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  • FTC temporarily halts unlawful debt collection operation

    Federal Issues

    On October 15, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted a temporary restraining order against a debt collection operation for allegedly engaging in fraudulent debt collection practices. According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation violated the FTC Act and the FDCPA by, among other things, (i) posing as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, mediators, investigators, or process servers when calling consumers to collect debts; (ii) using profane language and threatening consumers with arrest or serious legal consequences if debts were not immediately paid; (iii) threatening to garnish wages, suspend Social Security payments, revoke drivers’ licenses, or lower credit scores; (iv) attempting to collect debts that were either never owed or were no longer owed; (v) unlawfully contacting third parties, such as family members or employers; and (vi) adding unauthorized or impermissible charges or fees to consumers’ debts. The complaint asserts that the operation also refused to provide written verification about the alleged debts as required by the FDCPA. Beyond the temporary restraining order, the FTC is seeking a permanent injunction, contract rescission or reformation, restitution, disgorgement, the appointment of a receiver, immediate access to business premises, an asset freeze, and other equitable relief.

    The action is part of the FTC’s “Operation Corrupt Collector”—a nationwide enforcement and outreach effort established last month by the FTC, CFPB, and more than 50 federal and state law enforcement partners to address illegal debt collection practices. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)

    Federal Issues FTC Debt Collection Enforcement FTC Act FDCPA

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  • 3rd Circuit: Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the agency restitution power

    Courts

    On September 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a district court’s order of $448 million in disgorgement, concluding that disgorgement is not a remedy available under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. According to the opinion, the FTC brought an action against the owners of a testosterone treatment patent (defendants) for allegedly “trying to monopolize and restrain trade over [the treatment],” in violation of Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The district court dismissed the FTC’s claims related to the reverse-payment agreement the defendants entered into with another pharmaceutical company but held the defendants liable for the FTC’s sham-litigation allegations and ordered the defendants to pay $448 in disgorgement of ill-gotten gains. The district court denied the FTC’s request for an injunction.

    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded, among other holdings, that the court erred by ordering disgorgement, as it lacked the authority to do so under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. Specifically, the appellate court noted that Section 13(b) “authorizes a court to ‘enjoin’ antitrust violations,” but is silent on disgorgement. The appellate court rejected the FTC’s contention that Section 13(b) “impliedly empowers district courts” to order disgorgement as well as injunctive relief, concluding that “the context of Section 13(b) and the FTC Act’s broader statutory scheme both support ‘a necessary and inescapable inference’ that a district court’s jurisdiction in equity under Section 13(b) is limited to ordering injunctive relief.” Thus the appellate court reversed the order of $448 million in disgorgement.

    In reaching this conclusion, the appellate court noted its determination was consistent with the 7th Circuit’s decision FTC v. Credit Bureau Center (covered by InfoBytes here), which also held that the FTC does not have the power to order restitution under Section 13(b). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court granted consolidated review in Credit Bureau Center and in the 9th Circuit’s decision in FTC v. AMG Capital Management (covered by InfoBytes here). The Court will decide whether the FTC can demand equitable monetary relief in civil enforcement actions under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act.

    Courts FTC Restitution FTC Act Injunction Third Circuit Appellate Seventh Circuit Ninth Circuit U.S. Supreme Court

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  • District court: FTC allegations fail due to lack of credible experts

    Courts

    On September 24, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania entered an order granting a Pennsylvania-based home insulation manufacturer’s motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(c). The insulation manufacturer was accused of violating the FTC Act by making misrepresentations regarding the performance of its home insulation product. In particular, the FTC “challenge[d] the veracity” of the company’s “R-value” claims about the performance of its house insulation product. In the order, the court ruled that the FTC “offered no reliable or credible expert testimony.” The court explained that “[w]hen the FTC challenges the veracity of a corporation’s R-value and energy saving claims, expert testimony is required,” and emphasized that the FTC has the burden of proving that a company’s “purported substantiation is inadequate.” The FTC’s two expert witnesses, the court determined, were not credible and did not express “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.” The court further ruled that the FTC failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence that the company’s substantiation lacked a reasonable basis. As a result of the order, judgment will be entered in favor of the defendant and against the FTC.

    Courts FTC FTC Act

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  • FTC settles with company posing as SBA lender

    Federal Issues

    On September 25, the FTC announced a settlement with a Rhode Island-based company and its owner (defendants), resolving allegations that the defendants violated the FTC Act by claiming to be an approved lender for the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) even though the defendants are neither affiliated with the SBA nor an SBA-authorized lender. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed an action against the defendants in April, alleging that the defendants made deceptive statements on their websites, such as “WE ARE A DIRECT LENDER FOR THE PPP PROGRAM!,” and directly contacted small businesses claiming to represent the SBA in order to solicit loan applications on behalf of the businesses’ banks. The settlement prohibits the defendants from engaging in the conduct subject to the action, including misrepresenting that they are affiliated with the SBA and that they are authorized to accept or process applications on behalf of the SBA. Moreover, the defendants are prohibited from disclosing or benefitting from consumer information obtained prior to the settlement without express, informed consent from the consumer, and are subject to certain reporting and recordkeeping requirements.

    Federal Issues Covid-19 SBA FTC Enforcement Small Business Lending UDAP FTC Act CARES Act Deceptive

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  • Court orders investment training operation to pay $362 million in FTC action

    Courts

    On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered a California-based investment training operation to pay $362 million to resolve FTC allegations that the operation used deceptive claims to sell costly “training programs” targeting older consumers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC argued that the operation violated the FTC Act and the Consumer Review Fairness Act by using false or unfounded claims to market programs that purportedly teach consumers investment strategies designed to generate substantial income from trading in the financial markets “without the need to possess or deploy significant amounts of investable capital.” Additionally, the FTC alleged the operation required that dissatisfied customers requesting refunds sign agreements barring them from posting negative comments about the operation or its personnel, and prohibited customers from reporting potential violations to law enforcement agencies.

    The district court agreed with the FTC, approving an order that requires the operation to pay a partially suspended judgment of $362 million, with three individual defendants required to pay $8.3 million, $158,000, and $736,300, respectively, and to surrender various assets. The remainder of the total judgment is suspended upon the completion of the individuals’ respective payments and surrender of assets, conditioned on the “truthfulness, accuracy, and completeness” of the sworn financial representations. Moreover, among other things, the order prohibits the operation from (i) making misleading claims of potential earnings or misrepresenting the time or effort required by consumers to “attain proficiency” in the operation’s trading strategy; and (ii) restricting customers from communicating with law enforcement or posting negative reviews. Additionally, the operation must notify all clients of their rights to post honest reviews and to file complaints.

    Courts FTC Civil Money Penalties FTC Act Deceptive UDAP Advertisement

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  • 9th Circuit upholds $50 million order in FTC action against publisher

    Courts

    On September 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a split decision, upheld the district court order requiring 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. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, the FTC alleged the defendants misrepresented that their online academic journals underwent rigorous peer reviews; instead, according to the FTC, the defendants did not conduct or follow the scholarly journal industry’s standard review practices and often provided no edits to submitted materials. Additionally, the FTC alleged that the defendants failed to disclose material fees for publishing authors’ work when soliciting authors and that the defendants falsely advertised the attendance and participation of various prominent academics and researchers at conferences without their permission or actual affiliation. The district court agreed with the FTC and, among other things, ordered the defendants to pay more than $50.1 million in consumer redress.

    On appeal, the split 9th Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding that the defendants violated the FTC Act, noting that the despite the “overwhelming evidence against them,” the defendants “made only general denials” and did not “create any genuine disputes of material fact as to their liability.” The appellate court emphasized that the misrepresentations made by the defendants were “material” and “did in fact, deceive ordinary customers.” Moreover, among other things, the appellate court held that the defendants failed to meet their burden to show that the FTC “overstated the amount of their unjust gains by including all conference-related revenue.” Specifically, the appellate court determined that conferences were “part of a single scheme of deceptive business practices,” even though the conferences were individual, discrete events. Because the marketing was “widely disseminated,” the court determined that the FTC was entitled to a rebuttable presumption that “all conference consumers were deceived.”

    In partial dissent, a judge asserted the FTC “did not reasonably approximate unjust gains” by including all conference-related revenue, because “the FTC’s own evidence indicates that only approximately 60% of the conferences were deceptively marketed.” Thus, according to the dissent, the case should have been remanded to the district court to determine whether the FTC can meet its initial burden.

    Courts FTC FTC Act UDAP Deceptive Advertisement Settlement Appellate Ninth Circuit

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  • FTC settles with student debt relief operation for $835,000

    Federal Issues

    On September 9, the FTC announced an $835,000 settlement with the operators of a student loan debt relief operation, resolving allegations against five individuals (collectively, “defendants”) whom the FTC claims engaged in deceptive marketing and charged illegal upfront fees. According to the November 2019 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the defendants and several others, the defendants allegedly used telemarketing calls, as well as media advertisements, to enroll consumers in student debt relief services in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The defendants allegedly misrepresented that they were affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education and misrepresented “material aspects of their debt relief services,” including by promising to enroll consumers in repayment programs to reduce or eliminate payments and balances. Additionally, the defendants charged illegal upfront fees, and often placed the consumers’ loans into temporary forbearance or deferments with their student loan servicers, without the consumer’s authorization.

    The settlement order includes a monetary judgment of over $43 million, which is partially suspended due to the defendants’ inability to pay. The defendants “will be required to surrender at least $835,000 and additional assets, which will be used for consumer redress.” Additionally, the defendants are prohibited from providing student debt relief services in the future and they must cooperate in the FTC’s pursuit of the case against the remaining defendants.

    Federal Issues FTC Telemarketing Sales Rule FTC Act Deceptive UDAP Student Lending Debt Relief

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  • FTC settles with auto dealers for falsifying consumer financial documents

    Federal Issues

    On September 4, the FTC announced a settlement with group of auto dealers (defendants) with locations in Arizona and New Mexico near the Navajo Nation’s border, resolving allegations that the defendants advertised misleading discounts and incentives and falsely inflated consumers’ income and down payment information on certain financing applications. As previously covered by InfoBytes in August 2018, the FTC filed an action against the defendants alleging violations of the FTC Act, TILA, and the Consumer Leasing Act for submitting falsified consumer financing applications to make consumers appear more creditworthy, resulting in consumers—many of whom are members of the Navajo Nation—defaulting “at a higher rate than properly qualified buyers.”

    The court-approved settlement requires the defendants to cease all business operations and includes a monetary judgment of over $7 million. Because the defendants are currently in Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, the settlement will make the FTC an unsecured claimant in the bankruptcy proceedings. The settlement also prohibits the bankruptcy trustee from using or selling the consumer information obtained from the defendants’ business activities as part of the bankruptcy liquidation.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance FTC Auto Finance FTC Act TILA Consumer Leasing Act Bankruptcy

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  • FTC seeks $10 million settlement for negative option billing

    Federal Issues

    On September 2, the FTC announced a proposed $10 million settlement with an online education company, resolving allegations the company engaged in negative option marketing and deceptive billing practices in violation of the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. According to the complaint, filed by the FTC in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, from 2015 through at least 2018, the company “failed to adequately disclose key terms of memberships to access online education content for children.” Specifically, the company failed to disclose that memberships automatically renewed indefinitely and kept the “ongoing nature of these term memberships only in separately hyperlinked terms and conditions,” with the automatic renewal “buried” in “dense text, in small font and in single-spaced type.” Moreover, the company allegedly created a difficult cancelation process, notwithstanding the promise of “easy cancellation” written in “bold, red text.”

    Under the proposed settlement, the FTC is seeking $10 million in monetary relief and seeks to ban the company from making negative option misrepresentations. Additionally, the proposal would require the company to, among other things, clearly disclose terms of membership and obtain consumers’ informed consent before enrolling them in an automatic billing program.

    Federal Issues FTC FTC Act ROSCA Disclosures Negative Option

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  • Court backs FTC’s $120 million settlement in Belizean real estate scheme

    Courts

    On August 28, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted the FTC’s request for four individuals and the remaining corporate defendants who have not yet settled (collectively, “defendants”) to pay over $120 million in redress to resolve allegations the defendants operated an international real estate investment development scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in November 2018, the FTC initiated the action against the individuals, several corporate entities, and a Belizean bank, asserting that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. The FTC contends that consumers who purchased lots in the development purchased the lots outright or made large down payments and sizeable monthly payments, and paid monthly homeowners association fees, and that defendants used the money received from these payments to fund their “high-end lifestyles,” rather than to invest in the development. In September 2019, the FTC settled with the Belizean bank, requiring the bank to pay $23 million in equitable relief, including consumer redress (covered by InfoBytes here).

    Following a trial, the district court has now agreed with the FTC, concluding that the remaining defendants violated the FTC Act and the TSR. The court found the defendants jointly and severally liable for over $120 million in restitution and granted the FTC’s request for permanent injunctions—banning the defendants from any telemarketing activity and banning one defendant, described as “nothing less than the mastermind” of the operations, from “engaging in any kind of real estate activity” in the future.

    Courts FTC FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule Restitution

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