The Federal Trade Commission’s May 2022 open meeting, Alvaro Bedoya’s first since being sworn in as the agency’s fifth commissioner on May 16, considered a request for public comment on proposed amendments to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. After a staff presentation on commissioners’ proposed updates and statements, the agency unanimously approved the request for public comment.

The Endorsement Guides, first issued in 1980 and last amended in 2009, reflect the commission’s interpretation of how the FTC Act applies to endorsements and testimonials in advertising. Proposed updates to the guides include the following:

Continue Reading FTC Approves Request for Public Comment on Updates to Endorsements and Testimonials Guides

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) moved to dismiss its long-running enforcement action against Electronic Payment Solutions (EPS) pending in the District of Arizona after the Commission voted 4-0 to approve a final settlement with EPS and certain of its owners. The case against EPS, a third-party payment processor, is just the most recent example

“Free” must mean free?

Last week, the attorneys general for all 50 states and the District of Columbia announced a settlement with Intuit, Inc., the owner of TurboTax, which will require the company to hand over $141 million to consumers as restitution for allegedly tricking consumers into paying for tax-filing services when they qualified for free tax-filing services.

Recently, we wrote about the Federal Trade Commission’s legal action against Intuit for its advertisements regarding “free” tax-filing services. In that action, the FTC sought to definitively resolve that very question. As part of last week’s settlement agreement, Intuit will cease its advertising campaign promoting its “free, free, free” services in addition to paying the hefty restitution sum. The state settlement essentially ended the FTC action as well.

While the states’ investigation overlapped with the FTC’s action concerning Intuit’s alleged bait-and-switch advertising (i.e., representing the service is “free” but later requiring an upgrade to a paid version), their investigation also had another focus: “dark patterns,” which refers to a digital design feature that is intended to subtly influence a consumer’s online decisions.

Continue Reading Intuit Will Pay $141 Million in State Attorneys General Settlement Over Deceptive TurboTax Advertising

The FTC held its most recent open meeting on Thursday, and two major topics were front and center: potential changes to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and a congressional fix to Section 13(b) after the one-year anniversary of AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC.

In its first order of business, the Commission unanimously voted to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR) and an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), which address several proposed updates to the TSR. The NPR is further along in the rulemaking process, where it seeks comment on the published proposed rule.

Continue Reading FTC’s Spring Open Meeting Brings Potential Rule Changes and Plea to Congress

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint in the Northern District of Illinois against the Saint James School of Medicine (SJSM), an Illinois-based for-profit medical school, claiming its Caribbean medical programs deceived consumers with fake student success rates and offers to finance students’ attendance with illegal lending contracts.

Over the last several years, the FTC has focused on for-profit higher education institutions and allegedly deceptive money-making claims, which the FTC challenges as flawed and costly get-rich-quick schemes. Its move last week suggests that the agency remains highly focused on alleged deception of any type involving paying money to make money, regardless of the format.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that SJSM advertises its Caribbean medical programs as an affordable alternative to American medical schools. However, SJSM also allegedly draws students into the program by advertising that more than 96% of its students pass the USMLE Step 1 exam—a critical standardized medical school test—the first time they take it. In fact, the FTC alleges that the passage rate for SJSM students since 2017 is 35%, and that is only for students who are allowed to take the exam after meeting prerequisites set by the school. The FTC claims that the true passage rates are disclosed to students only in hard-to-find areas of SJSM’s website and are buried in a student handbook that students receive only after SJSM has collected their reservation fees.

Continue Reading The FTC Moves Its Attention to A For-Profit Medical School

A lawsuit filed by the CFPB last week against a national credit reporting agency provides some insight into the types of website features and designs that regulators like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Trade Commission will target. As we covered previously, digital dark patterns—or website design, features, and interfaces used to allegedly deceive, steer, and manipulate users—are a priority for both rulemaking and enforcement actions by the FTC. Although the focus has been on website features that “trick or trap” consumers into subscriptions, the potential for broad and arbitrary application of this concept is worrisome. What is the line between a website that is acceptably optimized for conversion and one that is illegally steering users to make purchases?

In the highly detailed complaint, the CFPB alleged, among other things, that the net impression of various advertising messages, combined with the design of the webpage where users landed when clicking on the ads, obscured the nature of the offer (a month-to-month subscription of a credit-monitoring service and credit score), the status of a user’s enrollment in the service, and the purpose of collecting a user’s payment information.

More specifically, the complaint described how call-to-action buttons, email subject lines, font color and size, text placement, and website flow were employed to confuse consumers who were seeking information about or copies of their annual free credit report and steer them instead into unwittingly purchasing a subscription for credit monitoring.

Continue Reading Latest CFPB Lawsuit Sheds Light on Digital Dark Patterns

At the peak of tax-filing season, when millions of consumers are still considering their method of filing, the Federal Trade Commission has set its sights on Intuit, Inc., one of the largest online tax-filing services.

On March 28, 2022, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against Intuit, alleging that the company’s marketing of TurboTax as a free tax-filing service misleads consumers because the free service applies only to some, while many end up getting hit with charges at the time of filing.

In a press release, Samuel Levine, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, stated that Intuit’s advertising is a “bait-and-switch” tactic that a court should immediately halt to protect tax-paying consumers. The FTC simultaneously filed a complaint for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Intuit in federal court in the Northern District of California, seeking to immediately enjoin it from advertising its tax-filing product and service, TurboTax, as free.

Continue Reading “Free” Must Mean Free? FTC Seeks to Enjoin Intuit from Advertising TurboTax as a “Free” Service

A few weeks ago, we wrote an article discussing two enforcement actions by the Federal Trade Commission in the Central and Southern Districts of California that highlighted the risks to payment processors and financial institutions for their relationships with companies engaged in allegedly unlawful “negative option” marketing.

In both FTC v. Triangle Media Corporation et al. (the “Triangle Action”) and FTC v. Apex Capital Group, LLC (the “Apex Action”), the FTC accused the defendants of engaging in an alleged scheme to offer fake “free trials” of personal care products and dietary supplements to obtain consumers’ credit and debit card information.

Also, in both cases, the court granted the FTC’s request and recommendation that a Receiver be assigned to oversee, manage, and preserve the assets of both sets of defendants. That Receiver then sued Wells Fargo—the bank used by the defendants in both the Triangle and Apex Actions—alleging that Wells Fargo engaged in illicit activity, including, but not limited to, aiding and abetting fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent supervision, and violating the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL). Last week the court denied most of Wells Fargo’s motion to dismiss, allowing the claims against the bank to proceed.

Continue Reading Update: Judge Allows Most of Receiver’s Claims Against Wells Fargo for Involvement with Negative Option Marketers to Proceed

On March 23, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed into law sweeping amendments to the state’s Business Opportunity Disclosure Act (BODA). The amendments expand the scope of the statute to cover a broad spectrum of business activity. The amendments apply to any seller of a “business opportunity” who represents to the buyer that the buyer will—or may—derive income from the business that exceeds the amount the buyer pays to buy the product, equipment, supply, or service.

How Do the Amendments Expand the Scope of BODA?

Prior to these amendments, BODA applied to sellers of “assisted marketing plans”—defined as the sale or lease of any product, equipment, supplies, or service to a buyer for an initial payment of $500 or more for the purpose of enabling the buyer to start a business—who also made one of four qualifying representations to buyers about the plan. The first three representations are largely unchanged in the new amendments, but the fourth, which has been the focus of litigation under BODA, has changed. The prior language covered representations: that upon payment by the buyer of more than $500 to the seller, the seller will provide a sales program or marketing program that will enable the buyer to derive income that exceeds the price paid.

Continue Reading Biz Opps Stung, Once Again, by the Beehive State

Last month, love was not all lost for the owner of Tinder and OKCupid when a Texas federal district court in FTC v. Match Group, Inc. granted in part the online dating service provider’s motion to dismiss. Specifically, the court agreed with Match that the FTC could not seek equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act and barred two claims based on Match’s immunity under the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

To set the scene, here is a recap of the legal landscape. In recent history, the FTC under Section 13(b) brought “proper cases” directly in federal courts without needing to conduct administrative proceedings. The agency also pursued permanent injunctions and equitable monetary relief.

In the past few years, courts have become increasingly less enamored with the FTC’s interpretation of its authority under Section 13(b). The first blow was FTC v. Shire Viropharma, Inc., in which the Third Circuit concluded that under Section 13(b), the FTC cannot base claims on “long-past conduct” alone, but must affirmatively plead facts that a defendant “is violating” or “is about to violate” the law, i.e., that there is “existing or impending conduct.”

Continue Reading FTC v. Match Group, Inc.: Court Gets Cold Feet on the Standard Set Forth in Shire