A leading provider of merchant cash advances used deception to lure small business customers, then regularly withdrew money from their accounts without consent even after the customers had repaid the money they owed, according to a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit.
The FTC’s complaint against Yellowstone Capital, Fundry, founder and CEO Yitzhak Stern, and president Jeffrey Reece, alleges that they unlawfully withdrew millions of dollars in excess payments from their customers’ accounts, and to the extent they provided refunds, sometimes took weeks or even months to provide them.
“Small businesses are struggling right now and need responsible sources of financing,” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Making sure that lenders and funders don’t deceive business borrowers or engage in servicing abuses is a big priority for the FTC.”
Merchant cash advances are a form of financing in which the defendants provide money to a small business up front in exchange for a larger amount repaid through daily automatic payments.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Yellowstone has regularly withdrawn hundreds or thousands of dollars from businesses’ accounts for days after customers had repaid the full amounts owed in their contracts. In some cases, Yellowstone would only refund this money when businesses complained, and even then the refunds could take weeks or months, leaving small businesses without needed cash on hand. The complaint also cites examples of businesses being left with bank overdraft fees as a result of the unauthorized withdrawals.
In addition, the complaint alleges that for years Yellowstone deceived potential customers about the amount of money they would receive, with the amount shown on the contract not reflecting additional fees that would be deducted. According to the complaint, these fees totaled hundreds and even thousands of dollars, and were not revealed to business owners until, in some cases, after their contracts were signed, leading one business owner to tell the defendants, “you guys are like highway robbery.”
Beyond withdrawing unauthorized payments and failing to provide businesses the promised amounts, the complaint also alleges that the defendants relied on deceptive marketing to promote their services. Specifically, the complaint states that Yellowstone promised that business owners would not be required to provide collateral or be subject to a personal guaranty. These promises appeared in online ads and other forms of marketing, but in many instances Yellowstone’s contracts actually required business owners to be personally liable if their business failed to make repayments, as well as put the business and all of its property up as collateral.
The complaint alleges that these practices violated the FTC Act.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 4-0-1, with Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter recorded as not participating. Commissioner Rohit Chopra issued a statement. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the named defendants are violating or are about to violate the law and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.