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?

With Halloween just days away, it is perhaps fitting that the FTC has issued a new enforcement policy statement warning companies not to employ dark patterns to trick customers into a subscription plan. As we covered previously, the FTC has identified dark patterns—or website design features used to deceive consumers—as a priority for both rulemaking and enforcement actions. The timing of the announcement is a bit curious as the FTC is in the middle of a rule making on negative option marketing. More below from Commissioner Wilson on that.

The enforcement policy statement in many ways reflects the requirements of the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act (ROSCA) and established FTC precedent regarding negative option marketing. The FTC has been active against companies who hide their subscription programs behind links, have made customers undergo several attempts to cancel their subscription, or companies who failed to disclose that the benefits of their subscription did not exist anymore.


Continue Reading FTC Issues Dark Forecast for Dark Patterns in Subscription Auto-Renewal

With the complexity of product safety requirements, the changing regulatory environment, and the ferocious plaintiffs’ bar, it is more important than ever for importers, manufacturers, and retailers to understand their obligation to comply with product safety laws and standards. In this recent webinarMelissa L. Steinman, a partner in Venable’s Advertising and Marketing practice, explored current developments in product safety and warranty laws and examined common issues and pitfalls that organizations need to be aware of relating to product standards and safety. She also addressed some follow-up questions.

Continue Reading You Asked, We Answered – Consumer Product Safety and Warranties

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

On September 22, 2021, FTC Chairperson Lina Khan published a memorandum to FTC staff urging the agency to unite behind her vision and priorities for the agency, and announcing that the elite vanguard leading Khan’s effort will be acting Bureau Directors Sam Levine and Holly Vedova, both of whom will become permanent directors of the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition, respectively. Khan has previously indicated that the FTC needs to throw off its bureaucratic chains of past approaches and practices and be more aggressive in enforcing both consumer protection and competition laws. Given the implicit and explicit criticism in her prior communications, the memorandum appears to be an effort to gather support among FTC staff for her approach. An overarching theme of the memorandum is that the FTC may be blurring the lines between the FTC’s consumer protection and competition missions by increasing collaboration between the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition. While many prior chairpersons have expressed this ambition, Khan appears ready to make that aspiration operational.

Chairperson Khan starts her strategic discussion by announcing that the agency will be taking a “holistic approach to identifying harms.” In elaborating on this “holistic approach,” she frequently combines references to individual consumers and businesses, and highlights nontraditional harms of anti-competitive activity, many of which are familiar to consumer protection, for example, disparate impact, privacy violations, and asymmetrical bargaining power. Her message is clear: the distinction between antitrust and consumer protection will no longer be as defined as it was in the past. Also clear are the consequences: once this boundary is eliminated, the FTC can use the merger review process to conduct discovery on consumer protection violations, perhaps hoping the cost and threat of that inquiry will deter merger activity.


Continue Reading The Khan Manifesto

On July 21, 2021, and in response to President Biden’s Executive Order calling on the FTC to address repair restrictions, the FTC unanimously adopted the Right to Repair Policy Statement related to manufacturer and seller restrictions to product repairs. In the policy statement, the FTC announced its plans to prioritize enforcement against unlawful repair restrictions, including promoting possible updates to state and federal legislation. Manufacturers and sellers should ensure compliance with current consumer protection and antitrust laws and monitor potential rulemaking, a path the FTC is careening toward.

The FTC expressed concern that repair restrictions make it more difficult for competitors, local businesses, and consumers to repair products. In a May 2021 report to Congress, Nixing the Fix: An FTC Report to Congress on Repair Restrictions, the FTC detailed manufacturer-created restrictions, including limiting the availability of parts, software, and telematics information and access to authorized repair networks; designing products to make self-repairs less safe; asserting trademark and patent rights in an overbroad manner; and implementing restrictive end-user license agreements and software locks. The FTC also warned that repair restrictions drive up repair costs, repair wait times, and electronic waste; reduce competition; and have an especially large impact on communities of color and lower-income Americans.


Continue Reading FTC Turns Focus to Repair Restrictions in New Policy Statement

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,

This week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a proposed settlement with MoviePass to resolve allegations that the company offered an automatically renewing movie subscription program but blocked paid subscribers from using the advertised services, and failed to adequately secure subscribers’ personal data.

The FTC brought the case against MoviePass under the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act (ROSCA), the federal statute governing online negative option programs. The statute requires sellers to clearly and conspicuously disclose all “material terms of the transaction” and obtain consumers’ express informed consent before charging them for online negative option features.

However, the FTC’s complaint did not take issue with the company’s billing disclosures or consent mechanism. Instead, it asserted that the company’s failure to disclose its deceptive tactics that prevented subscribers from accessing all of the advertised benefits violated ROSCA. In the complaint the FTC alleged that MoviePass, Inc deceptively marketed a MoviePass subscription service that allowed customers to view movies at local theaters for a monthly fee. However, once customers purchased a subscription, MoviePass allegedly used various methods to prevent subscribers from accessing the advertised service. For example, to limit the movies that customers could view, MoviePass allegedly blocked account access by invalidating subscriber passwords under the guise of “suspicious activity or potential fraud.” The FTC asserted that resetting a password was cumbersome and often failed, precluding subscribers from regaining access. Next, the FTC alleged that MoviePass’s operators implemented a ticket verification program that required users to submit pictures of their physical movie ticket stubs for approval through the app within a certain time frame after purchase. Users who failed to submit their ticket stubs would be blocked from viewing future movies and could risk subscription termination. Third, MoviePass allegedly used “trip wires” to block certain groups of subscribers—heavy users who viewed more than three movies per month—from using the service to purchase more tickets. These allegations seem to echo statements from the FTC’s Dark Patterns workshop (we blogged about the workshop here), which discussed ways the FTC should address websites and apps that impair consumers’ autonomy, decision making, and choice.


Continue Reading Lights, Camera, Action! FTC Settlement Signals Novel Use of ROSCA

On April 29, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) held a virtual workshop, Bringing Dark Patterns to Light, which discussed the use of “dark patterns,” how they impact consumers, and ways the FTC can combat these methods.

What are dark patterns?

The FTC has defined “dark patterns” as website design features or interfaces which are used to deceive, steer, and manipulate users into behavior that is profitable for the website owner but detrimental to consumers. The panelists agreed that while the term “dark patterns” is useful as a general characterization, it does not adequately convey the term’s meaning from a legal standpoint. According to the panelists, dark patterns are also difficult to identify because many are intentionally designed to be covert.

Although many of the panelists used terms like “manipulative tactics” or “deceptive practices” to describe dark patterns, one of the most comprehensive definitions came from Arunesh Mathur, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University, who described six attributes that make up dark patterns:


Continue Reading FTC Holds Workshop on “Dark Patterns” and Seeks Public Comments

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.


Continue Reading The Uncertainty Continues: Compromised Section 13(b) Authority, COVID-19 Scams, and the FTC’s Plans for Consumer Protection