Business News for April 12, 2022

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued the credit-reporting firm TransUnion and a former senior executive — John Danaher, who led the company’s consumer sales unit — for violating a 2017 order to stop using deceptive tactics to lure customers into recurring subscription payments.

“TransUnion is an out-of-control repeat offender that believes it is above the law,” said Rohit Chopra, the bureau’s director.

After the 2017 order, TransUnion used hard-to-spot fine print on its website and enrollment forms to lure customers into recurring charges for its products, the bureau said. For example, TransUnion ran ads on annualcreditreport.com — the official site where consumers can obtain one free credit report a year from each of the three major bureaus — that, when clicked, diverted people to a sign-up form for paid credit monitoring, according to the bureau.

Hundreds of people complained that they had tried to get their free annual report and instead ended up enrolled in a paid monthly subscription, the bureau said in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in federal court in Chicago, where TransUnion is based.

TransUnion said in a written statement that the bureau’s claims against both it and Mr. Danaher “are meritless and in no way reflect the consumer-first approach we take to managing all our businesses.”

Mr. Danaher who for many years led TransUnion Interactive, the company’s consumer sales subsidiary, moved into an “advisory role” last April in preparation for his planned retirement in February, the company said in a regulatory report filed last year.

Mr. Danaher’s lawyers, Jeff Knox and Brooke Cucinella of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, said in a written statement: “These claims are without merit, and this lawsuit demonstrates that the C.F.P.B. is focused more on politically expedient headlines than the facts or the law. Mr. Danaher very much looks forward to his day in court.”

Mr. Chopra, who has called for harsher punishments for firms that repeatedly violated consumer protection laws, said the bureau had taken the rare step of charging a company official personally because Mr. Danaher’s actions were “egregious.”

Mr. Danaher “knew that following the law would reduce corporate revenue” and “concocted a plan to dodge it and work around it,” Mr. Chopra said.

The bureau is asking the court for financial restitution for consumers from the defendants, other penalty payments and an order barring the company from violating federal consumer protection laws.

TransUnion is one of the three major credit bureaus, along with Equifax and Experian. They make most of their money selling credit reports to merchants and lenders but also sell credit monitoring products directly to consumers. On its website, TransUnion advertises that it has “200 million files profiling nearly every credit-active consumer in the United States.”

In the 2017 case, TransUnion paid nearly $14 million to consumers and a $3 million civil penalty to resolve claims that it had lured consumers into recurring payments and made false statements about the credit scores it sold to consumers. Without admitting to any past wrongdoing, TransUnion also agreed to five years of heightened monitoring by the bureau to confirm its compliance with federal consumer laws.

The consumer bureau said in its latest suit that it had told TransUnion multiple times, starting in 2019 and continuing through 2021, that the company had violated the 2017 order. But the company didn’t alter its behavior, Mr. Chopra said at a news conference.

“TransUnion’s leadership is either unwilling or incapable of operating its businesses lawfully,” Mr. Chopra said.

The bureau said in its complaint that Mr. Danaher had taken a number of steps to skirt the order. That included halting the rollout of an affirmative “opt-in” checkbox intended to stop unintended subscription enrollments.

“I do not take the decision to charge individuals lightly, but based on the evidence uncovered in the investigation, I believe it was appropriate,” Mr. Chopra said. He added that if the bureau’s investigation uncovered other evidence of wrongdoing by senior leaders, the bureau would amend its complaint to personally charge them as well.

TransUnion said in its prepared statement that it had attempted to abide by the terms of the agreement but was met with silence when it sought guidance from the bureau.

“Despite TransUnion’s months-long, good faith efforts to resolve this matter, C.F.P.B.’s current leadership refused to meet with us,” the company said. It added that the bureau’s “unrealistic and unworkable demands have left us with no alternative but to defend ourselves fully.”

TransUnion disclosed in a regulatory filing in February that it was in discussions with the consumer bureau about its compliance with the 2017 consent order, and expected the agency to sue if the company did not settle the case. TransUnion set aside $27 million and said it foresaw a “reasonable possibility” of further expenses.

Mr. Chopra, who worked on the consumer bureau’s creation in 2010 and 2011 and rejoined the agency last year as its director, is known as an aggressive regulator and has openly spoken of his frustration with how some companies break the law again and again. He wants regulators to go beyond fines and impose penalties — like license revocations or growth caps — that truly hurt, he has said.

“We must forcefully address repeat lawbreakers to alter company behavior and ensure companies realize it is cheaper, and better for their bottom line, to obey the law than to break it,” Mr. Chopra said in a speech last month.

Ed Mills, a policy analyst at Raymond James, a financial services firm, said the suit was a warning shot to the financial industry — and a reversal from the agency’s meekness during the Trump administration.

“It’s almost like a bad movie title: ‘The C.F.P.B. Is Back’ — and This Time, It’s Personal,’” Mr. Mills said. “Chopra was very clear in that speech that he did not believe that paying fines or entering consent decrees changes behavior. One of the only ways he was going to change behavior is by going after individuals for personal liability.”