On December 20, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued FleetCor Technologies, Inc., a fuel card marketer, and Ronald Clark, its CEO, in the Northern District of Georgia. The FTC lawsuit alleges that FleetCor charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden fees, making its promises about helping customers save on fuel costs false. The Defendants market various payment cards, including fuel cards, to companies in the trucking and commercial fleet industry. While the FTC interprets its authority to cover businesses, as it chose to do here, it does not often do so. The FTC’s vote to authorize the filing of the complaint was 4-1, with Commissioner Wilson voting no, and Commissioner Philips voting yes, but dissenting on the inclusion of Clarke as an individual defendant. In its complaint, the FTC cited numerous actions of the CEO that allegedly showed his awareness of FleetCor’s deceptive practices. FleetCor issued its own press release in response to the FTC’s suit denying the allegations.
According to the FTC, FleetCor made three main claims to customers: (1) its customers will save money; (2) the fuel cards utilize fraud controls to protect against unauthorized transactions; and (3) the cards have no set-up, transaction, or membership fees. Despite these promises, FleetCor allegedly charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars for unexpected fees and recurring fees for programs its customers never ordered.
As alleged in the complaint, FleetCor advertised that customers would achieve specific per‑gallon savings with the use of its fuel cards, despite Clarke and others knowing that customers, including small and medium sized businesses, do not actually achieve the advertised claimed savings. Those savings were illusory, according to the FTC, due to hidden fees costing more than any savings at the pump and FleetCor’s exclusion of transactions at large retailers from discounts and rebates — exclusions that were disclosed only in the fine print.
Beyond burying fees in the fine print, the FTC alleges that FleetCor also would often wait a few billing cycles before charging its various fees. The FTC stated that even if FleetCor’s customers read the “small-print, multi-page T&Cs” a customer would not be able to determine what fees would be charged from one billing cycle to the next, or how fees could be avoided, or even what the fees would cost.
FleetCor is also accused of disclosing fees separately from the customers’ invoice, and sometimes without description. This forced customers proactively to seek information about fees being charged. At times, the “total” amounts shown on the separate documentation from the invoice would allegedly differ from the first page to the last page, where one total included fees and another did not. In addition, FleetCor allegedly charged customers without authorization for numerous programs. In some instances, FleetCor disclosed how to avoid the automatic charge in small type at the bottom or middle of a mailer, and in others did not disclose the information at all.
Separate from the issue of hidden fees, FleetCor advertised its fraud controls and protections, including limiting the use of its card to fuel purchases only. In reality, however, drivers were able to purchase non-fuel items, like beer, with their cards at fueling locations. When enterprise customers complained about unauthorized transactions on “fuel only” cards, FleetCor allegedly refused to issue refunds. FleetCor’s terms and conditions state that customers have to pay charges even if they were outside the authorized parameters for the card set by the customer, directly contravening Defendants promises about the ability to stop unauthorized purchases on cards designated for fuel purchases. The FTC stated that customers “do not expect” they will be on the hook for paying for fraudulent transactions when FleetCor’s controls do not work as advertised.
Ultimately, the FTC was not impressed by FleetCor’s disclosures in its terms and conditions or its billing practices. The language in the T&Cs and the actual information in the invoices left key information out. A company’s promise is only as good as its actions. Despite FleetCor’s promise to help customers save on fuel costs, its alleged actions had the opposite effect. The FTC will continue to use its authority to pursue protection for consumers, whether the more typical group of individuals, or businesses.