The Federal Trade Commission levied a civil penalty of $7.5 million on St. Petersburg-based home lender Mortgage Investors Corp., the largest fine ever for a violation of the "Do Not Call" telemarketing rule.
Mortgage Investors, which is run by well-known St. Petersburg businessman and civic activist Bill Edwards, called more than 5.4 million phone numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry to pitch home loan refinancing services to current and former members of the U.S. military, according to the FTC.
As part of the pitch, the FTC said, the telemarketers allegedly led service members to believe they could receive low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages at no cost, "often quoting rates that they implied would last the duration of their loan."
In reality, regulators said, the company was only offering adjustable rate mortgages which left consumers liable for higher payments with rising interest rates. It also required consumers to pay closing costs.
Further, the FTC said, Mortgage Investors allegedly misled consumers about a corporate affiliation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Do Not Call list was created to protect consumers from unwanted calls from telemarketers. Since 2003, about 221 million U.S. consumers have registered for the program, which the FTC describes as one of the agency's "most recognized consumer protection achievements."
The FTC announced the fine on Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the Do Not Call Registry. At the same time, it announced the first settlements coming out of a 2012 inquiry into companies that made millions of illegal pre-recorded calls. The calls from "Cardholder Services" were designed to persuade consumers to make up-front payments to lower their credit card interest rates.
"Today's settlements leave no doubt that (Do Not Call) enforcement remains a top priority," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement Thursday.
The fine against Mortgage Investors was the 105th enforcement action under Do Not Call provisions, but the first one targeting misleading mortgage ads under the Mortgage Acts and Practices — Advertising Rule.
Under the proposed consent decree, the company is barred from calling people on the Do Not Call Registry and denying consumer requests to be placed on specific Do Not Call lists. It also is barred from misrepresenting any terms related to its mortgage products and misrepresenting affiliations with any government entity, including the VA.
The consent decree, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, is subject to court approval, regulators said.
A spokesman for Mortgage Investors declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Lesli Esposito, outside counsel representing the mortgage firm, said she could not discuss the substance of the proposed settlement until it is approved.
However, by entering into the agreement, Mortgage Investors does not admit or agree to any of the allegations, Esposito said. "We simply made the decision to resolve the matter so we can move forward."
Founded in 1938, Mortgage Investors has grown into one of the country's biggest refinancers of veterans' home loans. Along with its ascendancy, owner Bill Edwards has assumed a prominent civic role in St. Petersburg. He secured a contract to manage the city-owned Mahaffey Theater and bought downtown St. Petersburg's BayWalk complex with plans to revitalize it as the renamed Shops at St. Pete.
Outside the mortgage industry, Edwards also carved a reputation as a music producer with his Big 3 Entertainment, producing records for artists such as American Idol finalist Michael Lynche, Cheap Trick and Carnie Wilson.
Earlier this year, Edwards said he planned to retire and arranged to sell Mortgage Investors to Tampa-based HomeBancorp. But the deal never went through.
In a recent interview with the Times, Edwards said the sale got bogged down waiting for government approval "so we just took it back."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]