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.
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.
As COVID-19 becomes a more prevalent part of everyday life, federal and state regulators have made it clear that they will aggressively enforce consumer protection laws against companies that seek to take improper advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a March 26, 2020, statement, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joe Simons strongly condemned businesses who engage in unfair and deceptive business practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chairman Simons stated that the FTC was working with federal and state law enforcers, consumer advocates, and business owners to protect consumers from companies who seek to take advantage of consumer fears regarding COVID-19. As we previously blogged, the FTC, along with the Food and Drug Administration, began taking action against these companies by issuing warning letters to seven sellers of unapproved or misbranded products which claimed that their products could treat or prevent COVID-19. In their respective statements regarding these warning letters, the FTC and FDA indicated that these warnings were only a first step and committed to aggressively pursuing companies who seek to take advantage of consumers during this national emergency. The FTC also published information about Coronavirus-related complaints from consumers, noting the significant number of Coronavirus-related complaints reported from consumers this year.
Last week, the Arizona Attorney General filed a complaint against telemarketer Valley Delivery LLC and affiliated companies Next Day Delivery LLC and My Home Services LLC, and an individual defendant, Mathew Willes, for allegedly distributing fake missed package slips to homeowners to collect their personal information in a “delivery slip scheme.” While the conduct here seems particularly egregious, the case serves as a good reminder that the State AGs remain focused on consumer protection issues especially involving personal data and telemarketing.
The complaint alleged that since January 2017, Valley Delivery gathered new homeowners’ addresses from the county recorder’s office and then dispatched “delivery drivers” to those addresses to post fake delivery slips, with the caption “Sorry We Missed You” on the door of each home. The delivery slips contained a callback telephone number, purportedly for consumers to reschedule the delivery. However, when consumers dialed the callback number on the slips, representatives allegedly collected consumers’ information for telemarketing purposes by affiliated companies and third parties. In addition, according to the complaint, the defendants created websites with false information about the company meant to induce consumers to contact the companies about their “missed delivery.” The defendants allegedly failed to provide sufficient disclosure to consumers concerning their business practices, both on the companies’ websites and on the delivery slips themselves. Even though, there was a purported disclaimer on the back of the slip that any contact information customers provide may be used by the companies or any of its partners for marketing purposes, many homeowners did not see this less conspicuous language placed in a smaller font than the language on the front of the slip.
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a settlement with Neurometrix, the makers of the Quell electrical nerve stimulation device. In the complaint, the FTC alleged that the company made false claims about Quell’s ability to treat chronic and severe pain throughout the body, even though the device is only placed below the knee, and allegedly false claims that the device is clinically proven and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) to treat full body pain. The case provides a good reminder that the FTC remains focused on health claims and the standards that the FTC requires for marketing products making health claims.
The FTC’s complaint also challenged advertising claims about Quell users’ results from using the device, including that 81% of people achieve significant pain relief with Quell, and that Quell relieves chronic or severe pain throughout the body caused by a wide range of conditions, including osteoarthritis, nerve damage, sciatica, shingles, and fibromyalgia.
Last week, the FTC entered into a settlement with Teami, LLC, a marketer of teas and tea-based skincare products that the FTC alleges promoted its products with deceptive, unsubstantiated health claims and endorsements by social media influencers who did not adequately disclose their material connections to (i.e., monetary payments from) the company. The action highlights the FTC’s continued focus on both health claims and influencer marketing.
According to the FTC’s two-count complaint, Teami and its individual owners claimed, without reliable scientific evidence, that their products would treat cancer, clear arteries, significantly decrease migraines, treat colds, prevent flus, cause “rapid and substantial” weight loss and burn body fat.
The defendants also allegedly misrepresented that social media posts by influencers reflected the views of ordinary users of Teami products, failing to adequately disclose that the influencers were paid for their endorsements. According to the FTC, such disclosures must be clear and conspicuous—and, in this context, because consumers’ Instagram feeds typically display only the first few lines of a longer post followed by an option to read more, that means that endorsers must disclose any material connections above the “more” link.
Last week, the FTC entered into a settlement with LendEDU, a lead generation website that compares and ranks student loan and other financial products, and three of its officers. According to the FTC, LendEDU heavily promoted its website to consumers as offering “objective,” “accurate,” and “unbiased” product information, when, instead, it offered higher rankings and ratings to companies that paid for placement — a practice known as “pay-to-play.” The FTC uncovered multiple emails between LendEDU’s employees and advertisers demonstrating the advertiser’s ranking was clearly based on the amount it paid LendEDU per click.
The FTC also alleged that company employees, family members, friends, associates or others affiliated with LendEDU posted fake positive reviews of the company’s website on third-party platforms. The FTC described the extent of the fake reviews, noting that 90% of the company’s reviews on the website, trustpilot.com, were created by a person affiliated with the company.
Law enforcement, workshops, and reports from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have yielded five “lessons” for lead generation advertisers, according to an article that was published last month in Law360 by Andrew Smith, director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection. In it, he suggests that companies that purchase lead generation advertising must manage lead generators responsibly, just like manufacturers that make supply chain management a top priority.
The article drew attention from members of the lead generation advertising sector and their lawyers and compliance departments. Some commentators called it a tutorial on how to reduce risk in using lead generation advertising. For others the article was a cautionary tale of recent enforcement actions taken against a buyer of lead generation advertising and the lead generators spotlighted in the article. In any event, the article was certainly reflective of the FTC’s work in the lead generation area and reminder of the importance of legal compliance in the lead generation ecosystem.
According to Smith: “The complexity of the lead generation ecosystem isn’t a shield against liability, nor does it exempt you from honoring fundamental consumer protection principles. Advertisers should take the lead in ensuring the leads they use weren’t the product of deception.”
The Federal Trade Commission’s “Negative Option Rule” is up for review, and the FTC is steering toward stricter regulations for automatic renewal plans and subscription programs. The FTC completed its last regulatory review of the Negative Option Rule in 2014 and decided then to retain the rule in its current form. But, will this time be different?
The Rule Under Review
The rule under review is the “Rule Concerning the Use of Prenotification Negative Option Plans,” also referred to as the “Negative Option Rule.” However, the scope of the Negative Option Rule only covers prenotification plans, like book-of-the-month clubs, where the seller sends notice of a book to be shipped and charges for the book only if the consumer takes no action to decline the offer, such as sending back a postcard or rejecting the selection through an online account.