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.

Continue Reading Stirring the Pot: Tea Marketer Settles with FTC Over Unsubstantiated Health Claims, Inadequate Influencer Disclosures

The staff of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection released a much-anticipated paper on small business financing that highlights enforcement dangers on February 26, 2020. The staff are sounding the alarm on FTC enforcement and its investigations of small business financing providers and their marketers, servicers, and collectors.

Continue Reading FTC Staff Perspectives on Small Business Financing Enforcement Dangers

Originally posted on Venable.com

Household and credit card debt is at an all-time high. So it should come as no surprise that debt-relief legal and regulatory issues are back in the spotlight. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) will host “Evolutions in Consumer Debt Relief” on March 10, 2020. The CFPB says the event will explore options for consumers facing unmanageable unsecured debt and limited credit options.

Generally speaking, debt relief services are any program or service that offers to change the terms of a debt between a person and one or more creditors or debt collectors, including a reduction of the loan balance, interest rate, or fees owed. Different kinds of companies may promote or offer to assist consumers in obtaining relief from different kinds of debt, including credit card debts, home mortgages (referred to by the CFPB and Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) as Mortgage Assistance Relief Services or “MARS”), student loans, payday loans, car loans, or tax debts. There are also different kinds of debt relief services, including credit counseling, debt management plans, debt settlement, debt negotiation, foreclosure prevention, or loan modification.

Debt relief services have long been one of the most highly regulated sectors in the United States, based on the role that the providers play in assisting consumers who by definition are in financial distress. Debt relief services are also provided against a backdrop of contractual obligations of consumers to their creditors to repay amounts owed, and laws and regulations that govern creditors and their collection activities.

Continue Reading Debt Relief Services Back in the Spotlight

Combining the experience and thought leadership of Venable’s advertising law practice – one of the nation’s largest and highest ranked – with key insights from government and industry insiders, our renowned Advertising Law Symposium offers sessions designed to educate and enlighten. Attendees span both the legal and business worlds, and include clients and professionals working across the industry. Session topics will cover broad trends and anticipated developments, as well as industry-specific hurdles, highlights, and more.

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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.

Continue Reading Loan Comparison Lead Gen Site Settles with FTC over Deceptive Pay-to-Play Practices

The FTC has issued a Proposed Notice requesting public comment on whether to make changes to its Endorsement Guides (“Guides”) as part of the agency’s periodic retrospective review. This review will serve as a key opportunity for industry participants to shape what happens next by showing what they are seeing in the marketplace when it comes to endorsements and testimonials, consumers’ understanding of them, and the effects of new technology and platforms.

While the FTC’s standard practice is to review its rules and guides every 10 years, this review promises to be anything but standard. This is particularly true considering that FTC Commissioner Chopra weighed in with a separate statement, noting that he hopes that the Commission will consider taking steps beyond the issuance of voluntary guidance, including codifying elements of the existing Endorsement Guides into formal rules that could trigger civil penalties and damages. He also suggested that the FTC develop requirements for technology platforms that facilitate and profit from influencer marketing and specify the requirements that companies must adhere to in their contractual arrangements with influencers. The Guides were first issued in 1980, and the Commission last sought public comment on them in 2007. Since that time, endorsement-related practices (and the media where they appear) have changed dramatically, with new platforms and apps emerging that provide new ways for companies and their endorsers to reach consumers. In an attempt to keep up with the changing times, the FTC issued an FAQ-type of document, Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking, and has modified it multiple times over the years.

Continue Reading FTC Aims to Shake Up Endorsements, Seeks Public Comment on Its Endorsement Guides

On January 3, 2019, Axon Enterprise, Inc. (“Axon”), a manufacturer of body-worn cameras for law enforcement, filed a complaint against the Federal Trade Commission seeking a declaratory judgment in the District of Arizona. In the complaint, Axon alleges that the FTC’s administrative procedures and structure are unconstitutional, and seeks to enjoin the FTC from pursuing an administrative enforcement action against Axon. Although an antitrust case, the matter provides interesting issues that also involve the FTC’s consumer protection mission.

A little background: On June 14, 2018, the FTC opened an investigation into Axon’s attempted acquisition of Vievu, which also sells public safety camera systems. Axon contends that it cooperated with the FTC’s investigation over an 18-month period, only to result in the FTC threatening to sue in an administrative proceeding unless Axon “surrender[ed] a ‘blank check’ divestiture.” Axon protested that it did not violate the Clayton Act or any other antitrust laws in its acquisition of Vievu and filed the pending lawsuit, arguing that the FTC’s structure and administrative adjudication procedures violate the U.S. Constitution.

As for the constitutional challenges, Axon first argues that the FTC’s administrative procedures — whereby it acts as prosecutor, judge, and jury — violate Axon’s Fifth Amendment due process rights. Essentially, Axon asserts that when the FTC brings an administrative proceeding against a party, it infringes on that party’s right to a fair trial before a neutral judge in accordance with the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly, subjecting Axon to an FTC administrative proceeding will force it to “submit to a hearing process with a preordained result.” As Judge Posner noted years ago, “It is too much to expect men of ordinary character and competence to be able to judge impartially in cases that they are responsible for having instituted in the first place.” Remember, however, that Axon is not the first company caught in the FTC’s crosshairs to raise this argument, and these prior challenges have failed.

Continue Reading A Constitutional Challenge to Watch: Axon Sets Its Sight on the Structure of the FTC

As part of the 2019 year-end congressional appropriations wrap-up free-for-all, Congress adopted a new Section 642 of the Communications Act that significantly changes how a cable operator advertises and bills video subscribers. The law applies to both stand-alone video programming packages and the video portion of bundled plans that combine video programming with broadband Internet service.

Under the law, cable operators must change their billing practices as follows by June 20, 2020.

Continue Reading Congress Adopts New Cable Operator Advertising and Billing Requirements Affecting Both Video and Broadband Internet Offerings

With the arrival of 2020, many people have begun their New Year’s resolutions to get healthier and lose weight. Is “diet” soda the secret to weight loss success? Not according to the Ninth Circuit, which held last week that it is not reasonable to believe that drinking “diet” soda will help in efforts to lose weight and affirmed dismissal of a false advertising lawsuit.

In the case, Becerra v. Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up, the plaintiff alleged that the word “diet” in Diet Dr Pepper’s brand name violated various California laws, including the state’s False Advertising Law, because it falsely promised that the product would assist in weight loss or healthy weight management. The plaintiff alleged that this was false because an ingredient in the diet soda, aspartame, causes weight gain.

The district court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss without any discovery. In granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the district court held that no reasonable consumer would believe that the word “diet” in a soft drink’s brand name promises weight loss or healthy weight management. And, the district court held, even if a reasonable consumer would believe that, the plaintiff had not sufficiently alleged that any such promise was false or that aspartame consumption causes weight gain.

Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Holds that “Diet” Soda Name Is Not False or Misleading

On December 20, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued FleetCor Technologies, Inc., a fuel card marketer, and Ronald Clark, its CEO, in the Northern District of Georgia. The FTC lawsuit alleges that FleetCor charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden fees, making its promises about helping customers save on fuel costs false. The Defendants market various payment cards, including fuel cards, to companies in the trucking and commercial fleet industry. While the FTC interprets its authority to cover businesses, as it chose to do here, it does not often do so. The FTC’s vote to authorize the filing of the complaint was 4-1, with Commissioner Wilson voting no, and Commissioner Philips voting yes, but dissenting on the inclusion of Clarke as an individual defendant. In its complaint, the FTC cited numerous actions of the CEO that allegedly showed his awareness of FleetCor’s deceptive practices. FleetCor issued its own press release in response to the FTC’s suit denying the allegations.

According to the FTC, FleetCor made three main claims to customers: (1) its customers will save money; (2) the fuel cards utilize fraud controls to protect against unauthorized transactions; and (3) the cards have no set-up, transaction, or membership fees. Despite these promises, FleetCor allegedly charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars for unexpected fees and recurring fees for programs its customers never ordered.

Continue Reading Adding Fuel to the Fire: Company’s Hidden Fees Sparks FTC Suit