GSEs (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) exit conservatorship, whichever comes first. In the first NPRM, the Bureau proposes to amend the general "qualified mortgage" definition in Regulation Z to replace the debt-to-income limit with a price-based approach. In the second NPRM, the Bureau proposes to amend Regulation Z to extend the GSE Patch to expire upon the effective date of a final rule regarding the first notice's proposed amendments to Regulation Z.
Federal Trade Commission:
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced approval of a final rule amending the agency's Contact Lens Rule, which facilitates shopping for contact lenses by requiring prescribers to automatically provide a copy of a patient's prescription to the patient and to verify or provide prescriptions to third-party sellers. The Final Rule requires prescribers to request that their patients confirm that they have received their prescription and allows flexibility in the way the prescription and confirmation are provided.
- The FTC announced it has sent six letters warning multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) to remove and address claims about their products' ability to treat or prevent COVID-19 or about the earnings people who have recently lost income can make, or both. The FTC sent the letters to: Isagenix International LLC and The Juice Plus+ Company regarding both health and earnings claims; to Melaleuca, Inc. about earnings claims; and to Youngevity International, Inc., Vivri USA, LLC, and Plexus Worldwide, LLC regarding health claims.
- The FTC is taking legal actionto halt a scheme that allegedly deceived consumers with mailers supposedly directing them on how to obtain federal COVID-19 stimulus benefits, which instead lured them to a used car sale. The mailers sent by Traffic Jam Events, LLC and its owner, David J. Jeansonne II, were labeled "IMPORTANT COVID-19 STIMULUS DOCUMENTS" and allegedly directed consumers to "relief headquarters" to "claim these stimulus incentives."
- The FTC is mailing refunds totaling more than $8.7 million to 187,425 consumers who signed up online for "risk-free" trial offers, but were then charged full price and enrolled in expensive continuity plans without their knowledge. The refunds are the result of several orders settling the FTC's allegations against San Diego-based Triangle Media Corporation and related defendants.
- The FTC and U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) have sent warning letters to six companies that may be misleading small businesses seeking SBA loans as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The letters highlight claims by the companies that could lead consumers to believe the companies are affiliated with the SBA, or that that consumers can apply on their websites for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program or other programs authorized by the CARES Act.
- The FTC submitted two reports regarding the agency's privacy enforcement efforts that were requested by Congress as part of the fiscal year 2020 spending bill that funds the FTC and other agencies. The reports outline the agency's work in the areas of consumer privacy and the use of potential additional resources. The first report outlines how the FTC uses its current authority to protect consumer privacy and data security. The second report includes an analysis measuring how the FTC has used its current authority to protect consumer privacy and data security and what additional resources would be needed to expand its efforts.
- The FTC announced that the fifth annual PrivacyCon event, scheduled for July 21, 2020, will now take place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. PrivacyCon 2020 will bring together stakeholders, including researchers, academics, industry reps, consumer advocates, and government officials, to discuss the latest research and trends on consumer privacy and data security.
Securities and Exchange Commission:
- The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it filed an emergency action and obtained a temporary restraining order and asset freeze against two Pennsylvania-based brothers and three entities they control to stop a cryptocurrency offering fraud and the misappropriation of investor proceeds. The SEC Complaint alleges that brothers Shane and Sean Hvizdzak and companies they control made false earnings claims, forged audit documents, and diverted tens of millions of dollars from the investment fund they controlled to themselves and others.
- The SEC charged NAC Foundation, its Chief Executive Officer Marcus Andrade, and political lobbyist Jack Abramoff with conducting a fraudulent, unregistered offering of AML BitCoin, a digital asset security the defendants claimed was a new and improved version of bitcoin. NAC and its CEO allegedly portrayed AML BitCoin as superior to the original bitcoin, with anti-money laundering, anti-terrorism, and theft-resistant technology built into the coin on NAC's own "privately regulated public blockchain." The SEC's complaints allege that none of the touted capabilities existed and the development of AML BitCoin and its blockchain was in the very early stages.
In other federal news:
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a declaratory ruling narrowing the definition of an "autodialer," stating that systems requiring the manual dialing of numbers are not autodialers and are not subject to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act's restrictions. The ruling came in an administrative case filed by P2P Alliance, a coalition of providers and users of peer-to-peer (P2P) text messaging services for schools, non-profits, and other groups who filed a petition for clarification asking the Commission to clarify that texts sent via particular types of P2P messaging platforms are not subject to the TCPA's restrictions.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that a federal judge has ordered two individuals doing business as Sundial Herbal Products to stop distributing unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs until they comply with federal law. Sundial claimed that its Sundial Organic Hemp Seed Oil "suppresses the growth of cancer" and that Sundial Cassava Meal "prevents heart disease." Despite previous warnings from the FDA and repeated promises to correct violations, Sundial allegedly continued to violate the law and distribute their products.
- The FDA issued warning letters to three companies for marketing adulterated and misbranded COVID-19 antibody tests. Warning letters were issued to: Medakit Ltd.of Sheung Wan, Hong Kong; antibodiescheck.com and Yama Group; and Dr. Jason Korkus, DDS and Sonrisa Family Dental d/b/a My COVID19 Club of Chicago, Illinois.
- The FDA issued an advisory that consumers should not use any hand sanitizer manufactured by Eskbiochem SA de CV in Mexico, due to the potential presence of methanol (wood alcohol), a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested.
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that a Massachusetts man, Elijah Majak Buoi, was arrested and charged with allegedly filing fraudulent loan applications seeking more than $13 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration under the CARES Act.
- DOJ also announced that William Y. Asiedu of Albany, New York pled guilty to wire fraud conspiracy, arising from his receipt of nearly $450,000 from the victims of romance scams.
Attorney General Consumer Protection News and Other Items of Interest
Editor's Note: Attorneys general from across the country have issued numerous consumer alerts and guidance for avoiding COVID-19 related scams. Attorneys general have also issued cease and desist letters and engaged with private industry urging action to halt price gouging on important consumer goods and safety equipment. Space does not permit inclusion of a summary of each such release in the Consumer Protection Monthly, however a representative sample of such releases is provided in the news items below. Each such release is available on consumerresources.org, our public-facing consumer protection website.
Led by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, 52 attorneys general submitted comments to the FCC regarding proposed rules that would facilitate continued collaboration among state attorneys general and telecom companies in tracing back illegal robocalls to their source. The comments also highlight the efforts of the attorneys general to identify and halt illegal robocallers.
Led by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong a coalition of 51 states and territories filed the third federal lawsuit stemming from the ongoing antitrust investigation into a widespread conspiracy by generic drug manufacturers to artificially inflate and manipulate prices, reduce competition, and unreasonably restrain trade for generic drugs sold across the United States. The new complaint focuses on 80 topical generic drugs that account for billions of dollars in sales in the United States. The topical drugs at the center of the complaint include creams, gels, lotions, ointments, shampoos, and solutions used to treat a variety of skin conditions, pain, and allergies.
Led by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Pederson and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a bipartisan coalition of 39 state and territory attorneys general asked Google and Apple to guarantee that contact tracing apps, when available to consumers, are affiliated with a public health authority and removed from Google Play and the App Store once no longer needed by public health authorities.
Led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser, and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, 19 attorneys general sued to stop the U.S. Education Department from eliminating regulatory protections for students considering enrolling in for-profit colleges and vocational schools. The protections were embodied in the "Gainful Employment" (GE) regulation which was promulgated in 2014 but repealed by the Department under Secretary DeVos. The states' lawsuit says the department's "decision to repeal the GE Rule without promulgating any alternative standard for implementing the Higher Education Act's Gainful Employment provision is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law."
A multistate group of seven attorneys general (Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas), filed suit against a pair of Texas businesses accused of blasting billions of illegal robocalls over the past two years in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and state deceptive trade practices and do not call laws. The attorney general complaint alleges that Rising Eagle Capital Group LLC and JSquared Telecom LLC are behind a "tidal wave" of robocalls offering fake extended car warranties and health care services. John Spiller II, owner of the businesses, and his business partner, Jakob Mears, are also named as defendants.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced a lawsuit against Morningside Church Productions, Inc., which conducts business as The Jim Bakker Show, as well as Jim Bakker and Sherrill Sellman, for allegedly falsely telling Arkansas consumers that colloidal silver products would cure, eliminate, kill, or deactivate COVID-19.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued a cease-and-desist letter to Arizona-based Clean Air EXP demanding the company stop advertising air purification systems by suggesting the systems neutralize COVID-19. The Attorney General's Office alleges that Clean Air EXP has unlawfully advertised and continues to advertise that its air filtration products neutralize 99.9% of viruses that are "COVID-19 surrogates."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra submitted proposed regulations under the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to the California Office of Administrative Law (OAL). OAL has 30 working days and an additional 60 calendar days to determine whether the regulations satisfy the procedural requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. Once approved by the OAL, the regulation text will be filed with the Secretary of State and become enforceable by law. General Becerra also announced a lawsuit against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education for its alleged failure to implement the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The complaint alleges that many applicants have completed the requirements necessary to qualify for forgiveness of the balance on their federal student loans, but that nearly all of them have had their applications denied by Secretary DeVos in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. General Becerra also issued a consumer alert warning consumers about fraudulent contact tracers.
District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell for allegedly systematically and intentionally misleading District consumers about the role their products play in causing climate change. The lawsuit alleges major players in the fossil fuel industry knew as early as the 1950s that emissions from burning oil and gas posed an existential threat to humanity, and in response, the companies embarked on a multi-decade, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to foment doubt and hostility towards climate research in order to protect profits. The suit asks the court to order the companies to end their disinformation campaigns, provide relief for District consumers, and pay civil penalties. General Racine also sued Polymer80, Inc., a gun manufacturer that sells untraceable partially-assembled semi-automatic rifles and handguns, for advertising and selling illegal guns to District consumers. The suit alleges that Polymer80 falsely represents that its weapons are legal in the District and sells illegal firearms.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody announced the arrest of a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning repairman for fraud. The arrest follows investigations by Attorney General Moody's Consumer Protection Division and the Office of Statewide Prosecution into former Bruno Total Home Performance owner Louis Bruno. A civil action was also filed seeking restitution for defrauded consumers and other relief. Bruno, along with nine of his former employees, allegedly used high-pressure sales and scare tactics to induce consumers to purchase services and products that were not needed. The vast majority of Bruno's victims were seniors, some living on fixed incomes. General Moody also issued a Consumer Alert to warn Floridians about a new lottery scam targeting seniors.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the indictment of Louisville business owners Aaron Matthew Goff and Andrew Nicholas Riddle, co-owners of 3 Day, LLC, and Trademark Home Design, LLC, for theft by failure to make required disposition of property of $10,000 or more related to allegations that Goff and Riddle defrauded at least seven customers by taking payments for home repairs or improvements that were not completed.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced a $20 million settlement with Wells Fargo & Company, resolving financial crisis-era claims that Wells Fargo misled investors in its issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities. General Frosh also announced the filing of charges against Cricket Wireless, LLC and AT&T, Inc., for violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. Among other charges, Cricket and AT&T allegedly failed to inform consumers that the cell phones they purchased would no longer work when Cricket switched cell phone networks after its merger with AT&T. General Frosh also announced a settlement resolving an investigation into Ticketmaster's improperly charging consumers service fees despite disclosures to the contrary. Under the settlement, Ticketmaster has agreed to refund all of the fees that were improperly charged to as many as 4,176 consumers and pay $25,000 for investigative costs.
Massachusetts Attorney General Healey announced an $11 million settlement with a Massachusetts mail-order pharmacy resolving allegations that it failed to implement adequate safeguards against unlawful and dangerous dispensing, resulting in the shipment of thousands of potentially illegitimate controlled substance prescriptions across the country. In the complaint, filed along with a proposed consent judgment, the AG's office alleges Injured Workers Pharmacy failed to implement effective policies and procedures for reviewing prescriptions to determine whether they were legitimate and engaged in unlawful marketing practices to drive sales, including paying law firms for patient referrals. General Healey also announced that her office has sued an online travel agency and its CEO for taking money from consumers for travel reservations, despite knowing they would be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then refusing to pay refunds. According to the complaint, the Florida-based BookIt Operating LLC d/b/a BookIt.com (BookIt) and its CEO and director Arthur Paul Finlaw suspended its business in March due to the pandemic but continued to take payments from consumers for planned travel. The complaint also alleges that BookIt kept consumers' payments for its own benefit, did not forward those payments to the hotels and resorts that were booked, and now refuses to give any money back to consumers.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit to stop alleged deceptive practices related to climate change and to hold ExxonMobil Corp., the American Petroleum Institute, and three Koch Industries entities accountable for allegedly perpetuating fraud against Minnesotans. The lawsuit includes claims for fraud, failure to warn, and multiple separate violations of Minnesota statutes that prohibit consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false statements in advertising. In addition to an injunction barring further violation of these laws, the complaint seeks restitution for the harms Minnesotans have suffered, and asks the court to require defendants to fund a corrective public education campaign on the issue of climate change.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox issued tips to help Montana victims avoid being taken advantage of by criminals filing fake unemployment claims.
New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against a New York broker of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies for alleged repeated and widespread fraud during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) public health crisis. The lawsuit charges Frank Borgese and his company, IMPACT Medical & Surgical Solutions, with fraudulently soliciting the State of New York, as well as hospitals and health care systems across the country, with fake offers of critically-needed PPE, including 3M N95 respirator masks, at exorbitant prices for fake items or products they could never deliver. General James also announced a proposed settlement with one of the nation's largest debt settlement companies that will return nearly $3.6 million to thousands of New York consumers who were allegedly misled about savings they could achieve. The proposed settlement with Freedom Debt Relief would resolve alleged violations of a 2011 settlement. General James also announced a settlement with Caliber Home Loans, Inc. that will provide up to $17 million in mortgage loan forgiveness to current Caliber customers in New York who were placed into unfair, interest-only loan modifications by the company.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has ordered an unlicensed debt relief company to issue refunds to North Dakota consumers and to cease doing business in North Dakota until the company is in full compliance with the state's licensing law.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced that a Texas business has agreed to a permanent ban on payment processing to settle allegations that it helped scammers defraud millions of dollars from Americans. The settlement with Madera Merchant Services LLC and its operators, Bruce Woods, Patricia Woods, and Victor Rodriguez, is the result of a joint complaint filed in federal court by Yost's office and the FTC in 2019 which alleged that Madera operated as a third-party payment processor, charging consumer checking accounts on behalf of unscrupulous telemarketers using remotely created checks, also known as demand drafts or RCPOs, to withdraw funds from consumers' checking accounts. However, the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits telemarketers from using remotely created checks as payments for goods or services. General Yost also announced a price gouging lawsuit against a couple for allegedly hoarding hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic and selling them online for 11 times the retail price. According to the lawsuit, Marcus and Ellen Fultz sold products on Amazon under the name danielle-on-2nd at prices 241.8% to 1,017.3% higher than the average cost of the same products on Amazon.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed felony charges against a contractor who received thousands of dollars from Oklahomans in exchange for roofing repairs he never completed. The four felony counts against Chad Davis come after the office filed three prior felony charges against him in February. In both cases, Davis took around $40,000 from the victims.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced agreements with six companies and medical practitioners selling products and services advertising a so-called Covid-19 "cure," or an ability to boost immunity and protect people from the disease. Many of the treatments are not approved by the FDA or recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Assurances of Voluntary Compliance were entered into with Ashland Natural Medicine, Holistic Health Acupuncture, Inner Works Acupuncture, Love Acupuncture & Wellness Group, Heirloom Organics, and Holistic Health, P.C.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced an agreed final judgment and permanent injunction against Apex Home Energy Solutions, LLC, stopping the business from selling falsely represented residential solar products or energy efficiency products and services. The Attorney General alleged that the defendant used deceptive practices, including misrepresenting interest rates for financing purchases, misrepresenting the availability of government sponsored rebates, and intentionally adding provisions in consumer contracts that unlawfully misrepresented and purported to waive consumers' rights under Texas law.
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has filed a lawsuit against Advanced Towing Company, LLC, a towing and recovery operator based in Arlington, Virginia. The complaint alleges that Advanced Towing has violated state and local towing code provisions, resulting in towing conduct that is "frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal." The practices alleged in the complaint include employing tow truck drivers who are not properly registered with the Commonwealth, towing vehicles unsafely or without the proper legal authority, unlawfully towing police vehicles and commercial delivery vehicles like Amazon delivery vans, and failing to maintain appropriate contracts with property owners authorizing tows.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that the maker of a so-called COVID-19 "vaccine" will repay his victims and is permanently barred from marketing vaccines without testing and evidence. The legally binding agreement comes just over a week after Ferguson filed a lawsuit and nearly two months after he sent Stine a "cease and desist" letter to stop marketing the "vaccine." As part of the consent decree, Redmond-area resident Johnny T. Stine and his company, North Coast Biologics, are prohibited from marketing future vaccines without rigorous testing and sound scientific evidence. Stine also will pay $8,500 to the state for the cost of bringing the case, with another $30,000 suspended based on his compliance with the agreement. The Attorney General's Office will reach out to individuals who bought the "vaccine" and facilitate refunds. Refunds could total up to $12,000 if all 30 victims can be reached.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed lawsuits against Rite-Aid and Walgreens alleging the two reaped billions of dollars in revenues from opioid sales, and that their conduct caused immense harm to West Virginia and its citizens. The lawsuits allege Rite-Aid and Walgreens, as individual distributors, supplied far more opioids to their retail pharmacies than necessary to meet legitimate market demand. The Attorney General contends Rite-Aid and Walgreens each knew its obligation to halt suspicious orders to its retail pharmacies but failed to monitor or report such activity. General Morrisey also announced a $550,000 settlement with German engineering corporation Robert Bosch related to the Volkswagen emissions scandal. VW admitted to using Bosch-designed defeat devices to cheat emissions tests. Under the Consent Judgment, Bosch implemented enhanced compliance policies and procedures including a prohibition on the development or calibration of defeat devices.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul warned residents about potential scammers using critical contact tracing to steal personal information from unsuspecting Wisconsinites.
A federal judge ordered the Department of Education (ED) to cancel roughly 7,200 former Corinthian Colleges students' debt in Massachusetts and approve an application filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to have the debts discharged under the Department's "borrower defense to repayment" regulation. The application was filed in 2015 but had not been acted on. A class of students represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School sued the Department seeking to have the application approved.
3M filed a Lanham Act trademark infringement case against a former U.S. Marine and alleged fraudster offering non-existent N95 respirators for sale who claimed unfounded associations with 3M and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. In a complaint filed in federal court in Minnesota, 3M alleged that Matthew Starsiak and AMK Energy Services LLC communicated with several 3M lawyers claiming to be seeking to purchase $1.143 trillion in 3M N95 respirators to send to underserved populations in Africa. 3M confirmed that the Gates Foundation has no knowledge of the defendants. Starsiak then used the names of 3M's lawyers as bait to lure unwitting buyers into placing large amounts of money in escrow to purchase billions of fictitious 3M N95 respirators. 3M reported in May that it had sued 5 vendors for offering billions of non-existent N95 respirators.
Bayer will pay more than $10 billion to end tens of thousands of lawsuits filed over its Roundup weedkiller, the company announced. The settlement also resolves many other cases over the herbicide dicamba as well as water contaminated with toxic chemicals called PCBs. Many plaintiffs say Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, caused them to develop cancer. Roundup was developed by Monsanto, which Bayer bought in 2018.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that a restaurant lease's force majeure provision excused, at least partially, the lessee's obligations to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. In re Hitz Rest. Grp., 2020 Bankr. LEXIS 1470 (Bkrtcy. N.D. Ill. June 2, 2020).
- U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai'i) and John Thune (R-S.D.), the Ranking Member and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, introduced the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, new bipartisan legislation to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (Section 230). According to the Senators, the PACT Act will "strengthen transparency in the process online platforms use to moderate content and hold those companies accountable for content that violates their own policies or is illegal."
- In a related action, the Department of Justice released a set of reform proposals to update the immunity for online platforms under Section 230. Responding to bipartisan concerns about the scope of 230 immunity, the department identified a set of reform proposals to provide stronger incentives for online platforms to address illicit material on their platforms while continuing to foster innovation and free speech. The department's findings are available here. Additional information about the DOJ proposals is available here.
- The House of Representatives failed to override President Trump's veto of a bipartisan student loan forgiveness bill approved by the Senate in March that would have overturned a key student loan forgiveness rule drafted by the U.S. Education Department. The student loan forgiveness rules, known as the "borrower defense to repayment," regulation, allow students to have their federal student loans forgiven if a school employed illegal or deceptive practices to encourage the students to incur debt to attend the school. The final rule, though, creates a much higher burden of proof for student borrowers to show they were defrauded by their institutions. Under the prior rule, a student needed to show a substantial misrepresentation by the school to receive relief. The rewritten rule requires borrowers to show they suffered financial harm from their institution's misconduct and that the college knowingly made deceptive or false statements.
- Iowa has enacted legislation proposed by Attorney General Tom Miller to protect student loan borrowers against predatory debt relief companies. The law prohibits educational loan debt management companies from a list of activities including: requesting or receiving payment before fully performing all contracted or represented services and compensating employees and independent contractors on a commission-based system. The bill provides debtors an unconditional right to cancel within three days of signing a contract and the option to bring a private action against a licensee for a violation of the bill's provisions.
- Kansas has passed legislation regulating contact tracing. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt supported the legislation which provides that participation in contact tracing must be voluntary and may not collect or use information through cellphone tracking. Information must be used only for contact tracing, kept confidential, and not disclosed without consent. Among other provisions, the information must also be safely and securely destroyed when no longer needed for contact tracing.
- New York Attorney General Letitia James applauded legislation that will substantially strengthen New York State's price gouging statute to prevent excessive price increases on essential goods and services, as the state continues to battle COVID-19. The new price gouging law, Senate Bill 8189, expands protections against price gouging beyond consumer goods to include any products or services that are vital or necessary to the health, safety, and welfare of consumers or the general public.
Veterans and Military News
- The National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on behalf of a bipartisan group of 42 attorneys general led by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, expressing concerns regarding the VA's decision to rescind its Veteran Service Officer (VSO) 48-hour review policy. The VSO policy served as the last opportunity to identify and correct errors in the claims process before they become part of the record used as a basis for denial of benefits or diminished awards. Rescinding the policy may lead to veterans facing unnecessary and avoidable delays in the receipt of earned benefits as mistakes not caught prior to final determination can only be rectified through a lengthy and complicated appeals process. In their letter, the attorneys general express concern that the policy was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating further complications for VSOs and veterans who are working remotely with diminished resources.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, NAAG canceled the Consumer Protection Spring Conference in Raleigh that was supposed to take place in May. The meeting will not be rescheduled. NAAG's goal is to reschedule the conference in Raleigh for the Spring 2021 conference. We look forward to the NAAG Consumer Protection Fall Conference which is scheduled for October 26-28, 2020, in Washington, DC and have great hope that schedules will resume to normal by that time. Furthermore, all in-person NAGTRI trainings are cancelled through July 31.
Todd Leatherman, Program Counsel for the Center for Consumer Protection, is the editor of Center for Consumer Protection Monthly, a compendium of information that may be of interest to the attorney general community and others interested in consumer protection. Neither the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) nor the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute expresses a view as to the accuracy of the matters, nor as to the position expounded by the authors of the hyperlinked materials. Any use and/or copies of this newsletter in whole or part must include the customary bibliographic citation. NAAG retains copyright and all other intellectual property rights in the material presented in this publication. For content submissions or to contact the editor directly, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-326-6044.