The FTC has sued a seller of personal protective equipment (PPE), bringing its first PPE-related case under the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act (CCPA). The lawsuit demonstrates the FTC’s continued focus on COVID-19-related advertising practices. Although this is not the first time the FTC has brought an action for a failure to deliver PPE on time,
On April 20, 2021, Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Commissioners Rohit Chopra, Noah Phillips, and Christine Wilson testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and provided an overview of the FTC’s consumer protection priorities. In addition, the hearing addressed the Commission’s imperiled consumer redress authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act and the agency’s continuous efforts to combat COVID-19-related scams.
As we have previously written, the Supreme Court is set to decide the scope of FTC’s Section 13(b) authority to obtain a permanent injunction and equitable monetary relief. At the hearing, the Commission emphasized that Section 13(b) authority is the FTC’s “bread and butter” and requested that Congress clarify that authority. Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) showed an interest to move quickly with a legislative fix if the Supreme Court decides against the FTC. Specifically, Senator Cantwell gave two examples of how the FTC has used its Section 13(b) power to get consumer redress. In 2019, the FTC returned more than $34 million to consumers who were allegedly tricked into buying computer repair products and services, and the FTC sent settlement payments of nearly $50 million to students allegedly lured by a university’s deceptive advertisements that it worked with reputable companies to create job opportunities.
The FTC has filed its first lawsuit under the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, charging St. Louis-based chiropractor Eric Anthony Nepute and his company, Quickwork LLC, with violating the Act by deceptively marketing nutritional supplements as scientifically proven to treat or prevent COVID-19.
According to the FTC, despite its May 2020 warning letter to Nepute regarding unsubstantiated COVID-19 efficacy claims he made in connection with other products, the defendants continued marketing their vitamin and mineral products—namely, their “Wellness Warrior” vitamin D and zinc supplements—as proven immunity boosters that effectively treat or prevent COVID-19. The FTC also accuses the defendants of routinely dismissing public health guidance and falsely representing that their products provide protection against the disease that is equal to or better than that provided by available vaccines. The FTC’s complaint seeks both monetary penalties and broad injunctive relief.
The COVID-19 crisis has spawned a new wave of predatory behavior toward consumers, with the marketing of coronavirus-related products and untested cures. Regulators have responded to these behaviors swiftly and in a variety of ways. Richard Cleland, assistant director – division of advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Venable attorneys Melissa Steinman and Kristen Klesh addressed the advertising enforcement trends stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and offered their reflections on best practices for consumer protection.
How has the FTC addressed consumer complaints?
The FTC’s response to COVID-19-related violations has been a combination of education and enforcement. The agency recorded more than 130,000 complaints in approximately the first half of 2020; unsubstantiated health claims and health fraud are the main areas of concern. The FTC has issued more than 300 warning letters and has seen a high compliance rate (around 95%) with this course of action. These letters address claims that businesses are promoting the cure or treatment of COVID-19 through:
- dietary supplements or treatment in medical or wellness clinics in the form of herbal teas, essential oils, vitamins, zinc, immunity boost IVs, chiropractic, homeopathic, other therapies, virus-killing “zappers,” and colloidal silver
- anti-vaccine messaging
The FTC has also filed three federal court actions related to COVID-19 consumer fraud and the agency is conducting extensive consumer education campaigns related to health fraud and coronavirus scams. The FTC website examines various types of health and economic fraud related to the epidemic.
Given all the tumult with natural disasters, COVID-19, and other goings on in Washington, a memorandum directing government agencies to reform how they operate may have gone unnoticed. It’s worth considering. On August 31, 2020, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a subagency within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued Memorandum M-20-31 (the “Memo”), which elaborates on and implements directives from a prior executive order to consider and adopt certain best practices and procedures to promote fairness in administrative enforcement and adjudication. The Memo directs federal agencies to adopt measures aimed at according greater due process to individual and company targets for investigations and enforcement actions, and to promote transparency and accountability in the initiation and pursuit of administrative actions. The Memo’s directives usher in the potential for long-overdue substantive and procedural revisions to the rules of practice for independent agencies.
By way of background, the President signed Executive Order 13924, “Executive Order on Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery,” on May 19, 2020, in response to economic impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. EO 13924 directs federal agencies to “address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, and waiving or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery” as enumerated in Section 6. The OIRA Memo sets forth specific best practices for implementing changes for the ten principles in Section 6 and sets a deadline of November 26, 2020 for agencies to engage in any necessary rulemaking to implement them.
The guidance will apply to all federal government departments and agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and many others.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every business over the past few weeks, companies offering negative option and subscription programs face a unique set of issues. On the one hand, the subscription model offers consumers benefits that are difficult to provide outside of this context (such as streaming services, online learning programs, and uninterrupted access). On the other hand, business interruptions — in addition to consumers tightening their budgets — have presented significant hurdles to the subscription model during the current pandemic.
For example, the current shutdown has prevented many companies that offer membership programs from continuing to provide these services to consumers, such as gyms, access passes, and in-person events. As a result, customers have increasingly begun to cancel their memberships to avoid paying for services that companies simply cannot fulfill. Online services are not immune to the fallout, as consumers who are tightening their belts and looking for ways to reduce spending have started cancelling recurring billing services, which they may view as unnecessary in the present circumstances.
Last week, the FTC filed its first lawsuit involving COVID-19 disease claims, but the Commission took an approach it had largely abandoned in consumer protection cases, by filing for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in federal court and simultaneously filing an administrative action. Although COVID-19 claims are new, the procedural approach taken by the FTC is one that it has not used in years.
On April 24, the FTC filed a Complaint for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, in FTC v. Marc Ching. The Complaint alleged that the defendant, Marc Ching doing business as Whole Leaf Organics, disseminated false or unsubstantiated advertisements that its product, Thrive, treated, prevented, or reduced the risk of COVID-19. In addition, the defendant marketed a cannabidiol (CBD) product that it claimed could treat cancer.
The defendant had been the recipient of a warning letter from the federal Food and Drug Administration in November 2019, which warned the defendant that it was making unapproved new drug claims in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by claiming that its CBD products are intended for use in the mitigation, treatment, or prevention of diseases. According to the complaint, the defendant did not remove the unapproved drug claims from its website.
The FTC continues to devote substantial time and attention to its enforcement battle against companies seeking to take unfair advantage of consumers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, the FTC announced its latest round of warning letters to ten companies making unsubstantiated claims that their products can treat or prevent the disease.
Times of national crisis tend to trigger an uptick in charitable solicitations and charitable giving. And for-profit businesses, including recognizable retail brands, want to do all they can to help as well. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, with its far-ranging economic and societal repercussions, many brands are engaging in coronavirus-related commercial co-venture (CCV) activities and cause marketing promotions, advertising to consumers that purchase or use of their product or service will benefit a charity or a charitable purpose.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a delayed federal income tax filing deadline, mortgage relief programs, and other types of suspended governmental requirements, the regulations applicable to charitable sales promotions and the commercial coventurers who carry them on remain fully in place. In some ways, compliance with these rules—particularly disclosure requirements—is more important than ever given the increased desire to act now and do good. There is no “pandemic exception” for compliance with states’ CCV laws, or state and federal truth‑in-advertising laws. Indeed, while states may accommodate reasonable filing or registration delays caused by COVID-related business interruptions and the FTC similarly has acknowledged the strain on all businesses right now, these regulators will also crack down on marketing abuses that take advantage of consumers’ generosity or fear during the pandemic. For brands wanting to capitalize on the moment, keep in mind the following basics when it comes to conducting a compliant campaign:
Following the Trump administration’s declaration of a public health emergency at the end of January, numerous states have successively declared states of emergency due to the coronavirus health crisis. These declarations triggered many states’ price gouging laws, which typically outlaw the sale or rental of essential goods and services, for example, water, toilet paper, protective masks, hand sanitizer, fuel, power, etc., at an unconscionable or unreasonably high price. In states without price gouging laws, lawmakers are drafting legislation prohibiting similar acts and are using state consumer protection laws to prosecute price gouging behavior in the interim. Nationwide, state attorneys general are aggressively enforcing price gouging laws. Moreover, on March 25, 33 state attorneys general sent letters to the CEOs of Amazon, Craigslist, and several other online platforms calling on the companies to take measures to prevent price gouging on their online platforms.
While the concept of price gouging is not a new one — many of these laws have been on the books for years and were used to prosecute bad actors after events such as 9/11, hurricanes, and even particularly bad flu years — what is unusual now is the national scope of the coronavirus emergency and the level of involvement of the federal government. On Monday, March 23, the president signed an executive order to prevent hoarding and price gouging of crucial medical supplies. It authorizes criminal prosecution of anyone whose purchases exceed reasonable limits. Attorney General Barr concurrently announced that the Justice Department has already launched hoarding investigations to carry out the order. Add this to the (majority of) states pursuing the issue along with the online platforms, and the risk that accompanies violation of the price gouging laws increases significantly — particularly if you sell medical supplies and equipment. …
Continue Reading Caveat Venditor: Coronavirus Emergency Declarations Trigger Patchwork of Price Gouging Laws, Executive Order, Investigations