Report: Financial CHOICE Act Would Harm Servicemembers

Image courtesy of (Hammerin Man)

Since its creation, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has worked to protect servicemembers from ne’er-do-wells that aim to line their own pockets by taking advantage of those who protect us; from fining auto lenders for failing to issue refunds to servicemebers to ordering banks to pay for their bad debt collection practices. But with a bill to gut the agency’s power making its way through the legislature, these types of protections come to a screeching halt.

A new report [PDF] from U.S. PIRG aims to show just how much the CFPB has worked on behalf of servicemembers and how those consumers could be put in danger if the Financial CHOICE Act is enacted.

First a bit of background: The Financial CHOICE Act, introduced by introduced by bank-backed Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling in April, would, among other things:

• Require the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to get congressional approval before taking enforcement action against financial institutions

• Restrict the Bureau’s ability to write rules regulating financial companies

• Revoke the agency’s authority to restrict arbitration

• Revoke the CFPB’s authority to conduct education campaigns

• Prevent the Bureau from making public the complaints it collects from consumers in its Consumer Complaint Database

• Prevent the CFPB from having oversight over the payday lending industry

Since the bill’s introduction, it has received significant opposition from advocates, retailers, and others. Today that resistance continued in the form of a report from U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group highlighting how dismantling the CFPB would place servicemembers, veterans, and their families in “financial harm’s way.”

“The CFPB has already taken at least 12 major enforcement actions against financial firms targeting young service members, older veterans and their families,” Ed Mierzwinski, U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director and report co-author, said in a statement. “Gutting the CFPB puts those who protect us in financial harm’s way, which also threatens unit preparedness.”

According to the new report, debt collection companies, including threats to contact commanding officers about debts, accounted for about 32% of the 44,000 complaints with military tags published in the CFPB Public Consumer Complaint Database.

For example, an Aug. 2015 complaint from a service member recalls an issue with the company USA Discounters, which has been on the receiving end of several CFPB enforcement actions.

The complaint states that the company “added on a warranty and something called debt cancellation program totaling over $1,500. No one explained what the warranty was for or what the debt cancellation was or why I needed it…they have been calling me 2 to 3 times a day hounding me and harassing me for my late payments…In addition, they threatened to contact my chain of command.”

Complaints like this one led the CFPB to take action against USA Discounters. In 2014, the CFPB fined USA Discounters for charging a so-called Specialist fee, which was marketed as a charge paid to a third-party company that would represent them in matters involving the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law that protects active-duty servicemembers during some collections proceedings.

Other notable enforcement actions taken by the CFPB related to service member harm includes:

• Requiring an Ohio auto lender to return $2.28 million to servicemebers and others who were harmed by the company’s aggressive debt collection tactics.

Fining Navy Federal Credit Union $28.5 million for its bad debt collection practices, such as threatened borrowers and restricted access to their accounts.

Ordering a Kentucky allotment processor to refund servicemembers $3.1 million for charging hidden fees to their accounts.

Fining a mortgage relief company $250,000 for allegedly deceiving consumers with ads that implied an affiliation with the U.S. government.

Additionally, the report notes that the CFPB has advocated to strengthen consumer protections for service members, including closing a loophole in the Military Lending Act, which caps interest rates on loans and provides other protections to service members.

“The CFPB is an invaluable tool for servicemembers, veterans and their families,” the report states. “It not only provides restitution for servicemembers who have been wronged, the CFPB is also helping to create a fairer, more functional financial system.”

Previously, those on the other side of the debate, including the American Bankers Association, have argued that the Financial CHOICE Act will be a step toward better serving consumers.

“We commend Chairman Hensarling and members of the Committee for their tireless efforts to help our nation’s banking industry serve their customers and communities,” Rob Nichols, ABA president and CEO, said in a statement, calling the Financial CHOICE Act “needed regulatory relief.”

ACA International — an organization representing credit and collection companies — did not put out a statement or position on the bill. We’ve reached out to the organization for comment. 

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.