Monster Loans, a California mortgage company that uses the tagline “So easy…it’s scary,” was allegedly the front for a complex scheme that illegally pedaled student debt relief services to millions of people whose information was unlawfully obtained from Experian, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau claims.
The CFPB last week announced that it reached an agreement with Chou Team Realty, which does business as Monster Loans, the company’s main officers, and several related companies, settling claims that the companies illegally acquired people’s information in order to solicit them for debt relief services.
Beyond the misuse of borrower information, the CFPB also claimed that the debt relief companies “unlawfully charged and collected at least $15 million in fees before consumers received any adjustment to their student loans and made any payments toward their adjusted loans.”
As part of the settlement with the CFPB, Monster Loans and its associated companies are ordered to repay $18 million to the allegedly cheated customers, but due to the companies’ financial condition, it’s unlikely that many of those customers will get their money back.
According to the CFPB, between 2015 and 2017, Monster Loans allegedly used its account with Experian to acquire the prescreened lists of more than seven million borrowers with student loan debt.
Monster Loans allegedly told the credit bureau that it wanted the data so it could target the borrowers for mortgages. But instead of using the information as intended, Monster Loans allegedly gave the reports to several associated student loan debt relief companies so the companies could market their debt relief services to those borrowers.
But Monster Loans wasn’t the only company to allegedly misuse its relationship with Experian. According to the CFPB, in 2017 Monster Loans allegedly helped create a fake company called Lend Tech Loans.
Lend Tech Loans presented itself as a mortgage brokerage, but according to the CFPB, the company never engaged in any mortgage activity. Rather, the company “has only ever been used to unlawfully obtain consumer report information” in furtherance of the student debt relief scam.
“As alleged in the complaint, because of Monster Loans’ assistance, Lend Tech Loans was able to wrongfully obtain consumer reports for over 12 million additional consumers between 2017 and 2019,” the CFPB said.
All in all, Monster Loans, the company’s former president Thomas Chou, the company’s co-founder and “chief visionary officer” Sean Cowell, Lend Tech Loans, and a handful of debt relief companies allegedly conspired to bilk millions of people out of millions of dollars.
“Chou and Cowell were officers of Monster Loans, investors in the student-loan debt relief companies, and allegedly helped create the sham entity Lend Tech Loans,” the CFPB said. “The Bureau alleged that they participated in the (Fair Credit Reporting Act) violations and then received purported profits from the student-loan debt-relief companies. As alleged in the complaint, in reality, those profits represented funds that were wrongfully taken from consumers through unlawful conduct.”
The settlement with the CFPB imposes an $18 million redress judgment against Monster Loans, and orders Chou and Cowell to pay a civil penalty of $450,001.
But according to the CFPB, neither Monster Loans nor any of its associated companies have $18 million and can therefore not repay the affected the customers.
In the settlement agreement, the CFPB states that Monster Loans provided the agency with financial documents showing the company does not have the money to repay the affected customers.
Instead, the company will have to pay $200,000 in redress to customers. But the bureau states that if the company was not truthful in its attestation about its financial condition, the company will be required to pay the full $18 million.
As it stands now, if the proposed settlement is accepted by the court overseeing the matter, Monster Loans will pay a $1 civil penalty based on its documented inability to pay, Chou will pay a $350,000 penalty, and Cowell will pay a $100,000 penalty.
Beyond that, the settlement bans Monster Loans, Chou, and Cowell from the debt-relief industry.
Meanwhile, most of the customers who were taken by the alleged scheme likely won’t ever get their money back.