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On April 11, the FTC announced that a payment processing company and its owner agreed to a $1.8 million settlement resolving allegations that the company repeatedly violated a 2009 court order. That order found that the payment processer knowingly or consciously avoided knowing that debit card transactions it processed, on behalf of an allegedly fraudulent enterprise, were not authorized by the consumers. The FTC alleged that the company violated the 2009 order by, among other things, (i) failing to engage in a reasonable investigation of prospective clients before processing payments on their behalf; (ii) failing to monitor clients’ transactions to ensure that clients were not engaged in illegal behavior; and (iii) failing to adhere to administrative requirements of the order, including submitting a written compliance report to the agency. In addition to the monetary penalty, the new settlement permanently bans the company from working as a payment processor and subjects the company to reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
On April 3, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ordered a publisher and conference organizer and his three companies (defendants) to pay more than $50.1 million to resolve allegations that the defendants made deceptive claims about the nature of their scientific conferences and online journals, and failed to adequately disclose publication fees in violation of the FTC Act. Among other things, the FTC alleged, and the court agreed, that the defendants misrepresented that their online academic journals underwent rigorous peer reviews but defendants did not conduct or follow the scholarly journal industry’s standard review practices and often provided no edits to submitted materials. The court determined that the defendants also failed to disclose material fees for publishing authors work when soliciting authors and often did not disclose fees until the work had been accepted for publication. The court also found that the defendants falsely advertised the attendance and participation of various prominent academics and researchers at conferences without their permission or actual affiliation.
In addition to the monetary judgment, the final order grants injunctive relief and (i) prohibits the defendants from making misrepresentations regarding their publications and conferences; (ii) requires that the defendants clearly and conspicuously disclose all costs associated with publication in their journals; and (iii) requires the defendants to obtain express written consent from any individual the defendants represent as affiliated with their products or services.
On the same day, the FTC also announced a settlement with a subscription box snack service to resolve allegations that the company violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting customer reviews as independent and failing to adequately disclose key terms of its “free trial” programs. Specifically, the FTC alleged that the company provided customers with free products and other incentives in exchange for posting positive online reviews and misrepresented that independent customers made the reviews or posts. The company also allegedly offered “free trial” snack boxes without adequately disclosing key terms of the offer, including the stipulation that if the trial was not canceled on time, the customer would be automatically enrolled as a subscriber and charged the “total amount owed for six months of snack box shipments.” The proposed order, among other things, prohibits the specified behavior and requires the company to pay $100,000 in consumer redress.
On March 27, the FTC announced it had entered into two stipulated orders for permanent injunction and monetary judgment (see here and here) against an office supply company and its California-based tech-support services vendor (defendants) for allegedly violating the FTC Act by selling computer repair and technical services to consumers who were told the company’s software program had detected malware symptoms on their computers. According to the FTC’s complaint, from approximately 2009 to November 2016, the defendants allegedly used a software program marketed as a “PC Health Check Program”—among other names—to “facilitate the sale of computer repair services to . . . retail customers.” The program, which claimed to detect malware symptoms on consumers’ computers, actually based the results on answers to questions consumers were asked at the beginning of the program, including whether the computer had issues with displayed pop-up ads or other problems, ran slow, received virus warnings, or crashed often. The FTC claimed the scan had no connection to the malware symptoms results and that, since at least 2012, the defendants allegedly knew that the program falsely reported malware symptoms but continued to reward store managers and employees who generated sales from the program until late 2016. The proposed order imposes a combined $35 million monetary judgment, bans the office supply company from making misrepresentations concerning the security or performance of consumers’ electronic devices, and requires the company to ensure that existing and future software providers do not engage in the prohibited conduct. The order also prohibits the vendor from misrepresenting or helping others to misrepresent the performance or detection of security issues on consumers’ electronic devices.
On March 26, the FTC announced settlements issued against four separate operations for allegedly placing billions of illegal robocalls to consumers selling auto warranties, debt-relief services, home security systems, veterans’ charities and Google search results services. The actions are part of the FTC’s ongoing efforts to combat illegal robocalls. According to the FTC, the companies—along with several of their affiliates and leaders—allegedly violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), including its Do Not Call provisions.
Proposed settlements issued against two related operations and their leaders—who, according to the FTC’s complaint, developed and enabled a software dialing platform that resulted in more than one billion robocalls—ban the defendants from engaging in telemarketing activities utilizing an autodialer, and imposes judgements ranging from $1 million to $2.7 million, of which two are fully suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay. The FTC also reached a final settlement against defendants who allegedly placed robocalls to pitch fake debt-relief services promising lowered credit card interest rates and interest payment savings. The order permanently bans the defendants from engaging in telemarketing and debt-relief services, and imposes a $3.15 million judgment, which will be suspended following the turnover of available assets. Separately, the FTC reached a proposed settlement with a defendant who allegedly used robocalls promoting fake veterans’ charities to solicit donations, which he eventually sold for his own benefit. The proposed order bans the defendant from engaging in telemarketing services or soliciting charitable contributions, prohibits him from making future misrepresentations, and imposes a $541,032 monetary judgment, which will also be suspended following the turnover of available assets. Finally, the FTC announced proposed settlements against three defendants (see here, here, and here) whose Florida-based operations allegedly violated the TSR by falsely claiming to represent Google and making threats and promises to businesses concerning search results and page placements. The terms of the proposed settlements, among other things, ban the defendants from deceptive sales practices, and require the defendants to disclose their identities during telemarketing sales calls. Monetary judgements imposed against the defendants and their companies range from $1.72 million to $3.62 million, and will be partially suspended due to their inability to pay.
On March 7, the FTC announced a new legal action and a final settlement issued against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes that exploit elderly Americans. The actions are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with, among others, the FBI, the FTC, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Louisiana Attorney General, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—is the largest-ever coordinated nationwide elder fraud sweep, involving multiple cases, over 260 defendants, and more than two million allegedly victimized U.S. Citizens, most of whom are elderly.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the company used deceptive tactics to convince consumers, the majority of whom were older, that their computers were infected with viruses in order to sell expensive and unnecessary computer repair services in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Specifically, the company allegedly used internet ads to target consumers looking for email password assistance and once they contacted the consumers, the telemarketers would run phony “diagnostic” tests that falsely showed the consumer’s computer was in danger and needed software and services to be fixed. On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Utah, granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its founder.
The FTC also announced a proposed settlement with a sweepstake operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of tens of millions of dollars through personalized mailers that falsely implied that the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC announced the charges against the company in February 2018, alleging that consumers, most of whom were elderly, paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The final settlement not only requires the operation to turn over $30 million in assets and cash to provide redress to the victims, but also permanently bans the operators from similar prize promotions in the future. The proposed settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
On February 26, the FTC announced it had recently provided the CFPB with its annual summary of work on ECOA-related policy issues including the following FTC research and policy development initiatives:
- The FTC held a series of public hearings on competition and consumer protection in the 21st century. Session seven specifically addressed issues related to the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics. Panelists addressed how fairness, bias, and discrimination may impact the use of such technologies and debated whether current legal protections such as ECOA sufficiently cover these issues.
- The FTC continued its qualitative study of consumer experiences when buying and selling automobiles at dealerships, which the agency believes will help focus initiatives, such as educating consumers about the purchase and financing process and providing business education to promote compliance with the FTC Act and ECOA.
- The FTC’s Military Task Force, which consists of a cross-section of agency representatives, continued to work on military consumer protection issues. Workshops were conducted to examine financial issues and scams targeting military consumers, including servicemembers and veterans. In addition, the FTC participated in a training program for servicemembers and their families to discuss ECOA and Regulation B protections.
- The FTC maintained its membership in the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending, along with the CFPB, DOJ, HUD, and the federal banking regulatory agencies, and participated in the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.
Concerning fair lending, the FTC stated that it provided education on several topics, including those related to credit transactions that fall under Regulation B.
On February 28, the FTC announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico alleging a business owner and the companies he operates (defendants) violated the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) by allegedly offering deceptive online “free-trial” offers that mislead consumers into enrolling into negative option plans. According to the complaint, the defendants sold skin care products online between February 2016 and August 2017 and marketed a free trial for the products for the cost of around $4.99 in shipping. The complaint alleges consumers who ordered the free trial (i) were charged more than $90 and then subsequently enrolled into a monthly auto-ship program; (ii) were charged for additional products without their consent; and (iii) had a difficult time canceling their enrollment in the auto-ship plan. Moreover, the FTC argues that the defendants avoided detection by using shell companies to obtain merchant processing accounts and fake and real websites in order to avoid detection by credit card companies and law enforcement. The FTC is seeking monetary and injunctive relief against the defendants.
On February 26, the FTC announced its first action against a company for using fake paid reviews on an independent retail website in violation of the FTC Act. According to the complaint, the company—which advertised and sold a pill on a retail website as an appetite suppressant, fat blocker, and weight loss supplement—paid a website to create and post reviews of its supplement on the retail website in order to keep the supplement’s rating high. The FTC argues that paying for the fake reviews constitutes a deceptive act or practice and the making of false advertisements in violation of the FTC Act because the company represented the reviews as truthful comments by actual product purchasers. Moreover, the FTC alleges that the company made deceptive or false claims about the effectiveness of its supplement on the retail website because the claims were unsubstantiated at the time the representations were made. The proposed order imposes injunctive relief prohibiting the company from making similar claims related to similar dietary supplements unless there is reliable evidence from human clinical testing to support the claims, and from misrepresenting that an endorsement is truthful or from an actual purchaser. As part of the settlement, the company has agreed to a 12.8 million suspended judgment after the payment of $50,000 based on the company’s financial condition. The proposed order has not yet been approved by the district court.
On February 25, the FTC announced it has approved a final consent order with an online student loan refinance lender resolving allegations that the lender violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting in television, print, and internet advertisements how much money student loan borrowers can save from refinancing their loans with the company. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the lender inflated the average savings consumers have achieved by refinancing through the lender, in some instances doubling the average savings by selectively excluding certain groups of consumers from the data. Additionally, the FTC also alleged that in some instances, the lender’s webpage misrepresented instances where a loan option would result in the consumer paying more on a monthly basis or over the lifetime of the loan, simply stating the savings would be “0.00.” In October 2018, without admitting or denying the allegations, the lender agreed to a consent order that required it to cease the alleged misrepresentations and agree to compliance monitoring and recordkeeping requirements. Following a public comment period, the FTC Commission voted 5-0 to approve the final consent order.
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit issued a summary order reversing the lower court’s dismissal of an FTC and New York State action, which alleges a biotechnology group’s (defendants) marketing campaign for a dietary supplement was deceptive under the FTC Act. According to the opinion, defendants claimed in advertising and marketing materials that a suite of dietary supplements (i) improve memory and provide other cognitive benefits; (ii) the effects are clinically proven; and (iii) have an active ingredient that “supplements” brain proteins. The FTC and New York State brought an action alleging deceptive marketing in violation of the FTC Act because the defendants study of the supplements showed “no statistically significant improvement in the memory and cognition of the participants,” and the few positive findings did not “provide reliable evidence of a treatment effect.” The lower court dismissed the action, finding the challenge to the study “never proceed[ed] beyond the theoretical” as the complaint only showed there were “possibilities that the study’s results do not support its conclusion.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit found the complaint adequately alleges that the results of the study contradict representations made in the marketing materials, such as, the supplement “improved memory for most subjects within 90 days,” and concluded the lower court erred in dismissing the action.
- Buckley Webcast: The next consumer litigation frontier? Assessing the consumer privacy litigation and enforcement landscape in 2019 and beyond
- Buckley Webcast: The CFPB’s proposed debt collection rule
- Buckley Webcast: Trends in e-discovery technology and case law
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "What the flood? Don’t get washed away by a flood of changes" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mitigating the risks of banking high risk customers" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano, Kari K. Hall, Brandy A. Hood, and H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Regulations that matter in a deregulatory environment" at the American Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference Power Hour
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- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Navigating the challenges of the latest data protection regulations and proven protocols for breach prevention and response" at the ACI National Forum on Consumer Finance Class Actions and Government Enforcement
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Douglas F. Gansler to discuss "Role of state AGs in consumer protection" at a George Mason University Law & Economics Center symposium