CFPB Must Closely Scrutinize Comments Opposing Proposed Payday Lending Rule

After Payday Lenders Put Spotlight on Consumers with Remarkably Similar “Personal” Stories, Allied Progress Calls for Greater Scrutiny


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The payday lending industry’s special interest trade group, the Community Financial Services Association (CFSA), recently chastised the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a press release bearing the accusatory headline, “CFPB Buried, Ignored Positive Payday Loan Customer ‘Tell Your Story’ Testimonials It Requested.”  What the industry-backed group neglected to mention in its release is that many of these supposedly “personal” submissions, included some of the exact same sentences and paragraphs.

Today, Allied Progress called on the CFPB to more closely scrutinize the pro-industry “personal” stories it receives, as well as public comments submitted in opposition to its proposed rule on payday, vehicle title, and other high-cost installment loans. The request follows an analysis by the organization that identified purportedly unique stories and comments submitted directly to the CFPB in opposition to the proposed rule and in support of the payday lending industry which included an alarming number of identical passages.

Payday lenders cannot be trusted to deal honestly with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We have found sentences and entire paragraphs that have been reused verbatim in hundreds of supposedly personal testimonials opposing the CFPB’s proposed payday lending rule,” said Allied Progress executive director Karl Frisch. “Someone needs to explain how so many individuals could have the exact same experience and come up with the exact same words in the exact same order to describe that experience with just a few unique passages sprinkled in an apparent attempt to throw off suspicious readers.

Allied Progress made its request for greater scrutiny as part of its own public comment letter to the CFPB concerning the proposed payday lending rule. The organization also identified specific examples of unethical behavior exhibited by the payday lending industry and its allies in their attempts to influence regulatory policy. For example, Allied Progress pointed to the industry-supportive astroturf group Protect America’s Consumers, noting that “the only person publicly affiliated with the group, its CEO Steve Gates, once worked for an organization that was caught faking grassroots activity, even forging letters to members of Congress.” Citing another example, the pro-payday group Arizona Financial Choice Association organized a purported letter-writing campaign of borrowers supporting pro-industry legislation. In this case, a State Attorney General investigation was requested when it was revealed some of the borrowers who supposedly sent letters of support to state legislators did not recall signing the letters at all.

The public comment letter from Allied Progress points to a recent VICE exposé that may explain why comments received by the CFPB in opposition to the rule are so similar. According to the report, “months before [the CFPB] proposed a new rule threatening the profits of exploitative payday lenders across America, the industry’s leaders gathered at a posh resort in the Bahamas to prepare for war.” During a breakout session titled “Take Action in the Rulemaking Process Comment Period,” attendees were told that “a team of three full-time writers” had been retained to assist with comment writing. By deluging the CFPB with individual comments, the author went on to note, lenders could “keep the payday loan party going” and force the agency to “wade through hundreds of thousands of comments.” As CFSA head Dennis Shaul explained, the result is a “bogged down” CFPB.

Text of CFPB Public Comment from Allied Progress (PDF Download):

The Honorable Richard Cordray, Director
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
1700 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20552

RE: Proposed Rule on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Other High-Cost Installment Loans
Docket ID Number: CFPB-2016-0025 or RIN 3170-AA40

Dear Mr. Cordray,

Thank you for the opportunity to file this comment in response to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) proposed rule on payday, vehicle title, and other high cost installment loans. We believe that this rule is critically important to the financial well-being of hardworking Americans who are being targeted by predatory lenders that seek to profit by trapping consumers in difficult to escape cycles of debt.

For more than two months, the CFPB has been receiving comments from those both in favor of and opposed to this rule. While many of these comments may seem genuine, even heartfelt, we write to you today with hope that comments opposing this rule will receive greater scrutiny. We make this serious request for two primary reasons:

  1. The payday lending industry and the shadowy astroturf front groups supporting its objectives have a history of deceptive practices when it comes to pushing lawmakers to support or oppose regulations.
  1. Hundreds of comments that have already been received by the CFPB from borrowers in opposition to this rule, although designed to look personal and authentic, include the exact same phrasing, thus calling into question their authenticity.

It should come as no surprise that the payday lending industry might attempt to influence the CFPB’s rulemaking process through potentially underhanded means.

In state-based payday lending campaigns, industry groups have resorted to questionable tactics in an attempt to influence state lawmakers and achieve their regulatory goals. In January, the pro-payday group Arizona Financial Choice Association organized a purported letter-writing campaign of borrowers supporting SB 1316, legislation that would legalize predatory loans with triple digit interest rates in the state. According to State Representative Debbie McCune Davis, who requested a State Attorney General investigation into the industry-backed effort, when letter signers were contacted and told exactly what the bill would entail, many fully opposed it. Signers also admitted that they were told to sign the letters as part of their loan application. Worse still, some did not recall signing the letters at all.1

Such a history of industry-sanctioned deception should be taken into consideration when weighing the comments received by the CFPB in opposition to this rule. Similarly, the background of those running these industry-backed organizations should also be considered.

For the better part of a year, while the CFPB was preparing its rule to rein in the worst abuses of payday, vehicle title, and other high-cost installment loans, the industry-supportive astroturf group Protect America’s Consumers was pummeling the bureau with a barrage of inaccurate television and digital ads around the country.The only person publicly affiliated with the group, its CEO Steve Gates, once worked for an organization that was caught faking grassroots activity, even forging letters to members of Congress.That phony activism was subcontracted to Lincoln Strategy Group, which also appears to be running the anti-CFPB astroturf operation for Protect America’s Consumers.4 Lincoln Strategy Group is run by Nathan Sproul, who’s companies have been investigated in multiple states and by the FBI for violating voter registration laws.5

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in August, there is growing concern that payday loan borrowers are being pressured by lenders into submitting comments to the CFPB that oppose the proposed rule. The fact that borrowers are being asked to submit comments opposing the rule as part of the loan process, according to the Plain Dealer, “suggests that the letter-writing involves an element of coercion or pressure, directly or implied.”6

To be clear, a variety of comments have been received by the CFPB, including:

  • Comments via signed petitions using the same comment language
  • Comments via signed petitions using altered but similar comment language
  • Comments directly to the CFPB on behalf of organization/organizations
  • Comments directly to the CFPB from borrowers that appear to be unique

It is that last category of comments that a cursory review reveals to be most troublesome. The CFPB has received hundreds of individually submitted comments opposing the proposed rule that appear on first glance to be unique but upon further examination, include many of the exact same phrases. Furthermore, when these repeatedly used phrases are entered into search engines, they return no matching results.

The payday lending industry’s special interest trade group, the Community Financial Services Association (CFSA), recently chastised the CFPB in a press release bearing the accusatory headline, “CFPB Buried, Ignored Positive Payday Loan Customer ‘Tell Your Story’ Testimonials It Requested.”7  What the CFSA neglected to include in its release is the startling fact that many of the supposedly personal stories submitted to the CFPB included some of the exact same sentences.8 For example:

  • “There are no other products out there that give you the freedom that a pay day loan can give you,” appears in at least forty-three different stories.
  • “It was a very efficient process and definitely the most reasonable option for me,” appears in at least eighteen different stories.
  • “Medical bills can be very difficult to get under control and are very confusing. This loan was a great solution for me,” appeared in at least twenty-eight different stories.
  • “After doing a little research online, I found that payday loans were exactly the option I needed. I was able to walk in and sit down with someone who explained everything easily to me and I got my money in no time,” appeared in at least fifteen different stories.
  • “To avoid bouncing a check, I turned to a loan to help pay some bills. I found that it was a great choice for me and I was able to pay my power bill on time and without penalty,” appeared in at least forty-nine different stories.
  • “These can really put a hurt on our wallet but after getting a short-term loan, we do not have to worry as much about the payments and can focus on staying healthy,” appeared in at least thirty different stories.
  • “I’ve recommended pay day loans to people and used them myself, and everyone I’ve talked to has had a good experience and is grateful for the small loans they get. I’m not sure what many of us would do if we could not take out these loans any more. The government should leave them alone since they help so many families,” appeared in at least seventeen different stories.
  • “I work long hours and do not have time to get to a regular bank or wait for my paycheck to clear so I can pay bills. I do not have confidence that the bank will work with me when I’m in a pinch for cash, but I know that a payday loan shop will. They get that I need money right away and will pay the advance back as soon as I can, without a bunch of paperwork or surprises,” appeared in at least twenty-two different stories.

The stories submitted are not identical. They do not appear to be the result of an online petition. In fact, the CFPB’s “Tell Your Story” portal does not offer any sample language.Instead, these stories are largely unique but include a suspiciously significant number of identical sentences and paragraphs. It is important to note that our review of these CFSA-championed stories was not comprehensive. A more thorough examination would undoubtedly turn up many more examples of identical phrasing appearing in these purportedly personal story submissions.

Like the “Tell Your Story” submissions praising payday loans, many of the comments submitted in opposition to the CFPB’s proposed rule include identical phrasing. Again, these submissions are not the result of an online petition. They were submitted independently and individually to the CFPB. When the phrasing is entered into a search engine it returns no matches. So, it is not as if these individuals are finding these sentences online and independently deciding to use them in their respective comments.

Take the following comment, for example. Nothing about it is unique. Every sentence appears in other comments allegedly submitted to the CFPB by other people.10

From:                       Miko Jaleel
To:                             CFPB_FederalRegisterComments
Subject:                  docket number CFPB-2016-0025
Date:                        Wednesday, July 13, 2016 9:14:59 PM

Even though I had insurance to help cover some of the costs of my car repair, I still needed some extra money to get a rental. Payday loans gave me the money so I could afford it and I’m glad they were able to help me.

I can afford my phone bill most of the time, but there are times that I have extra costs that do not fit my budget. To keep my budget on track, I rely on pay day loans.

Without these loans, I would not have anywhere else to go when the bills get too high. I’m afraid that this limit will leave me with no options if I’m in a bind. The new CFPB rules will only hurt me and won’t solve anything.

Shutting down payday loan stores would hurt the many families that rely on these loans in order to stay out of bankruptcy. It is important to keep this loan option as it is.

Miko Jaleel

When each of the sentences in this sample comment is searched in the regulations.gov comment database for the CFPB’s proposed rule, they return numerous examples of the exact same sentence being used in comments submitted by other individuals:

  • “Even though I had insurance to help cover some of the costs of my car repair, I still needed some extra money to get a rental. Payday loans gave me the money so I could afford it and I’m glad they were able to help me,” appears in at least 101 other submitted comments.11
  • “I can afford my phone bill most of the time, but there are times that I have extra costs that do not fit my budget. To keep my budget on track, I rely on pay day loans,” appears in at least sixty-nine other submitted comments.12
  • “Without these loans, I would not have anywhere else to go when the bills get too high. I’m afraid that this limit will leave me with no options if I’m in a bind,” appears in at least twenty other submitted comments.13
  • “The new CFPB rules will only hurt me and won’t solve anything,” appears in at least eighty other submitted comments.14
  • “Shutting down payday loan stores would hurt the many families that rely on these loans in order to stay out of bankruptcy,” appears in at least fifty other submitted comments.15
  • “It is important to keep this loan option as it is,” appears in at least ninety-four other submitted comments.16

This exercise could be repeated time and again to turn up hundreds, if not thousands of other examples of supposedly personal and unique comments submitted directly to the CFPB in opposition to its proposed rule that include at least some of the exact same sentences found in the comments of other individuals.

Who is to blame for these alarming irregularities? Perhaps a recent exposé in VICE has the answer. According to the report, “months before [the CFPB] proposed a new rule threatening the profits of exploitative payday lenders across America, the industry’s leaders gathered at a posh resort in the Bahamas to prepare for war.” During a breakout session titled “Take Action in the Rulemaking Process Comment Period,” attendees were told that “a team of three full-time writers” had been retained to assist with comment writing. By deluging the CFPB with individual comments, the author goes on to note, lenders could “keep the payday loan party going” and force the agency to “wade through hundreds of thousands of comments.” As Dennis Shaul, head of the industry’s primary trade group, explained, the result is a “bogged down” CFPB.17

It is the responsibility of the CFPB to evaluate the comments it receives concerning its proposed rule on their merits. Based on the evidence Allied Progress has unearthed of payday lending industry front groups participating in questionable advocacy tactics, and of supposedly personal and unique industry supportive comments being submitted with the exact same phrasing found in other submissions, it is clear that additional scrutiny over comments opposing the CFPB’s proposed rule is warranted.

Ultimately, we want this rule to protect Americans from predatory lending practices that could trap them in cycles of debt and keep them from financial stability. In all of our engagements concerning this rule, we have worked to amplify the real voices of hardworking Americans struggling to make ends meet. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for the payday lending industry.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of our comment. If you have any questions or need additional information, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at XXXX@alliedprogress.org or 855-253-7747.

Sincerely,

Karl Frisch
Executive Director
Allied Progress

END NOTES

1 “Rep. McCune Davis Asks AG to Investigate Arizona Financial Choice Association for Misrepresentation,” Arizona House Democrats website, March 15, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.azhousedemocrats.com/2016/03/rep-mccune-davis-asks-ag-to-investigate.html. Of special note is the letter from Rep. McCune Davis to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, dated March 15, 2016: https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-M26kYJrJQEY/VuhrW4ZguhI/AAAAAAAACX0/W7LP-Npj9gIKbDvXN_kXVi8ISCnSevmOA/s1600/Letter+to+AG.png.

2 “Reality Check: Shadowy Front Group Running Grossly Misleading Ads About CFPB Pay and Office Construction Costs,” Allied Progress website, February 24, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://aldpr.gs/1T7pt8l; “Latest ‘Protect America’s Consumers’ Ads Targeting Senators Riddled with Misinformation,” Allied Progress website, April 11, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://aldpr.gs/1VP93kw; and “Shady Astroturf Group Creates Anti-CFPB Attack Ad About Pretend Donors to Pretend Campaign,” Allied Progress website, May 4, 2016, accessed September 13, 2016, http://aldpr.gs/1VK82vC.

3 Isaac Arnsdorf, Emily Kopp, and Noah Weiland, “More Anti-CFPB Shenanigans,” Politico, January 7, 2016,
http://www.politico.com/tipsheets/politico-influence/2016/01/more-cfpb-shenanigans-212055 – ixzz3ywx8M6sj.

4 “Coal Lobby’s ‘Purest Form of Grassroots’ Delivered by GOP Voter Fraud Company,” Think Progress, August 7, 2009, accessed September 13, 2016, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2009/08/07/55143/sproul-coal-fraud/; and Isaac Arnsdorf et al., PI Exclusive: Uncovering the ‘Astroturf’ Firm Behind the CFPB Attack Ads,” Politico, May 19, 2016,
http://www.politico.com/tipsheets/politico-influence/2016/05/pi-exclusive-unmasking-the-astroturf-firm-behind-the-cfpb-attack-ads-214391.

5 “Coal Lobby’s ‘Purest Form of Grassroots’”; Craig Harris, “Arizona Political Operative Sproul in Spotlight,” Arizona Republic October 18, 2012, http://archive.azcentral.com/news/politics/articles/20121009arizona-political-operative-sproul-spotlight.html. Michael Walsh, “FBI investigating voter registration company Strategic Allied Consulting for fraud,” New York Daily News, November 3, 2012, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/fbi-investigating-voter-registration-company-fraud-article-1.1196220; Stephanie Saul, “G.O.P. Operative Long Trailed by Allegations of Voter Fraud,” New York Times, October 5, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/us/politics/nathan-sproul-a-republican-operative-long-trailed-by-voter-fraud-claims.html; Patrick Marley, “State GOP linked to dicey firm; Party briefly contracted with group under investigation.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 14, 2012 and Eli Stokols, “Colorado Girl Registering ‘Only Romney’ Voters Tied to Firm Dumped by RNC Over Fraud,” KDVR/Fox 31 Denver, September 28, 2012,
http://kdvr.com/2012/09/28/colorado-gop-dumps-firm-with-ties-to-voter-fraud/.

6 Stephen Koff, “Payday Lenders Get Thousands of Borrowers to Complain to Government about Rules Meant to Protect Them,” Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer, August 22, 2016,
http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/08/ohio_payday_lender_has_borrowe.html.

7 “CFPB Buried, Ignored Positive Payday Loan Customer ‘Tell Your Story’ Testimonials It Requested,” September 6, 2016, Community Financial Services Association of America website, accessed September 13, 2016, http://cfsaa.com/our-resources/communications/recent-news/article-detail/newsid/131.aspx.

8 “Tell Your Story” submissions from January 21, 2016, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, accessed September 13, 2016,
https://gallery.mailchimp.com/24e3495ba138af4c830a9e396/files/CFPB_TellYourStorySubmissions_CFSAFOIA.pdf.

9 “Tell Your Story” submission portal, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, accessed September 13, 2016,
https://help.consumerfinance.gov/app/tellyourstory.

10 “Comment Sumbitted by Miko Jaleel” on the CFPB Proposed Rule: Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans,” Regulations.gov website, accessed September 13, 2016, https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=CFPB-2016-0025-6334.

11 Docket Browser Results (101) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2c8Vmid.

12 Docket Browser results (69) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, http://bit.ly/2c770VP.

13 Docket Browser Results (20) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cEcj4O.

14 Docket Browser Results (80) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2c78Q9g.

15 Docket Browser Results (50) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2cHa2Ti.

16 Docket Browser Results (94) from search of Comments on CFPB-2016-0025, Regulations.gov website, accessed September 15, 2016, http://bit.ly/2c78TSu.

17 David Dayen, “ How Predatory Payday Lenders Plot to Fight Government Regulation,” VICE, August 18, 2016,
http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/payday-lenders-consumer-protection-strategy-atlantis-bahamas.

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To speak with Allied Progress about this release, please contact Lia Weintraub at 860-803-4812 or lia@thepastorumgroup.com.

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