Crowdfunding plays an important role in democratizing access to capital for small entrepreneurs, but as we’ve written before, entrepreneurs of every ilk need to remember that their representations to consumers need to be truthful, accurate and not misleading. Last month, the FTC filed a complaint against Douglas Monahan and his company iBackPack of Texas, LLC, alleging that Monahan and his company had violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by scamming consumers on crowdfunding sites Indiegogo and Kickstarter with four crowdfunding campaigns that together raised over $800,000, including a campaign to develop a bulletproof backpack that could recharge personal electronic devices and act as a mobile hot spot.

iBackPack ad


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The Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with an online consumer lending platform, Avant LLC, highlights the importance of legal and regulatory compliance in the fintech space, including—perhaps most importantly—what happens after a loan is made.

According to the Commission’s complaint, Avant offered personal consumer loans through its website. The complaint notes that although the loans were formally issued through a bank partner, Avant handled all stages of the process, and all consumer interactions, including advertising, application processing, and all aspects of loan servicing and collection of payments.

The Commission’s allegations stem primarily from Avant’s collection activities, and Avant’s representations about the payment process, under the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Telemarking Sales Rule (TSR); and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and Regulation E. The allegations include that Avant:


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Winding down the 67th Antitrust Law Spring Meeting last week, Andrew Smith, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (the “Bureau”), provided an overview of the FTC’s consumer protection priorities. Director Smith reiterated that Chairman Simons’ focus on law enforcement applies across the Bureau’s five major areas: marketing, finance, advertising, privacy, and

FTC Chairman Joseph Simons used his opening keynote address at the 2019 ANA Advertising Law & Public Policy Conference to put his audience on notice: the FTC has its eye on national advertisers.  Simons made it clear that even during a Republican administration, under his leadership, the Bureau of Consumer Protection will no longer be the forgotten half of the agency.  Simons characterized the FTC as the “primary cops on the beat,” the foot soldiers charged with enforcing the “level playing field” on which companies compete, “based on the merits and unique features of their products and services.”

Simons made it clear that consumer protection is not limited to policing “worthless or harmful” products.  Instead, he reminded the audience that the FTC has, does, and will continue to bring enforcement actions against bona fide products if they make claims that overstep or play fast and loose with the truth.  Citing a dozen high-profile examples, he emphasized that the Commission will take these cases into federal court where necessary.  National advertisers can expect no quarter for being white hat providers of “legitimate” goods and services if they employ unscrupulous methods of advertising.


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Every brand that has designed a product label has felt the call of the asterisk. Visual real estate on packaging and in advertisements is limited, and marketing departments often groan at the piles of clumsy language that legal departments insist make it onto the page. But the elegant solution—dropping an asterisk and including the disclaimers, clarifications, or required disclosures in tiny print at the bottom—has traditionally drawn the ire of regulators or private plaintiffs who complain that such disclosures are ineffective because nobody actually reads them. Now, a line of California federal court cases has begun taking the plaintiffs’ argument at their word, and not in a way that class plaintiffs like: by using Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) to dismiss complaints that don’t specifically allege whether or not a consumer followed an asterisk and weighed the information in the disclaimer.

In Anthony v. Pharmavite, No. 18-CV-02636-EMC, 2019 WL 109446 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 4, 2019), the court examined a purported class action by consumers allegedly misled into buying biotin supplements labeled with the claim, “May help support healthy hair, skin and nails.” According to the plaintiffs, the average human already obtains a surfeit of biotin in his or her daily life and any amount beyond what can be synthesized is automatically flushed from the body. Indeed, according to the plaintiffs’ studies, “99.9962 percent of people have no possibility of benefiting” from biotin supplements. Only those with exceedingly rare genetic disorders, the plaintiffs explained, could possibly derive any material benefit from supplemental biotin.


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As 2019 goes into full swing, it’s important for providers of payment processing services (referred to here as “acquirers”) and their merchants or submerchants to prepare for the various regulatory and industry changes coming this year. One such significant change comes in the form of Mastercard’s updated rules for negative option billing programs.

Set to take effect on April 12, 2019, Mastercard’s new rules will tighten consumer protection requirements for negative option merchants and their acquirers that process Mastercard transactions. Several laws such as the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act, and various state laws already apply to negative option billing programs, but Mastercard’s new rules go even further. Among other things, the rules include a requirement for merchants to notify consumers at the end of a trial period before charging the consumer.

Applicability

Notably, the new rules cover any card-not-present transaction where the consumer purchases a subscription to automatically receive a physical product (such as cosmetics, healthcare products, or vitamins) on a recurring basis. Fully digital services are not covered.

This means the rules apply to free trial offers and most forms of negative option programs involving product sales. The negative option plan may be initiated by a free trial, nominally priced trial, or no trial at all. However, if a trial is used, special rules apply to ensure the consumer is aware of and consents to subsequent payments at the trial’s conclusion.


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The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) continues to crack down on companies engaged in credit card laundering. Credit card laundering is the practice of processing credit card transactions for one company through the merchant processing account of another company. Credit card laundering can be used to bypass the monitoring practices and volume thresholds of credit card associations and payment processors. A new complaint and a settlement of a prior case highlight the effort that the FTC is devoting to this area.

On November 14, 2018, the FTC filed a complaint against Apex Capital Group, LLC and others, alleging an international network of corporations and individuals that marketed “free” trial offers to consumers for personal care products and dietary supplements, only to charge consumers the full price for the products. The Defendants also allegedly engaged in credit card laundering. The FTC alleged that the Defendants used dozens of shell companies and straw owners to obtain merchant accounts and process charges through these accounts in furtherance of their scheme.

On December 11, 2018 the FTC announced a settlement of charges against certain defendants in the Money Now Funding (“MNF”) scam regarding their role in laundering transactions for MNF. The FTC previously settled with two other defendants in March 2018. Both settlements led to a ban on acting as payment processors, independent sales organizations, or sales agents, a prohibition on credit card laundering, and a monetary judgment owed to the FTC.


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Previously on the blog, we noted that federal government agencies don’t always play well together. So, when these agencies synchronize their efforts, the industry would do well to take notice. One such coordination effort is well underway. The FDA and the USDA just announced that they will jointly oversee cell‑cultured food production derived from livestock and poultry.

The FDA and the USDA’s announcement follows the agencies’ October 2018 public meeting, where they met with consumers and members of the agricultural industry to discuss safety considerations, possible hazard controls, and labeling concerns related to cell‑cultured foods. Cell‑cultured food production is a burgeoning industry. It continues to raise questions about what will be regulated, what the regulatory process will look like, and which agencies will manage the regulatory process.


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This week, the FTC launched a new interactive tool to view its aggregated consumer complaint data. Previously released annually, data collected through the Consumer Sentinel Network will now be reported quarterly. The FTC’s data tool is interactive and allows users to narrow the data by state, type of fraud, contact method, age of victim, amount of loss, and more. With just a few clicks, you can see that consumers in Virginia have lost $19.6 million to fraud so far this year, surpassing last year’s total of $15.1 million by 30%—and it’s only mid-October! The data tool also helps explain why so many robocalls around the nation’s capital seem to be for vacation scams—Maryland and Virginia are ranked #1 and #2 for reports of travel, vacation, and timeshare fraud. The tool contains quarterly and annual data going back to 2014, permitting users to view trends over time on very specific issues. The FTC hopes its new quarterly data releases will provide consumers with more timely information on consumer complaints and the types of scams and other fraud they face.

In that spirit, the FTC also announced its new Consumer Protection Data Spotlight, touted as a “deep dive” into the consumer complaint data to highlight emerging or existing trends. (No word on how often the Spotlight will be published, but we are guessing that it may accompany each new quarterly data release.) This reporting is eerily similar to how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau used to publicize its consumer complaint data.


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