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

In a bulletin published last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warned banks and other financial companies against impeding honest reviews of consumer financial products and services. Although it does not cite a specific study for financial products and services, the CFPB’s bulletin describes how online reviews impact other industries across the economy.

We have been covering the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) efforts to combat what it sees as rampant customer review fraud, and now the CFPB is preemptively addressing its growing concern with how online reviews will play into customers’ decision-making when they are choosing from among several financial providers.

At first glance, the CFPB’s foray into the deceptive use of online reviews might appear to come out of left field, but it reflects a more general theme of following the FTC’s playbook and scrutinizing financial service providers more holistically, including their marketing practices. The bulletin itself cites to several recent FTC settlements in this area as persuasive precedent for application of the CFPB’s UDAAP authority.

Continue Reading The CFPB Warns Companies Against Impeding or Manipulating Honest Customer Reviews

In its much-anticipated cryptocurrency executive order issued earlier this month, the Biden administration called for a coordinated interagency approach to the regulation of digital assets and to the study of their potential risks.

A significant part of this effort focuses on the nation’s primary consumer protection agencies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Historically, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) have played the primary roles in regulating digital assets, with the FTC and CFPB largely taking a wait-and-see approach. But this has left open a regulatory gap for crypto activities that do not involve a security or a commodity derivative.

Continue Reading Biden Tasks Consumer Protection Agencies with Stepping Up Cryptocurrency Oversight

We frequently post about negative option marketing in this blog, but our focus has been the FTC’s enforcement actions against businesses that utilize this marketing strategy. We haven’t written as much about a different risk: payment processors and financial institutions caught in the crosshairs of a court-appointed receiver for their relationships with companies engaged in allegedly unlawful “negative option” marketing. Recently, two FTC enforcement actions in the Central and Southern Districts of California highlight these risks.

In Federal Trade Commission v. Triangle Media Corporation et al. (the “Triangle Action”), the FTC sued Triangle for 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.

According to the FTC, Triangle then applied recurring charges to consumers’ cards without authorization. In a later, unrelated action, the FTC brought charges against Apex Capital Group, LLC for essentially the same activity (the “Apex Action”). In both cases, the courts granted the FTC’s request and recommendation that a receiver be assigned to oversee, manage, and preserve the assets of both sets of defendants. In an interesting turn, the same receiver, Thomas McNamara of McNamara LLP (the “Receiver”), was recommended by the FTC, and accepted by the courts, as the Receiver for Triangle’s and Apex’s assets.

Subsequently, the FTC filed an amended complaint in the Apex Action that accused Apex’s credit card payment processor, Transact Pro, of credit card laundering and chargeback manipulation in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. Both Apex and Transact Pro entered into a settlement with the FTC requiring a stipulated judgment ordering the parties to pay monetary relief.

Continue Reading How Negative Option Marketing Can Risk Entangling Third-Party Banks and Payment Processors

Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that online travel agency Fareportal Inc., which operates several travel-related websites and mobile platforms, including CheapOair.com and OneTravel.com, will pay $2.6 million to New York for misleading consumers with deceptive marketing tactics.

“Consumers wanted to land affordable tickets through Fareportal’s platforms, but were met with lies instead,” James said in a statement. “Fareportal used deeply deceptive tactics to trick millions of consumers into booking airline tickets and hotel rooms.”

The investigation into Fareportal revealed that, since at least 2017, the company created false urgency around the availability of airline tickets and hotel rooms to pressure consumers into making purchases on its platforms. The AG challenged these marketing tactics as “dark patterns,” referring to alleged misleading design features and methods used to manipulate consumers into buying goods and services. As we have covered previously, alleged “dark patterns” have become a priority in rulemaking and enforcement.

Continue Reading New York Attorney General Secures $2.6 Million from Fareportal for Deceptive Marketing Tactics

On Friday, March 11, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed an administrative complaint against HomeAdvisor, Inc., charging it with using deceptive and misleading tactics to sell leads for home improvement projects to small businesses, including small “gig-economy” workers. The action underscores the current administration’s effort to protect workers, especially those engaged in the gig economy through large platforms.

The FTC alleges that since at least 2014, HomeAdvisor—a popular service that matches service providers with consumers seeking home improvements—made false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims about the quality and source of leads it sells, and about the likelihood that the leads would result in actual jobs. According to the complaint:

Continue Reading Burning Down the House: FTC Accuses HomeAdvisor, Inc. of Deception in Selling Leads for Home Improvement Projects

The latest edition of the FTC’s recent practice of holding open meetings brings a potential rule regarding earnings claims to the forefront. During the FTC’s open meeting, the Commission unanimously approved issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with respect to earnings claims. As the Commissioners pointed out in their comments (additional information below), the motivation for this rulemaking is to repair the FTC’s ability to recover monetary relief for consumers after the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management.

Prior to the vote, the Commissioners allowed Melissa Dickey from the Division of Marketing Practices to give a presentation on the FTC’s historical experience with earnings claims and the Division’s recommendation. Ms. Dickey recommended that the Commission move forward with the rulemaking process, and pointed to two primary reasons. First, the Division views false, misleading, and unsubstantiated earnings claims as especially problematic to consumers who, as Ms. Dickey postulated, ultimately rely on these assurances and, as a result, end up in significant debt. Second, the Bureau believes that these earnings claims are widespread, and impact almost every community, especially during the pandemic era, where purported bad actors target those who are seeking to earn extra income while working remotely.

Continue Reading FTC Approves Rulemaking Process for Earnings Claims

With several new state laws effective in 2022, it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to develop baseline compliance protocols across federal and state automatic renewal laws.

Against this backdrop, federal and state regulators continue to examine the sales practices of companies that sell products and services on an automatically renewing basis; states continue to pass new laws—and strengthen existing laws—that further embolden private plaintiffs and class action lawsuits; and the card brands have imposed increasingly strict requirements on companies offering products and services on a negative option basis.

Here we break down the compliance challenges posed by varying state laws addressing automatic renewal programs (also known as continuous service, continuity, subscription, or negative option programs), how newer card brand rules further stir the pot, and the low-hanging fruit that law enforcement agencies and private plaintiffs are going after for monetary redress and injunctive relief.

Continue Reading State Automatic Renewal Laws Are Starting to Look Like a Patchwork Quilt as the FTC Expands Enforcement of ROSCA

As the rest of us prepare for the Super Bowl by buying avocados to make guacamole, installing new big-screen TVs, and donning Ram/Bengal-themed face paint, select corners of corporate America are preparing for the biggest advertising day of the year.

In 2021, companies spent approximately $485 million on ad slots during the big game, and the average cost of a 30-second commercial slot was about $5.6 million. With such high stakes, plus the intensive “Standards and Practices” review employed by the TV networks, one would assume that anything that makes the cut is above reproach. (The review board won’t even let advertisers use “Super Bowl” because it’s trademarked, which is why you often hear “the Big Game” in ads.)

However, the following examples of legal challenges to your favorite Super Bowl commercials demonstrate that the world of advertising law can be tricky to navigate, and companies that advertise simply cannot mitigate their litigation risk to zero.

Continue Reading Defending Against the Blitz: Examining the Legal Issues Surrounding Super Bowl Ads

I’ve never really understood the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” but I was reminded of it when I read U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg’s opinion rejecting the FTC’s efforts to stay or voluntarily dismiss the federal court action brought against Fleetcor and its CEO.

Some background: The FTC sued Fleetcor in December 2019 in federal court in Georgia, alleging the fleet leasing company failed to adequately disclose the fees it charged and made deceptive claims about the money that businesses could save by using its services The case was litigated furiously, but then the Supreme Court gutted the FTC’s claim for relief in AMG. When a quick congressional fix did not occur, the FTC engaged in an “inventive” litigation strategy. The agency filed an administrative (Part III) action before its ALJ and asked the district court to stay or dismiss without prejudice the district court proceeding. The FTC indicated it intended to return to the district court after the conclusion of the administrative proceeding to recover redress under Section 19(a)(2). The defendants opposed the motion.

On February 7, 2022, Judge Totenberg denied the FTC’s motion. Summary judgment and Daubert motions had been fully briefed before the FTC filed its administrate complaint and sought a stay. The FTC urged the stay, arguing that the administrative proceeding could essentially pick up where district court litigation left off and be completed quickly.

Continue Reading Judge Tells FTC That It Can’t Have Its Part III and Eat It, Too