NEW YORK (AP) — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Wednesday sued USASF Servicing, the financial arm of a chain of auto dealerships found mostly in the South, alleging the company committed a laundry list of illegal practices, like disabling borrowers’ cars, double-billing customers, and illegally repossessing cars.
The bureau is seeking to get millions of dollars in refunds for thousands of USASF customers, as well as impose fines and penalties against the Georgia-based company.
USASF is affiliated with U.S. Auto Sales, a dealership chain that sold used cars mostly to customers with low incomes or bad credit that operated a “buy here, pay here” business model at its 31 dealerships. U.S. Auto Sales mostly shut down its dealership operations in April, but USASF is still operating as the loan servicer for the company.
The CFPB said that, since 2016, USASF illegally disabled borrowers’ cars using what are known as “kill switches,” which remotely disable a vehicle when a borrower does not keep up with payments. It’s a common but controversial practice, as it cuts the financially struggling borrower off from likely their primary mode of transportation to work.
USASF incorrectly disabled vehicles roughly 7,500 times when a customer was not in default, and disabled at least another 1,500 vehicles when the company told the customer it would not do so. The company admitted to the bureau that it erroneously transmitted “warning tones” — audio signals sent to the vehicle warning their cars might be shut off — more than 71,000 times. These tones would often cause stress or anxiety to customers, making them call USASF, when they may not have been in default.
The company also allegedly double charged roughly 34,000 customers for insurance, and misapplied loan payments toward insurance premiums and late fees instead of principal and interest against thousands of other customers. The bureau alleges customers paid more than $1 million in interest and fees if USASF had correctly serviced the loans.
“Given the rising cost of cars during the pandemic and jump in auto loan debt across the country, the CFPB is working to root out illegal activity in this market,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in a statement.
U.S. Auto Sales is owned by the Pennsylvania private equity firm Milestone Partners. Three Milestone executives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bureau’s lawsuit.