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On February 3, the FTC announced a settlement with operators of a lead generator website (respondents) that compares and ranks consumer financial products such as student loans, personal loans, and credit cards. According to the FTC’s complaint, the respondents violated the FTC Act by allegedly making false representations to consumers that their rankings were objective, honest, accurate, and unbiased, when in fact, the defendants allegedly offered higher rankings to companies that paid for placement. In addition, the complaint alleges that certain highly ranked companies dropped placement spots after refusing to pay for their positions. The complaint further contends that the respondents allegedly claimed that customer reviews were impartial, but in reality most reviews were written by company employees or their family friends, or others associated with the company, or by fabricated consumers. Without admitting or denying the allegations, the respondents have agreed to pay $350,000 under the terms of the proposed settlement, and are prohibited from making future misrepresentations connected with the “advertising, promotion, offering for sale, or sale of any product or service.”
On August 27, the FTC announced a settlement with an Illinois-based educational services company and its subsidiaries (defendants) to resolve deceptive marketing allegations in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. In the complaint, the FTC claimed the defendants used third-party lead generators that posed as military recruiters or job-finding services to encourage consumers to provide contact information via websites. The websites did not clearly inform the consumers that the personal information entered into online forms might be sold or used in training or educational programs. Rather, the FTC asserted that the lead generators falsely informed consumers that their information would not be shared. According to the FTC, the defendants then purchased these leads to call consumers in an attempt to enroll them in post-secondary schools, with many of these calls made to consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry. While the defendants did not carry out the deceptive practices to generate the leads, the FTC stated that the defendants established control over the marketing materials and reviewed telemarketing scripts that allegedly directed lead generators to falsely identify themselves as military recruiters. The FTC’s press release emphasized that “[t]his case demonstrates that the FTC will seek to hold advertisers liable for the deceptive or illegal practices of their affiliates, publishers, or other lead generators. We expect companies purchasing leads to implement strong vendor management programs and stay on the right side of the law.” Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are: (i) ordered to pay $30 million; (ii) required to implement a system to review any marketing materials used by lead generators; (iii), prohibited from calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry without obtaining written consent; and (iv) banned from falsely stating that they represent the military or prospective employers.
On March 28, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order resolving the CFPB’s allegations against a California-based company for allegedly buying and selling personal information from payday and installment loan applications without properly vetting buyers and sellers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB’s December 2015 complaint alleged that, among other things, the company (i) knew or should have known that the lead generators in its network used false or misleading statements to obtain consumer information; and (ii) connected consumers with lenders that offered less favorable loan terms than were otherwise available, did not comply with state usury limits, or claimed they were exempt from state regulation and jurisdiction. The stipulated order requires the company to pay $1 million for consumer redress and $3 million in civil money penalties. Additionally, the company is banned from acting as a lead generator, lead aggregator, or data broker in connection with the offering of certain loans. The company neither admitted nor denied the allegations.
On September 26, the FCC announced that it fined a telemarketer and associated companies more than $82 million for using allegedly illegal caller ID spoofing to market and generate leads for health insurance sales in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act (the Act). The Act prohibits telemarketers from purposefully falsifying caller ID information with the intent to harm, defraud consumers, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. The FCC alleges that the telemarketer made more than 21 million robocalls with spoofed caller ID information, which makes it difficult for consumers to register complaints and for law enforcement to track and stop the illegal calls. According to the related Forfeiture Order (FCC 18-134), the FCC rejected the telemarketer’s argument that the value he received from the calls was not “wrongfully obtained,” concluding that the calls were placed without prior consent, including contacting consumers on the Do Not Call registry, and that the telemarketer knew the tactics he used to obtain the insurance leads were unlawful. The FCC also rejected the telemarketer’s request to reduce the penalty, stating “the proposed forfeiture of $82,106,000 properly reflects the seriousness, duration, and scope of [the telemarketer]’s violations.”
On September 15, the FTC issued a paper summarizing the insights garnered through its October 2015 “Follow the Lead” workshop on lead generation. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the workshop focused on lead generation issues in the mortgage and education lending space. The FTC paper “detail[s] the mechanics of online lead generation and potential benefits and concerns associated with lead generation for both businesses and consumers.” The paper provides a synopsis of payday lenders’ role in the lead generation industry by describing their use of the “ping tree,” an automated process that enables aggregators to sell consumers’ personal information to lenders or other aggregators. Although the paper acknowledges that lead generators provide potential benefits to consumer, including the ability to offer competitive prices in the mortgage lending space, it never-the-less identifies the following key areas of concern: (i) complexity and lack of transparency surrounding industry policies and processes; (ii) the use of potentially aggressive or deceptive marketing techniques; and (iii) the potential misuse and mishandling of consumers’ personal information in the payday lending space.
On October 30, the FTC hosted a workshop on online lead generation titled “Follow the Lead.” The workshop focused on lead generation in the mortgage and education lending space and consisted of a number of discussion panels composed of industry representatives, consumer advocates, and FTC regulators.
The first panel was primarily an overview of how web-based advertising is executed and how leads are generated using a variety of methods. Also discussed were the data analytics used to validate and assign value to the data collected. It was also noted that large media companies, such as Google and Facebook, have enacted policies restricting advertisements by participants in certain industries.
The second and third panels focused on online lead generation policies and practices in consumer and education lending, respectively. Industry participants and consumer advocates discussed varying policy viewpoints with respect to the practice of buying and selling data of consumers viewing a particular type of website to participants in a different industry. For instance, lead generators gathering data from consumers searching for jobs and then selling that data to providers of educational services. The panelists generally agreed that this practice was not inherently abusive, but could be harmful when implemented with intent to mislead. All generally agreed that guidance from the FTC and other government agencies would be useful to the extent that standards of conduct and transparency could be more clearly proscribed.
The fourth panel focused on consumer protections and the legal landscape of the lead generation industry. Consumer advocates noted that the process is often opaque and that consumers are generally unaware that their data may be sold multiple times and is often dispersed much further than they intended by seeking information about or applying for a specific product or service. It was also noted that consumer data is an asset for the entity that collected it and the pressure to monetize these assets results in the data being sold to anyone willing to pay for it, including those with an intent to commit fraud. Finally, the issue was raised that collected data exists forever, with the only restriction on the longevity of the information generally being that fact that information loses value as it becomes less current.
The panelists generally agreed that more transparency about the policies of the information collecting entity would be beneficial, with one noting that consumers will not read long policy disclosures, and therefore short statements notifying consumers of the potential uses of their data be provided at the point that data is collected. The panelists also generally agreed that the sellers of data should more carefully vet the buyers of that data and, conversely, data buyers should also more carefully vet the sellers. All panelists repeated the general theme that more guidance from agencies such as the FTC with respect to lead generation and data collection policies and best practices would be welcomed.
On October 19, the FTC announced the agenda for its upcoming workshop entitled, “Follow the Lead: An FTC Workshop About Online Lead Generation.” As consumers search the internet for goods and services, they are often times asked to provide sensitive personal and financial information that a lead generator may then subsequently transfer to third-party marketing companies. The workshop will examine consumer protection issues raised as a result of the practices of the lead generation industry, and is scheduled to host the following panels in Washington, DC on October 30: (i) Introduction to Lead Generation Marketplace and Mechanics; (ii) Case Study on Lead Generation in Lending; (iii) Case Study on Lead Generation in Education; (iv) Overview of Consumer Protection Concerns and the Legal Landscape; and (v) Looking Ahead – Protecting and Educating Consumers.
On April 7, Illinois Attorney General (AG) Lisa Madigan sued a payday loan lead generator to enforce a 2012 cease and desist order issued by the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The regulator and the AG assert that the state’s Payday Loan Reform Act (PLRA), which broadly defines “lender” to include “any person or entity . . . that . . . arranges a payday loan for a third party, or acts as an agent for a third party in making a payday loan, regardless of whether approval, acceptance, or ratification by the third party is necessary to create a legal obligation for the third party,” required the lead generator to obtain a license before operating in Illinois. The AG claims that the lead generator violated the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act by offering and arranging payday loans in knowing violation of the PLRA’s licensing and other requirements. The suit also alleges that the lead generator knowingly matched Illinois consumers with unlicensed members of the generator’s payday lender network. The AG is seeking a permanent injunction and a $50,000 civil penalty. On the same day, the AG also announced it filed suits against four online payday lenders for failing to obtain a state license, making payday loans with interest rates exceeding state usury caps, and otherwise violating state payday loan limitations. Those suits ask the court to permanently enjoin the lenders from operating in Illinois and declare all existing payday loan contracts entered into by those lenders null and void, with full restitution to borrowers.
On December 3, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state Department of Financial Services (DFS) sent subpoenas to 16 online “lead generation” companies as part of its expanding investigation into online payday lending. The DFS alleges the target companies are engaged in deceptive or misleading marketing of illegal, online payday loans in New York, and claims lead generation companies offer access to quick cash to encourage consumers to provide sensitive personal information and then sell that information to, among others, payday lenders operating unlawfully in New York. The DFS publicly kicked off an investigation of online payday lending earlier this year when it sent letters to 35 online lenders, including lenders affiliated with Native American Tribes, demanding that they cease and desist offering allegedly illegal payday loans to New York borrowers. Under New York law, it is civil usury for a company to make a loan or forbearance under $250,000 with an interest rate exceeding 16% per year, and a criminal violation to make a loan with an interest rate exceeding 25% per year. The DFS cites as part of the basis for its expanded investigation consumer complaints about false and misleading advertising (including celebrity endorsements), harassing phone calls, suspicious solicitations, privacy breaches, and other issues.
Florida District Court Orders Disgorgement of Profits from Unfair, Deceptive Online Payday Loan Referral Practices
On July 18, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida held that an online payday loan referral business engaged in unfair and deceptive billing practices and failed to provide adequate disclosures to its customers. FTC v. Direct Benefits Group, LLC, No. 11-1186, 2013 WL 3771322 (M.D. Fla. Jul. 18, 2013). The FTC alleged that the defendants violated the FTC Act by obtaining consumers’ bank account information through payday loan referral websites and debiting their accounts without their consent. The FTC also alleged that the defendants failed to adequately disclose that, in addition to using consumers’ financial information for a payday loan application, they would use it to charge them for enrollments in unrelated programs and services. During a bench trial, the parties presented evidence and arguments regarding the content and operation of the websites and whether consumers could enroll in the referral programs without taking affirmative steps to do so. The court agreed with the FTC’s claims that the defendants’ practices were deceptive and held that the “pop-up box” used to enroll consumers in the programs at issue was misleading. The court explained that the defendants’ website and the online payday loan application form created the overall impression that they were intended for applying for payday loans and that the bank account information that applicants were asked to enter would be used for deposit of the payday loan—not so that the account could or would be debited for the purchase of an unrelated product or service. Further, the court held that the defendants’ disclosures were not clear and conspicuous under the principles included in the FTC’s “.com disclosures guidance.” The court also held that the FTC established that the billing practices were unfair, and ordered the defendants to disgorge over $9.5 million and permanently cease the practices at issue.
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