Despite what the “gurus” say, the FTC takes the position that there is no quick or easy path to success. Whether that is true or not, the FTC has sued several companies that purportedly taught consumers how to start a home-based Internet business—often advertising the potential to earn vast sums of money—and last week the
First Data Merchant Services, LLC (First Data), and its former executive, Chi “Vincent” Ko, will pay $40.2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they ignored obvious warning signs of fraud and processed transactions for an array of scams that caused tens of millions of dollars in harm to consumers.
This action serves as a powerful reminder that the FTC seeks to hold processors and their independent sales organizations (ISOs) financially responsible for facilitating the unlawful conduct of merchants by enabling merchants to access the payments system to allegedly defraud consumers and launder card transactions. Just as noteworthy, the settlement agreed to by First Data may propel new industry standards for processors to formally oversee the merchant onboarding activities of ISOs given responsibility for underwriting merchant accounts.
We have written repeatedly about the FTC and various states’ efforts to clamp down on “negative option” offers to consumers (see blog posts here and here). Last week, consistent with a newly found focus on protecting small businesses, the FTC challenged negative option marketing aimed at business entities. The case underscores the FTC’s…
The use of country of origin claims in advertising, and in particular “Made in USA” claims, has been around for a long time — many companies want to showcase products that have been made in the United States by marking them with the phrase or using the Stars and Stripes in advertising. Before making claims like “Made in America” or “Built in the USA,” though, sellers must understand the strict federal and state laws and standards for making such claims. In September 2019, the Federal Trade Commission held a public workshop “to consider ‘Made in USA’ and other types of U.S.-origin claims and in particular sought comments from the public on whether it should update its “Made in USA” Enforcement Policy. While the Commission has not yet updated its Policy, it recently took action on two “Made in USA” cases, FTC v. Williams‑Sonoma and J-B Weld Company; moreover, J-B Weld is entangled in an ongoing class action in California, which has its own “Made in USA” standard. These cases show that the “Made in USA” regulation continues to be something sellers should pay close attention to when it comes to compliance.
“Made in USA” Background
Under Section 45a of the FTC Act, a product that is advertised or offered for sale with a “Made in USA,” “Made in America,” or an equivalent label must have domestic origins that are consistent with orders and decisions of the FTC. See 15 U.S.C. § 45a. The FTC’s Enforcement Policy provides that, to substantiate an unqualified “Made in USA” claim, a product must be wholly domestic or all or virtually all made in the United States. Specifically, “[a] product that is all or virtually all made in the United States will ordinarily be one in which all significant parts and processing that go into the product are of U.S. origin.”
Departing slightly from the “all or virtually all” standard, California law provides that companies cannot advertise Made in USA “if the merchandise or any article, unit, or part thereof, has been entirely or substantially made, manufactured, or produced outside of the United States.” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17533.7. The statute also provides a 5% safe-harbor provision, providing that “[t]his section shall not apply to merchandise made, manufactured, or produced in the United States that has one or more articles, units, or parts from outside of the United States, if all of the articles, units, or parts of the merchandise obtained from outside the United States constitute not more than 5 percent of the final wholesale value of the manufactured product.”
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.
A major point-of-sale financing and leasing company and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a proposed settlement to resolve an investigation into whether the company’s practices and representations to retail consumers violated the FTC Act. The announcement of the settlement highlights the importance of disclosing all material pricing terms to consumers, including in an e-commerce environment and, for point-of-sale financing companies, reviewing and synchronizing their promotional messages with retail partners. The settlement also revealed disagreements among the Commissioners on issues of individual liability and the proper measure of monetary relief.
The settlement resolves an investigation into Aaron’s, Inc. and its wholly owned subsidiary, Progressive Leasing (Progressive), regarding disclosures related to lease-to-own and other financial products. Under the proposed agreement, which remains subject to the approval of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Progressive would make a payment of $175 million to the FTC and enhance certain of its compliance-related activities, including monitoring, disclosures, and reporting.
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.
In February, we highlighted constitutional challenges that Axon Enterprise, Inc. (“Axon”) brought against the FTC related to a merger challenge against Axon. To briefly recap: Axon brought a declaratory judgment action alleging that the administrative trial procedures and the structure of the FTC violated Axon’s due process rights and Article II of the Constitution. Last week, the District of Arizona dismissed Axon’s claims, finding the Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Axon’s declaratory judgment claims where the administrative proceedings before the FTC were still pending. The Court’s lengthy opinion, which was consistent with prior unsuccessful challenges to the FTC’s administrative trial process, demonstrates the importance of raising a constitutional challenge early in a proceeding, even if that is the very proceeding, before the very agency, being challenged.
As previously discussed, Axon makes two constitutional arguments. First, the procedures authorizing the FTC to bring an enforcement action before an FTC Administrative Law Judge violate Axon’s Fifth Amendment due process rights. Second, the structure of the FTC violates the president’s “at will” removal power under Article II because FTC commissioners and administrative law judges are not subject to such removal. Though the Court acknowledged in dismissing the case that Axon’s constitutional claims “are significant and topical[,]” the Court determined that it “is not the appropriate forum to address Axon’s claims.”
At the same time that consumers are turning to the internet to purchase everything – food, diapers, work-from-home office equipment, wine, and impossible-to-find puzzles – e-commerce businesses are facing unprecedented challenges in their ability to fulfill orders: disruptions to their supply chains, sick employees, warehouse and distribution center shutdowns, and a crippled US Postal Service. We thought this was a good time to remind businesses that sell goods (services are exempted) online – or by phone or mail – of their obligations under the FTC’s Mail, Internet, or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule (MITOR, for short). Many states also have look-alike laws or regulations that often impose additional requirements on sellers.
MITOR was originally promulgated in 1975 in response to consumer complaints that catalog sellers failed to ship ordered merchandise timely or at all and were not providing refunds in a timely fashion. It was updated several times over the years, including to include telephone and then internet sales.
In sum, MITOR requires that when you advertise, you must have a reasonable basis for stating or implying that you can ship the advertised goods within a certain time. If, however, you make no shipment statement, you must have a reasonable basis for believing that you can ship within 30 days.
Guarantees are a common marketing practice and can have two meanings—the marketers guarantees product performance or, perhaps related, the marketer promises the consumer her money back if not satisfied. A recent decision from the National Advertising Division (“NAD”) regarding claims Ava Science, Inc. (“Ava”) made in marketing its Ava Ovulation Bracelet (“the Bracelet”) provides some guidance on this marketing device. NAD reviewed Ava’s “one-year pregnancy guarantee” appearing in its social media marketing and website and determined whether, given the context, a consumer would believe this to be a performance or money back guarantee. NAD found that Ava’s website claims could be interpreted, by a potentially vulnerable audience, to overstate the Bracelet’s benefits.
NAD’s decision addressed the guarantee claims as made in two separate circumstances—Ava’s social media marketing and Ava’s website marketing. Of greatest concern to NAD was the guarantee claim on Ava’s website offering a “one-year guarantee of pregnancy*.” Though the guarantee contained a hyperlink disclosing its conditions, the hyperlink did not appear unless a consumer scrolled over the text. Relying on the FTC’s Dot Com Disclosures Guidance, NAD determined that the embedded hyperlink with specific conditions was not sufficiently “clear or conspicuous.” Further, NAD found the website’s “one-year guarantee of pregnancy” was too closely related “to the performance result—pregnancy—and not to the fact that the ‘guarantee’ is about the refund[.]” Ultimately, NAD recommended that Ava modify its website guarantee to make it obvious that terms exist in a separate hyperlink, and to clarify that it is a money-back, not pregnancy, guarantee.