CFPB orders Scam ringleaders to pay over $8 million to consumer and student borrowers
washington d.c. – Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) finalized a lawsuit against debt relief payment processors RAM Payment and Account Management Systems (AMS), as well as the co-founders of AMS, Gregory Winters and Stephen Chaya, for debt collection. relief fees from consumers, lying to consumers about when fees would be paid to debt relief companies, and sending illegal advances to debt relief companies before they were legally authorized to do it. They also failed to return funds to consumers who canceled student loan debt relief agreements, as required by law. CFPB orders RAM Payment, AMS, Winters and Chaya to pay more than $11 million in consumer redress and civil penalties.
“Too often, bad actors take advantage of student borrowers and others looking to get out of debt,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “Our law enforcement action prohibits enablers and their ringleaders for their illegal acts.”
Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, AMS and RAM Payment provided account management and payment processing services to approximately 270,000 consumers across the United States who were enrolled in debt relief programs. Winters and Chaya co-founded AMS. RAM Payment acquired AMS in 2019. After the acquisition, Winters and Chaya continued to manage AMS and RAM Payment, and exercised substantial control over the companies’ business practices.
Providers of account maintenance and payment processing services to debt relief companies are expected to be independent third-party companies that hold fees until debt relief companies are entitled to them under of the law.
The CFPB investigation found that the respondents violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Respondents have significantly assisted student loan companies and traditional debt relief companies in requesting or accepting fee advances for debt relief services, misrepresented their consumer payment processing actions before paying fees to student loan debt relief companies and unfairly disbursed unearned fees for student loan debt relief services after consumers unsubscribed or canceled the services. Specifically, respondents harmed consumers by:
- Collecting, processing and illegally disbursing fees: Respondents collected fees from consumers and paid these fees to student debt relief companies before consumer debts were renegotiated or payment was made under a new debt settlement, as required by law. Respondents also paid upfront illegal debt relief fees that were apparently for add-on services marketed by debt relief companies as legal plan memberships. Some debt relief companies and legal plan providers have claimed that these legal plan memberships provide consumers with access to lawyers to help them settle their debts, are included in the cost of debt relief services debts or were essential to effectively settle consumer debts.
- Misleading consumers about the fees they paid: Respondents led consumers to believe that AMS and RAM Payment would not pay fees until student debt relief companies won the fees, but they did not confirm that the fees had been earned before paying them to debt relief companies.
- Paying businesses for referrals: Respondents paid illegal commissions to third-party marketing companies linked to student debt relief companies and traditional debt relief companies, for a stream of client referrals, also in violation of the rules designed to ensure the independence of account management services.
Additionally, Winters and Chaya sought to enrich themselves through illegal dealings with affiliate finance and debt relief companies. Winters and Chaya owned a finance company, Account Connect Limited (ACL). For some debt relief companies, ACL advanced approximately 65% of the fees the companies expected to receive from consumers. ACL collected these advances from payments made by consumers to accounts managed by AMS and RAM Payment. The Respondents misled consumers by failing to disclose this conflict of interest between the Respondents and ACL. Instead, respondents falsely stated that AMS and RAM Payment provided services as independent third-party companies. They also illegally held money held in consumer accounts when consumers canceled or opted out of ACL-funded student loan debt relief services from the companies.
Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the CFPB has the power to take action against institutions that violate consumer financial laws, including the Telemarketing Sales Rule, that targets deceptive and abusive telemarketing practices, and that engages in unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices. The CFPB order:
- Demands that the respondents repay $8.7 million to consumers enrolled in student loan debt relief services: The amount of the remedy reflects the amount of unreimbursed fees charged by AMS or RAM and, for consumers enrolled in ACL-funded student loan debt relief services, any unreimbursed consumer fee payments for the services. student loan debt relief that AMS or RAM Payment disbursed to ACL.
- Issues industry bans against respondents: AMS, Winters and Chaya are banned from the payment processing and account management business for debt relief. RAM Payment shall stop providing services to both student debt relief companies and debt relief companies receiving funding from an affiliate or owned by an affiliate, stop paying commissions to third-party marketing companies for consumer referrals and consent to the oversight authority of the CFPB.
- Force the respondents to pay a fine of $3 million: Respondents will pay a $3 million fine to the CFPB, which will be deposited into the Bureau’s Victims Fund.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that implements and enforces federal consumer finance law and ensures that markets for consumer financial products are fair, transparent and competitive. For more information, visit consumerfinance.gov.