As part of the same probe, officials are scrutinizing at least three other companies, according to public filings: card issuers American Express and Discover Financial Services; and Intersections Inc., which provides the add-on services sold by banks.
American Express and Discover have said in public filings that they expect similar enforcement actions and have overhauled their marketing of add-on products. Intersections, whose biggest bank customers are Bank of America and Citigroup, is cooperating with regulators. All three declined to comment on the probe.
The consumer bureau's history is short and contentious.
In the wake of the 2008 meltdown, advocates argued that existing regulators had allowed risky and abusive financial practices to spread and inflate a disastrous housing bubble. On the other side were Republican lawmakers and bank lobbyists who said the bureau would duplicate the efforts of existing bank regulators and the Federal Trade Commission.
The bureau's champions — mainly Democrats and consumer advocates — won, and in July 2011 it took over enforcement of 18 existing consumer laws. Since then, it has used a range of powers to clamp down on what it calls problematic lending, misleading marketing and secret deals between companies that end up costing consumers.
The bureau can't indict people or companies criminally; it refers possible criminal cases to the Department of Justice.
Still, the agency's office of enforcement wields a potent tool: the threat of civil charges against violators of consumer laws involving money transfers, foreclosures, payday loans and virtually every other financial product or service used by consumers.
Companies that inhabit these financial backwaters have never faced strict, ongoing oversight by federal officials. They say they feel dragged down by the costs of responding to the investigations.
For some banks and industrial lenders, the new oversight may be so costly that they stop offering some products, says Bill Himpler, vice president of the American Financial Services Association, a trade group for card companies, mortgage lenders and finance companies. He says the bureau's tactics put companies on the defensive.
"It doesn't leave somebody with the best feeling that what they're trying to do is ensure compliance so much as create a gotcha situation," Himpler says.
Kent Markus, who heads up the bureau's enforcement office, says the costs are necessary to make sure companies aren't preying on consumers. "We want to make it more expensive to break the law than to abide by it," he says.
Companies that receive subpoenas didn't necessarily do anything wrong. The documents, officially called civil investigative demands, mean the officials are probing an issue that the company is involved in. Both the agency and the companies are barred from discussing these early investigations, and declined to comment on them.
Among the other cases occupying the 100-odd lawyers, analysts and accountants working for the consumer bureau's enforcement division:
— Mortgage-insurance companies transferred billions of dollars to banks that offered mortgage loans. The money came from hefty premiums charged to borrowers who couldn't afford big down payments. Critics say the deals amounted to insurers paying the banks kickbacks in exchange for a slice of their customers' business. Mortgage insurers say the deals were permitted by their previous regulator, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Radian Group Inc., Genworth Financial Inc., American International Group Inc. and MGIC Investment Corp. all received subpoenas, according to their public filings.
— High-cost loans made by auto dealers and resold to banks or investors. Loans to borrowers with spotty credit histories can carry additional fees and interest rates many times the rates on mainstream loans. The consumer bureau issued a subpoena to DriveTime Automotive Group Inc., which bills itself as the nation's largest car dealer targeting people with bad credit. The company says it is cooperating.