Ellen Berge provides counsel on regulatory compliance, government investigations, contract negotiations, and general business matters. Ellen focuses on advertising, marketing practices, payment processing, and merchant services. Her clients include major brand advertisers and direct-response retailers, and lead generators, telemarketers, media agencies, software providers, and others who serve them. On the merchant services side, she leads a practice that works with banks, processors, sales agents, payment facilitators, independent software vendors, and fintech and financial services businesses. Ellen also serves as the firm's managing partner of Professional Development and Recruiting.

Through a new interpretive rule announced this week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has declared that digital marketing providers can be held liable under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) if they engage in or substantially assist unfair, deceptive or abusive practices in advertising financial products on behalf of banks and nonbanks covered by the CFPA.

While service providers to “covered persons” under the CFPA are already subject to the Act, Congress carved out an exception for service providers offering or providing to covered persons “time or space for an advertisement for a consumer financial product or service through print, newspaper, or electronic media.” The CFPB’s new rule limits the applicability of that exemption to digital marketing providers such that the “electronic media” prong is very nearly void.

Continue Reading CFPB Warning to Consumer Financial Services Digital Marketing Providers

Webinar | July 19, 2022 | 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. ET | REGISTER

Although the concept is not new, challenges to “dark patterns” are rising all over the country.  The Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, state attorneys general, and class action plaintiffs increasingly cite this phrase in such complaints as deceptively enrolling consumers

With several new state laws effective in 2022, it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to develop baseline compliance protocols across federal and state automatic renewal laws.

Against this backdrop, federal and state regulators continue to examine the sales practices of companies that sell products and services on an automatically renewing basis; states continue to pass new laws—and strengthen existing laws—that further embolden private plaintiffs and class action lawsuits; and the card brands have imposed increasingly strict requirements on companies offering products and services on a negative option basis.

Here we break down the compliance challenges posed by varying state laws addressing automatic renewal programs (also known as continuous service, continuity, subscription, or negative option programs), how newer card brand rules further stir the pot, and the low-hanging fruit that law enforcement agencies and private plaintiffs are going after for monetary redress and injunctive relief.

Continue Reading State Automatic Renewal Laws Are Starting to Look Like a Patchwork Quilt as the FTC Expands Enforcement of ROSCA

The explosion in Buy-Now-Pay-Later (BNPL) has caught the eyes of lawmakers and regulators, who are taking a closer look at this booming industry.

BNPL payment offers allow consumers to purchase goods or services now and pay for them over time, often through a short series of installments (for example, four payments spaced two weeks apart). Industry researchers have found that Gen Z consumers increased their use of BNPL products from 6% in 2019 to 36% in 2021. However, with this growth, lawmakers and regulators have voiced concerns about BNPL, including that consumers may easily spend more than they can afford and rack up multiple BNPL purchases with varying payment schedules and payment terms.

Read our 360 Degree Analysis of Buy-Now-Pay-Pater Products

The list of consumer protection concerns raised by lawmakers and regulators is long. Consumers may face late fees, fees for failed payments, payment rescheduling fees, early payoff fees, account reactivation fees, or other fees charged by BNPL providers that may not be readily apparent.

Continue Reading The Buy-Now-Pay-Later Boom Gets Consumer Protection Attention

Mastercard recently announced new requirements for merchants using a subscription billing model or negative option model, or both.  The new standards focus on disclosures made to consumers at the point of payment; providing adequate confirmation, notices, and billing receipts; and affording customers an online or electronic cancellation method.  Requirements relating to point of payment disclosures become effective on September 22, 2022.  The other requirements will become effective much sooner, on March 22, 2022.  As always, reconciling card brand requirements with current federal and state legal requirements and law enforcement priorities will take particular care and attention, particularly as laws in California and other states continue to evolve.

The Mastercard updates, like those imposed by other card brands, are intended to reduce complaints and chargebacks from consumers who might not understand they were enrolled in an automatic renewal subscription or negative option program (or who do not understand the billing terms), forgot they enrolled, or have difficulty canceling their subscriptions.

As we summarize below, the new Mastercard requirements apply to merchants using subscription/recurring billing models, including programs that charge a consumer for goods or services on a prearranged schedule (such as streaming video services, membership clubs, and software licenses).  Mastercard included certain additional requirements for negative option programs, where the merchant offers an initial free or discounted trial period of a subscription before automatically enrolling the consumer into the subscription, and the consumer must take some action to cancel before the end of the trial to avoid continuing with the subscription.
Continue Reading New Mastercard Requirements for Subscription and Negative Option Billing Models

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued Notices of Penalty Offenses regarding for-profit education, endorsements and testimonials, and money-making opportunities. Prior to this year, the FTC had used its Penalty Offense authority only once in this century. So why the sudden rebirth? In this webinar, Venable attorneys examined the FTC’s authority in this area, the substance of the notices, and their broad implications.

What Is a Penalty Offense?

Under the Penalty Offense authority, the FTC can seek civil penalties against a company or individual if it proves that they had actual knowledge that the FTC had already issued a written decision (after an administrative trial) against another entity that the same conduct was unfair or deceptive in violation of Section 5(m)(1)(b) of the FTC Act. Section 5 enables the FTC to hold the person, partnership, or corporation liable for a civil penalty of up to $43,792 per violation.

In the last few weeks, the FTC has sent out three different notices. The purpose of these notices was to allow the FTC to argue that the recipients had actual knowledge that the FTC had previously ruled certain acts or practices to be unfair or deceptive. Each of the letters specifies that the FTC is not singling out recipients or suggesting recipients are violating the law, which signifies that this is part of an effort to effect broad changes in industry behavior.

Continue Reading FTC’s Notice of Penalty Offenses: What Do They Mean for You?

In the latest example of its creative use of different enforcement tools to obtain monetary relief in the wake of the Supreme Court’s AMG opinion, the FTC has resurrected a dormant authority to hold companies accountable, via significant financial penalties, for unfair and deceptive business practices.

This week the FTC announced that it has put 70 for-profit higher education institutions—including some of the largest for-profit colleges and vocational schools across the country—on notice that the agency is scrutinizing false promises made about graduates’ job opportunities, earnings prospects, and other career outcomes.

The FTC is resurrecting its Penalty Offense Authority, found in Section 5(m) of the FTC Act, “to deter wrongdoing and hold accountable bad actors who abuse students and taxpayers,” according to FTC Chair Lina M. Khan. Under this section of the statute, the FTC can obtain penalties against other entities not party to the original proceeding if it can show the entity had actual knowledge that the act had been found to be unfair or deceptive.

Continue Reading FTC Invokes Penalty Offense Authority to Crack Down on For-Profit Education Industry

Game developers and platform providers are increasingly integrating non-fungible tokens (NFTs), virtual currencies, and digital marketplaces into their games and platforms, creating seamless, novel, and interactive experiences. While the industry has moved ahead quickly, federal and state regulators are taking a much closer look at how these technologies fit within existing legal frameworks.

In a recent webinar, partner Ellen Berge and associate Chris Boone of Venable’s Advertising Law and Payments groups explored the latest regulatory developments and addressed how to spot and avoid compliance and regulatory risks associated with NFTs, virtual currencies, and other platform-based monetization mechanics. We received insightful questions from members of the audience, which our lawyers answer below.

Continue Reading You Asked, We Answered: NFTs and Virtual Currency in Games: Compliance Issues and Legal Risks

The laws and regulations surrounding subscription-based offers continue to change on a regular basis. Federal and state regulators and private plaintiffs continue to lodge challenges against companies selling products and services on a recurring basis. Moreover, new cases and law enforcement activity offer evolving interpretations on how to comply. Given the substantial developments, companies offering products or services on an automatically renewing basis should take heed.

The primary federal regulator of autorenewal programs, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), remains as active as ever in enforcing the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), the federal statute governing online negative option programs. The FTC has filed multiple new lawsuits against companies selling products and services on a negative option basis and continues to litigate cases that it has filed.

The district attorneys in the California Automatic Renewal Task Force have also continued to bring actions at a furious pace, demonstrating their clear intention to pick up where the FTC has left off. In fact, the task force recently filed a lawsuit in California state court against Match.com, even though the FTC had already filed a lawsuit against the company. The California district attorneys also announced settlements with Classmates.com, Home Chef, CheckPeople.com, and Care.com, among other companies, and the consent decrees have imposed increasingly stringent requirements on the settling businesses.

Continue Reading Automatic Renewal Programs: Latest Updates

On October 19, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission issued its annual report to Congress regarding the FTC’s efforts to protect senior citizens from fraud and abuse. In the report, the FTC noted that adults over 60 are more likely to report losing money to certain types of alleged scams, including romance scams, imposter scams, and online shopping programs. Moreover, the FTC reports that seniors were more than six times more likely than younger consumers to report that they lost money because of tech support phishing activities, and three times more likely to report losing money because of lottery scams.

In a separate statement, Commissioner Rohit Chopra said the agency’s analysis suggests the need for two key actions. These actions, and Commissioner Chopra’s statement generally, indicate that the FTC is considering how to move forward in the face of the Supreme Court’s potential erosion of its favored enforcement tool—Section 13(b).  His comments also have important implications for payment processors and other financial intermediaries that are facing inquiries from the FTC.

First, he recommended that the agency focus its enforcement actions on “larger, established firms,” rather than “smaller-scale scammers.” As an example, he pointed to the FTC’s settlement with payment processor Fiserv (formerly known as First Data) as a “model[] for the entire agency.” Commissioner Chopra believes that such enforcement actions against larger corporations would be a “better use of resources” and “more likely to lead to effective relief and systemic impact.”
Continue Reading FTC Commissioner Warns Larger Companies and Payment Processors, Seeks Greater Financial Penalties