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On May 2, the CFPB announced that it had filed a lawsuit against Utah-based credit repair telemarketers and their affiliates (defendants) for allegedly committing deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, the CFPB alleges the defendants charged consumers a fee for telemarketed credit repair services when they signed up for the services, and then monthly thereafter, without (i) waiting for the timeframe in which they represented their services would be provided to expire; and (ii) demonstrating that the promised results have been achieved, in the form of a consumer report issued more than six months after those results were achieved, as required by the TSR. Additionally, the CFPB alleges that certain defendants made false and misleading claims constituting deceptive acts under the CFPA. Specifically, the CFPB alleges those defendants marketed that guaranteed, or high-likelihood, loans or rent-to-own housing offers would be available through affiliates after signing up for credit repair services when in actuality, the products were not available. The CFPB is seeking restitution, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief against the defendants.
FTC obtains $2.7 million judgment against “free samples” operation; settles deceptive marketing matter
On April 11, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered a New York-based office supply operation to pay $2.7 million to resolve allegations that the defendants targeted consumers, such as small businesses, hotels, municipalities, and charitable organizations, by deceptively misrepresenting the terms of their “free samples.” Specifically, the FTC alleged in 2017 that the defendants violated the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act (Telemarketing Act) and the Unordered Merchandise Statute by calling consumers with offers of free product and then billing the consumers after shipping the samples. In some instances, the FTC stated, consumers refused the offer of the free product, but the defendants sent it anyway. Once the samples were shipped, the FTC claimed the defendants sent follow-up invoices demanding payment for the product, and would then send dunning notices and place collection calls. Under the terms of the order, the defendants are permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of unordered merchandise, or from misrepresenting material facts, and are required to pay $2.7 million to be refunded to affected consumers.
Separately, on April 10, the FTC announced proposed settlements (see here and here) issued against twelve corporate and four individual defendants for allegedly claiming their “cognitive improvement” supplements increase brain power and performance. According to the complaint, the defendants’ deceptive acts and practices included using “sham news” websites to market false and misleading efficacy claims, such as fraudulent celebrity endorsements and fictitious clinical studies. Furthermore, the FTC alleged that, while the defendants claimed to offer a “100% Money Back Guarantee” on their supplements, consumers found it difficult or nearly impossible to get a refund, and that some consumers were allegedly charged for supplements they ordered but never received. The proposed settlements, among other things, prohibits the specified behavior and impose monetary judgments of $14,564,891 and $11,587,117, both of which will be partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay.
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 April 2, the FTC announced that it joined the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in sending letters to three supplement companies warning them that making allegedly unsupported health and efficacy claims in their advertising may violate the FTC Act. According to the letters (available here, here, and here), the three companies advertise supplements they say contain cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD), and, allegedly, among other things, effectively treat diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, and neuropsychiatric disorders. The letters emphasize that it is unlawful under the FTC Act “to advertise that a product can prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, substantiating that the claims are true at the time they are made.” The letters also note that the products constitute “new drugs” and cannot be introduced or delivered into interstate commerce without prior FDA approval. The letters appear related to the FTC’s initiative to target advertisers who make deceptive claims about their products. As previously covered by InfoBytes, FTC Chairman, Joseph Simons, spoke about this initiative at a recent conference, and cited several of the agency’s enforcement actions, including challenges to dietary supplement health benefit claims and deceptive environmental claims. Additionally, he stated the agency is prepared to “proceed in federal court as warranted.”
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 20, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons spoke at the 2019 ANA Advertising Law and Public Policy Conference to discuss FTC consumer protection initiatives, including those that target advertisers who make deceptive claims about their products. Simons noted that focusing solely on fraudulent advertising is not sufficient, and that the FTC is committed to investigating deceptive advertising intended to mislead consumers, even if the product or service is legitimate. Simons cited several recent enforcement actions, including challenges to dietary supplement health benefit claims and deceptive environmental claims, and stated the agency is prepared to “proceed in federal court as warranted.” (See InfoBytes coverage here and here.) Simons also commented that the FTC is rethinking its approach to the types of remedies used to enforce consumer protection laws in order to both deter future violations and provide meaningful relief to harmed consumers.
Concerning targeted advertising and its connection to privacy concerns, Simons discussed three relevant “fundamental principles of consumer protection”: companies should (i) be fully transparent about the true nature of their data collection and sharing practices; (ii) focus on consumer outcomes when making business decisions to use consumer data; and (iii) make themselves aware of the practices of companies with whom they do business.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied a request for summary judgment by several defendant pawnbrokers and pawnshops concluding there exists “disputed general issues of material fact” concerning claims filed by two plaintiffs who entered into pawn-loan contracts with the defendants. Among other things, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated Amendment 89 of the Arkansas Constitution (Amendment 89) and the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (ADTPA) by charging usurious rates of interest, and violated ADTPA by making false statements on pawn loan contracts (pawn tickets). The plaintiffs additionally claimed that the defendants violated TILA by failing to identify creditors on the face of their pawn tickets.
In dismissing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court determined that success of the claims hinged upon whether “the pawn transactions . . . are ‘loans’ charging usurious rates of interest under Arkansas law.” Specifically, genuine issues of material fact remained on: (i) whether the defendants knowingly entered into loans charging usurious interest because “the differences between traditional bank loans and pawn transactions . . . may not prevent the pawn transactions entered into by [the plaintiffs] from being classified as ‘loans’ under Arkansas law”; (ii) whether the plaintiffs were charged usurious interest or otherwise suffered damages under Amendment 89 or ADTPA as a result of the pawn transactions; (iii) whether the language on the pawn tickets stating that “the finance charge ‘is not interest for any purpose of the law,’” was a false statement in violation of the ADTPA; and (iv) whether the defendants’ failure to disclose the identity of the creditors on the pawn tickets is a violation of TILA, because, among other things, there remains a dispute as to whether the identified finance charges constitute as “credit,” and whether certain defendants qualify as “creditors” under TILA. Furthermore, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that they were entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ TILA claims “due to plaintiffs’ alleged failure to demonstrate detrimental reliance.”
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 October 29, the New York Attorney General announced the filing of a complaint against a national jewelry store, headquartered in New York, for allegedly engaging in fraudulent and deceptive conduct, deceptive credit repair services, and illegal lending in the financing of jewelry sales to active duty servicemembers. Specifically, the complaint alleges the company targets active duty servicemembers through a purported charitable program in which military-themed teddy bears are sold with a promise of a charitable donation by the company. The company also sells patriotic and military-themed jewelry and offers financing through a program exclusively available to servicemembers. The financing program is marketed as a credit repair or credit-establishing opportunity through a different entity, but according to the complaint, the separate entity is merely an “alter-ego” of the jewelry company, a relationship which is not disclosed to servicemembers. The company markets the financing program to active duty servicemembers as a way to build credit scores to purchase other consumer goods, such as a motor vehicle; however, once a servicemember agrees to the program, the Attorney General alleges the company’s employees are instructed to “’sell’ enough product to maximize the amount of credit [the company] is willing to advance.” The amount of credit is allegedly based on the amount of time the servicemember has left in active service, not on traditional underwriting standards such as credit history. Additionally, the complaint alleges the company marks up poor-quality jewelry between 600 and 1,000 percent over the wholesale price and advertises a “per payday” price on the merchandise, which bears “little resemblance to the total amount paid by a consumer at the end of the financing contract.” Of special interest to all creditors doing business in New York, the complaint appears to include in its civil and criminal usury claims the concept that the effective interest rate was higher because the good being purchased had “inflated retail prices.” The complaint seeks civil money penalties, restitution, and injunctive relief.
- 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
- Buckley Webcast: Data breach litigation and biometric legislation
- 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