WASHINGTON The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the owner of several tax-preparation outlets that allegedly steered low-income clients into expensive loans against their anticipated refunds.
The enforcement action against the New Mexico lender whose locations border the Navajo Nation was part of a coordinated effort with the Navajo Nation Attorney General and comes a day before the April 15 deadline to file 2014 taxes.
"This action puts lenders on notice that the Navajo Nation is prepared to enforce federal laws against predatory lenders to protect its citizens," Navajo Nation assistant attorney general Paul Spruhan said in a statement.
The CFPB is seeking $438,000 in redress to customers and a matching amount in civil penalties.
The lawsuit claims that Jeffrey Scott Thomas owned four H&R Block tax-preparation businesses that catered to low-income clients that were part of the Navajo Nation and directed them to another company he set up separately called "Southwest" that offered high interest rate and often unnecessary loans.
The CFPB and the Navajo Nation said H&R Block did not participate in the scheme and terminated its relationship with Thomas in September 2014. The CFPB also said that H&R Block typically offers more affordable lines of credit to customers, but that Thomas' franchises chose not to offer those products.
"Thomas set up S/W Tax Loans, Inc. ('Southwest') to offer his tax-preparation clients refund-anticipation loans, which were typically very expensive with triple-digit annual percentage rates," the CFPB said in a press release, and added that "by failing to disclose their financial interests in the loan products to which they were steering their customers, Thomas and his franchises were taking advantage of consumers and engaging in abusive practices."
CFPB Director Richard Cordray said on a conference call with reporters that the enforcement action is the first taken in conjunction with the tribal government since reaching a memorandum of understanding in 2013. On the same call, Spruhan said the coordination with the CFPB extends the tribal government's regulatory reach into border towns.
The CFPB lawsuit also named the owner and president of Southwest loans, Dennis Gonzales as a defendant and if the lawsuit is approved, Thomas and Gonzales will be banned from the tax refund-anticipation business for five years.