Two regulatory enforcement matters announced in April offer a view into the current mindset of regulators in the ever-evolving world of vendor management.  First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a $25 million settlement with a telecommunications carrier related to the unauthorized release of personal information of more than a quarter-million customers.  The identified cause of the data breach were employees of the carrier’s service providers based in Mexico, Columbia, and the Philippines, who confessed to selling customer information to unauthorized third parties.  In holding the carrier responsible, the FCC issued its largest data security enforcement action to date.  Although severe in its punishment, the FCC action did not break new ground, as regulators have shown an increasing willingness in recent years to assess monetary penalties against supervised institutions for legal violations committed by vendors.

“This approach is entirely consistent with the FCC’s past enforcement actions related to data security breaches, as well as those of other regulatory bodies where consumer harm has resulted,” advises Elizabeth McGinn, Partner in the D.C. office of BuckleySandler.  “In the current environment, virtually every regulator has made accountability a fundamental axiom of its vendor management guidance.”   

In the second action, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced that it had filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in connection with an allegedly illegal debt collection operation whereby a group of individuals and companies based in New York and Georgia attempted to collect debts that consumers did not owe or that collectors were not authorized to collect.  Specifically, the collectors allegedly placed “robo-calls” to millions of consumers stating that the consumers had engaged in check fraud and threatening them with legal action if they did not provide payment information. The CFPB asserts that, as a result, the debt collectors received millions of dollars in profits from the targeted consumers.

In addition, several service providers were named as defendants in the case because, according to the CFPB, the illegal scheme depended upon the participation of the service providers.  Specifically, the CFPB charged payment processors and a telephone broadcast provider hired by the debt collectors, because these service providers, in pertinent part, (i) “failed to conduct reasonable due diligence to detect unlawful conduct,” which helped to facilitate millions of dollars in ill-gotten profits, and (ii) transmitted robo-call messages created by the debt collectors that the service providers “knew or should have known … contributed to unlawful debt collection.”

“The CFPB is holding the vendors accountable in this case on the theory that the vendors had a duty to vet the business practices used by the debt collectors to determine if they were unfair or deceptive or violate the debt collections laws,” according to Moorari Shah, Counsel in BuckleySandler’s Los Angeles office. “Having to take responsibility for another entity’s wrongdoing is likely a wake-up call for many vendors, but the CFPB has now shown on several occasions that it intends to cast a wide net when it comes to protecting consumers from unwarranted harm, including over entities that may not have known they were subject to this type of supervision.”

The bottom line:  Compliance continues to be a significant outsourcing challenge for regulated institutions and their service providers.  Thorough due diligence and ongoing oversight are becoming an imperative to avoid guilt-by-association predicaments such as was the case in the recent FCC and CFPB actions.

McGinn and Shah suggest the following steps supervised institutions and service providers can take to adapt and comply with a rapidly changing regulatory and enforcement environment:

  • Commit to developing or enhancing compliance management systems to:
    • Establish compliance responsibilities;
    • Communicate those responsibilities to employees;
    • Ensure that responsibilities for meeting legal requirements and internal policies are incorporated into business processes;
    • Review operations to ensure responsibilities are carried out and legal requirements are met; and
    • Take corrective action and update tools, systems, and materials;
  • Review written policies and procedures including responsibilities for documenting compliance-related activities and regular reporting to senior management and the board of directors;
  • Monitor training for service provider employees to ensure that contractual responsibilities align with operational realities, including procedures to identify legal and regulatory issues for escalation and resolution;
  • Conduct regular on-site compliance audits of service provider operations, and proactively address issues discovered when reviewing service provider controls, performance, and information systems; and
  • Dedicate sufficient resources and personnel to vendor management and compliance activities especially with respect to pre-contract due diligence and ongoing monitoring during the term of the contract.

As data security, privacy, and vendor management issues continue to intersect, there are a number of new focal points that will be particularly relevant to service providers.  In that vein, BuckleySandler associates Stephen M. Ruckman and Anoush Garakani explore the impact of the new Open Internet Order on internet service providers in their article, What FCC’s Transparency Rule Means For Internet Privacy.  Ruckman, who recently left his post as Senior Policy Advisor in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, has extensive experience related to enforcement issues in the areas of consumer protection, privacy, and Internet policy, and has provided guidance on the privacy and data security components of the Commission’s new Open Internet Order.  Garakani, whose practice focuses on regulatory compliance issues for consumer finance companies, previously clerked at the Federal Trade Commission Division of Financial Practices.