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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 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 January 25, New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) announced that the city’s largest used car dealership must pay more than $3 million in civil penalties after the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings concluded the dealership used deceptive and illegal practices to profit from low-income and minority consumers. According to the decision, DCA alleged that the dealership engaged in over 90,000 instances of deceptive trade practice in violation of various consumer protection laws, including, among other things, (i) falsifying consumers’ income and/or monthly rent obligations on credit applications; (ii) falsely advertising the financial terms of deals in print and online; (iii) failing to provide documents in Spanish to certain Spanish-speaking consumers; and (iv) misleading consumers about the history and condition of the used cars they purchased. The administrative law judge declined to revoke the dealership’s license, as originally sought by DCA.
This fine is in addition to the settlement agreement between DCA and the used car dealership that required the dealership to pay nearly $142,000 in restitution to 40 consumers and pay $68,000 to cover outstanding loans originated as a result of the allegedly deceptive actions.
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
- 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