A case about golf and advertising was too good for us not to write about. Recently, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a tentative preliminary injunction against GolfzonDeca, Inc. for marketing its GolfBuddy rangefinder. For you non-golfers, a rangefinder is a device that tells a golfer how far they are from the hole or other point on the course. Golfers continually strive for equipment that might help them lower their scores, and we are reminded of the prescient equipment tip from Arnold Palmer: “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game. It’s called an eraser.” Plaintiff SkyHawke Technologies, LLC brought several Lanham Act claims alleging misrepresentations with respect to (1) the source of GolfBuddy’s GPS data and (2) the GolfBuddy’s accuracy. As a competitor in the rangefinder marketplace, SkyHawke contended that it was entitled to a preliminary injunction with respect to these false statements. Continue Reading Getting the Yardage: District Court Locks in on Rangefinder Company’s False Claims
On October 19, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission issued its annual report to Congress regarding the FTC’s efforts to protect senior citizens from fraud and abuse. In the report, the FTC noted that adults over 60 are more likely to report losing money to certain types of alleged scams, including romance scams, imposter scams, and online shopping programs. Moreover, the FTC reports that seniors were more than six times more likely than younger consumers to report that they lost money because of tech support phishing activities, and three times more likely to report losing money because of lottery scams.
In a separate statement, Commissioner Rohit Chopra said the agency’s analysis suggests the need for two key actions. These actions, and Commissioner Chopra’s statement generally, indicate that the FTC is considering how to move forward in the face of the Supreme Court’s potential erosion of its favored enforcement tool—Section 13(b). His comments also have important implications for payment processors and other financial intermediaries that are facing inquiries from the FTC.
First, he recommended that the agency focus its enforcement actions on “larger, established firms,” rather than “smaller-scale scammers.” As an example, he pointed to the FTC’s settlement with payment processor Fiserv (formerly known as First Data) as a “model for the entire agency.” Commissioner Chopra believes that such enforcement actions against larger corporations would be a “better use of resources” and “more likely to lead to effective relief and systemic impact.” Continue Reading FTC Commissioner Warns Larger Companies and Payment Processors, Seeks Greater Financial Penalties
The COVID-19 crisis has spawned a new wave of predatory behavior toward consumers, with the marketing of coronavirus-related products and untested cures. Regulators have responded to these behaviors swiftly and in a variety of ways. Richard Cleland, assistant director – division of advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Venable attorneys Melissa Steinman and Kristen Klesh addressed the advertising enforcement trends stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and offered their reflections on best practices for consumer protection.
How has the FTC addressed consumer complaints?
The FTC’s response to COVID-19-related violations has been a combination of education and enforcement. The agency recorded more than 130,000 complaints in approximately the first half of 2020; unsubstantiated health claims and health fraud are the main areas of concern. The FTC has issued more than 300 warning letters and has seen a high compliance rate (around 95%) with this course of action. These letters address claims that businesses are promoting the cure or treatment of COVID-19 through:
- dietary supplements or treatment in medical or wellness clinics in the form of herbal teas, essential oils, vitamins, zinc, immunity boost IVs, chiropractic, homeopathic, other therapies, virus-killing “zappers,” and colloidal silver
- anti-vaccine messaging
The FTC has also filed three federal court actions related to COVID-19 consumer fraud and the agency is conducting extensive consumer education campaigns related to health fraud and coronavirus scams. The FTC website examines various types of health and economic fraud related to the epidemic.
Venable attorneys Eric Berman and Dan Blynn hosted a virtual fireside chat with attorney advisors to four current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioners. Touching on each commissioner’s background and enforcement priorities, the FTC attorney advisors offered insights into best practices and insider perspectives on interacting with the FTC through a series of questions and answers, posed by the Venable team and submitted by audience members. Each panelist spoke on their own behalf, and not on behalf of the FTC, but they provided our audience with unvarnished views on FTC practice and policy.
The panelists were:
- Austin King, Office of Commissioner Slaughter
- Sam Levine, Office of Commissioner Chopra
- Eitan Levisohn, Office of Commissioner Phillips
- Robin Spector, Office of Commissioner Wilson
This summary distills the broad takeaways and common themes of the discussion. A recording of the webinar with more detailed attorney advisor analysis is available here.
Yesterday, the Third Circuit issued an opinion in Federal Trade Commission v. AbbVie, Inc., joining the Seventh Circuit in holding that the FTC is not entitled to seek disgorgement under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The decision reflects a potential turning of the tides on how courts view FTC’s statutory authority to seek monetary relief.
By way of background, the district court ordered the AbbVie defendants to disgorge $448 million in alleged ill-gotten profits from anticompetitive conduct regarding the patented drug AndroGel. Though the Third Circuit held that the district court properly concluded that AbbVie had monopoly power in the relevant market, it struck down the $448 million award.
The FTC’s pursuit of companies purportedly engaged in telemarketing scams is nothing new, but its recent settlement with a company that allegedly assisted a fraudulent telemarketer by providing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service is the first of its kind. VoIP is a technology that allows a company to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular (or analog) phone line. VoIP services can make telemarketing more efficient and cheaper—particularly for autodialing and sending prerecorded messages. These features make it an attractive option for both legitimate and fraudulent telemarketers alike.
On July 29, 2019, the FTC and the Ohio attorney general sued Educare Center Services, Inc. (Educare), among other related entities and individuals, for engaging in an alleged telemarketing scheme that falsely promised consumers that Educare could significantly reduce the interest rate on consumers’ credit cards, along with a 100% money back guarantee. Educare collected payments from consumers using Remotely Created Payment Orders (RCPOs), in direct contravention of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
Given all the tumult with natural disasters, COVID-19, and other goings on in Washington, a memorandum directing government agencies to reform how they operate may have gone unnoticed. It’s worth considering. On August 31, 2020, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a subagency within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued Memorandum M-20-31 (the “Memo”), which elaborates on and implements directives from a prior executive order to consider and adopt certain best practices and procedures to promote fairness in administrative enforcement and adjudication. The Memo directs federal agencies to adopt measures aimed at according greater due process to individual and company targets for investigations and enforcement actions, and to promote transparency and accountability in the initiation and pursuit of administrative actions. The Memo’s directives usher in the potential for long-overdue substantive and procedural revisions to the rules of practice for independent agencies.
By way of background, the President signed Executive Order 13924, “Executive Order on Regulatory Relief to Support Economic Recovery,” on May 19, 2020, in response to economic impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. EO 13924 directs federal agencies to “address this economic emergency by rescinding, modifying, and waiving or providing exemptions from regulations and other requirements that may inhibit economic recovery” as enumerated in Section 6. The OIRA Memo sets forth specific best practices for implementing changes for the ten principles in Section 6 and sets a deadline of November 26, 2020 for agencies to engage in any necessary rulemaking to implement them.
The guidance will apply to all federal government departments and agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and many others.
The past five years have seen a major uptick in FTC enforcement against alleged charity fundraising scams, along with increased multi-state coordination in this space. Regular readers of this blog already know that, by having read this, this, this, and this. On September 15, 2020, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against fundraiser Outreach Calling, its owner and principal Mark Gelvan, two other related organizations, and three additional individuals. The attorneys general of New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Minnesota joined the FTC as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Alongside their complaint, the FTC and states filed proposed stipulated orders against each of the defendants.
The FTC and states allege that the defendants engaged in deceptive telemarketing campaigns on behalf of numerous (and now defunct) “sham” charities. According to the complaint, the Outreach Calling entities induced tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations by telling donors that the recipient charities provided assistance to particularly vulnerable populations, such as disabled and homeless veterans, breast cancer patients, law enforcement officers, and children. In fact, say the plaintiffs, the recipient charities spent very little of the money raised – in some cases only 1 or 2 percent of gross donations – on charitable programs. Instead, approximately 90 percent of the funds raised were paid to the Outreach Calling fundraisers; most of the remaining money funded the personal expenses of the charities’ principals.
The FTC and states brought causes of action under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and state charity and anti-fraud laws. To resolve the litigation, the parties have agreed to enter into stipulated orders that permanently ban the defendants from charity fundraising and that impose a collective monetary judgment of approximately $58 million. As is typical in cases like this one, the monetary judgment will be suspended because of the defendants’ inability to pay it; however, each of them must surrender certain assets, and Mr. Gelvan will have to sell two homes and grant the FTC a lien and mortgage on three of his properties in order to secure his payment obligations under the proposed order.
We have written previously about the FTC’s vigorous enforcement efforts relating to negative option marketing and its crackdown on alleged wrongdoing seeking to exploit the difficulties presented by COVID-19 (see blog posts here and here). Recently, the FTC continued its efforts with a complaint and settlement concerning negative option marketing to parents seeking online educational resources for their children.
On September 1, 2020, the FTC brought a complaint against online children’s education company Age of Learning, Inc., d/b/a as ABCmouse, alleging that it operated a deceptive negative option program between 2015 and 2018. The FTC alleged that ABCmouse’s actions violated both the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) by (1) failing to adequately disclose that its 12-month memberships would automatically renew indefinitely; (2) failing to disclose that extensions on 30-day free trial memberships at reduced rates would automatically renew indefinitely; (3) advertising “easy cancellation,” but creating a myriad of procedural hurdles to prevent cancellation; and (4) embedding pitfalls in the cancellation process to mislead customers into extending their memberships, as opposed to cancelling them. Furthermore, in some instances, even if a customer successfully navigated the cancellation process, ABCmouse would still charge for the cancelled services.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Liu v. SEC, lower courts are starting to address the breadth of its applicability. On August 31, 2020, the District of Arizona welcomed the Supreme Court’s directives in Liu when denying Electronic Payment Solutions of America Inc.’s (EPS) bid for summary judgment against the FTC. To the extent other courts read Liu as similarly applicable, this could have broad implications for the FTC’s authority to obtain monetary relief.
In FTC v. Electronic Payment Solutions, No. 17-cv-2535-PHX-SMM (D. Ariz. Aug. 31, 2020), the FTC filed suit against EPS for playing a role in facilitating Money Now Funding’s alleged telemarketing scheme, and sought to recover approximately $4.67 million from EPS—the total amount EPS collected from credit card transactions for Money Now Funding minus refunds and chargebacks. EPS moved for summary judgment on the grounds that, in light of Liu, the FTC’s monetary claim should be limited to net profits. EPS argued that the FTC, despite alleging entitlement to several forms of monetary relief, was actually seeking disgorgement under several different names. Accordingly, EPS argued that Liu requires courts to limit disgorgement only to the amount of net profits that will be returned to consumers.