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April 23, 2012

Consumer protection: What to do when the consumer’s the threat?

How much for a cockroach in my take-out? What should the burger joint give me for gaining weight from eating their cheeseburgers? Consumers seeking a quick payday through frivolous lawsuits are old news in the food industry. What you may not know is that financial institutions must battle the same problem, as malicious actors twist consumer protection legislation for their own profit.

An American Banker article described how a federal court in Pennsylvania dismissed a lawsuit brought against a credit union claiming that one of their ATMs lacked a mandatory Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA) sticker disclosing fees. This was just one in a string of lawsuits filed by the same plaintiffs. Some financial institutions have decided to settle instead of taking their chances in court. Some of the plaintiffs mentioned in the American Banker article have apparently decided to make a living by scoping out ATMs where stickers have fallen off or been removed, making transactions at these machines, and then filing suit against the unsuspecting operator.

This consumer behavior represents a type of second-order compliance risk. In addition to the formal consequences of noncompliance with regulation, financial institutions (FI) must also consider that some bad actors may attempt to undermine their compliance efforts. As a practical matter, FIs can manage this risk by validating EFTA compliance each time the ATM is serviced. As the machine is being refilled with cash and receipt paper, servicers should check for the disclosure sticker and have extras on hand in case it has been removed. The FI should maintain records of verification and/or replacement.

These lawsuits also raise larger questions. The other week I blogged about how the Federal Reserve has at times attempted to correct market failures in the payments industry. However, the unintended consequences of legislation discussed in this post demonstrate that government failure is also a risk. Government failure is any time that a government intervention to overcome a market failure results in a less efficient outcome than if no action had been taken. The case of these ATM vigilantes shows that legislation meant to protect the consumer can sometimes be used to justify wasteful lawsuits. In addition to determining if there is a legitimate market failure to correct, policymakers also need to consider the potential for government failure and unintended consequences of regulation before passage.

Jennifer WindhBy Jennifer C. Windh, a senior payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

April 23, 2012 in ATM fraud , banks and banking | Permalink


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