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On January 21, the SEC announced that it filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against a blockchain company and the company’s founder (defendants) for allegedly “conducting a fraudulent and unregistered initial coin offering (ICO).” The SEC alleges, among other things, that from 2017 until 2018, the defendants raised $600,000 from nearly 200 investors through promoting an ICO of digital asset securities called “OPP Tokens,” using material misrepresentations to create the false impression that the defendants’ platform was creating notable growth in the company. The defendants marketed the tokens by making misstatements to potential investors, greatly exaggerating the numbers of providers that were “willing to do business on, and contribute content to, [defendants’] blockchain-based platform.” The complaint also alleges that in marketing the ICO, the defendants provided a catalog of small businesses eligible to use the defendants’ platform that numbered in the millions, in order to create the false impression that the platform had a huge base of users. In reality, the catalog was not compiled by the defendants, but was simply acquired from a vendor. Additionally, the SEC alleges that the defendants provided numerous customer reviews in its promotions to create the impression that the platform had many users creating content, which were actually reviews stolen from a third-party website. The SEC charges that in addition to the above allegations, the defendants misrepresented that they had filed an SEC registration statement for the ICO. The SEC seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of profits, civil money penalties, and a permanent bar preventing the founder from serving as officer or director of any public company.
On January 13, the Illinois attorney general announced that he filed two separate suits in the Circuit Court of Cook County against two credit repair companies and three individuals who allegedly engaged in deceptive and fraudulent practices when promoting credit repair services to consumers and collecting debts in violation of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, the Credit Services Organization Act, and the Collection Agency Act.
In the first complaint, the AG alleges a credit repair agency is not registered in Illinois as a credit services organization, and that it, along with its owner, a co-defendant, has not filed the statutorily required $100,000 surety bond with the Secretary of State’s office. The AG’s complaint alleges that the company charges unlawful upfront fees while making false promises that it will increase consumers’ credit scores. When the defendants fail to live up to these promises, they subsequently refuse to refund the money that consumers paid for the credit repair services they did not receive.
In the second complaint, the AG makes the same allegations against a different credit repair company, its owner, and a former employee. In addition, the second complaint also alleges that the company operates as a debt collection agency, but does not possess the requisite state license as a collection agency. Further, the complaint claims that, among other things, the defendants extract payments for “completely fabricated” payday loan debt from consumers who do not actually owe on the loans by using threats and other abusive and harassing collection tactics.
The AG seeks a number of remedies including injunctive relief prohibiting all defendants from engaging in any credit repair business, and prohibiting the second company and its owner and employee from engaging in any debt collection business; rescission of consumer contracts; and restitution to all affected consumers.
On January 9, the Minnesota attorney general announced that an internet service provider (ISP) agreed to pay nearly $9 million in order to resolve allegations that it overcharged customers for phone, internet and cable services. In a separate action, on December 10, the Washington attorney general’s office announced that it entered into a $6.1 million consent decree with the same ISP to resolve similar claims of deceptive acts and practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the ISP entered into settlements over the same alleged actions with the states of Colorado on December 19, and Oregon on December 31.
On December 19, the Colorado attorney general announced that an internet service provider (ISP) agreed to pay nearly $8.5 million in order to resolve allegations that it “unfairly and deceptively charg[ed] hidden fees, falsely advertis[ed] guaranteed locked prices, and fail[ed] to provide discounts and refunds it promised” to Colorado consumers in violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. According to the announcement, in 2017 the AG’s office investigated the ISP and compiled information that the ISP had “systematically and deceptively overcharged consumers for services” since 2014 (see the complaint filed by the AG here). In the settlement, the ISP agreed to an order that requires it, among other things, to (i) refrain from making false and misleading statements to consumers in the marketing, advertising and sale of its products and services; (ii) accurately communicate monthly base charges as well as one-time fees, taxes, and other fees and surcharges to consumers; (iii) disclose any “internet cost recovery fee” or “broadband recovery fee” to consumers being charged the fees and allow the affected consumers to switch to different services if they wish to avoid the fees; (iv) refrain from charging an “internet or broadband cost recovery fee” on new orders; and (v) provide refunds to customers who were overcharged for services and to those customers who did not previously receive discounts that the ISP promised.
In a separate action, on December 31, the Oregon attorney general’s office announced that it entered into a $4 million Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with the same ISP to resolve similar claims of deceptive acts and practices in the advertising, sale, and billing of the ISP’s internet, telephone and cable services in violation of the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act. According to the announcement, the Oregon DOJ started an investigation of the ISP in 2014 for allegedly “misrepresenting the price of services, failing to inform consumers of terms and conditions that could affect the price, and billing consumers for services they never received.” The ISP agreed to requirements that are very similar to those in the Colorado settlement. The announcement notes that the “Oregon DOJ will continue to lead a separate securities class action lawsuit arising from the same conduct.”
On December 10, the FTC announced a settlement with a for-profit school and its parent company to resolve allegations that they employed deceptive advertisements in violation of the FTC Act that gave the impression that the school had relationships and job opportunities with various technology companies and tailored curricula to those jobs. In the complaint, the FTC claims the defendants relied upon false and misleading advertisements to attract prospective students that gave the impression that the school’s relationship with certain companies would create employment opportunities. In addition, the FTC alleges that while the defendants claimed the companies also worked with the school to develop its courses, in reality the partnerships were primarily marketing relationships that did not create jobs or curricula for the school’s students. Moreover, the FTC claims that some of these advertisements specifically targeted current and former military members and Hispanic consumers. Under the terms of the settlement, the school is required to pay $50 million in consumer redress and cancel approximately $141 million in student loan debts owed to the school by former students who first enrolled during the covered period.
The FTC’s press release notes, however, that the “settlement will not affect student borrowers’ federal or private loan obligations,” and directs borrowers to the Department of Education’s income-driven repayment plans for guidance on lowering monthly payments. The FTC also states that borrowers who believe they may have been defrauded or deceived can apply for loan forgiveness through the Borrower Defense to Repayment procedures.
On November 5, the FTC released advertising disclosure guidance for online influencers, titled “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers,” which outlines the FTC’s rules for disclosure of sponsored endorsements and provides influencers with tips and guidance covering effective and ineffective disclosures. The guidance reminds influencers that (i) they should disclose any financial, employment, personnel, or family relationship with the brand; (ii) disclosures should be “hard to miss,” by being placed on pictures, stated in the videos, and repeated throughout livestreams; and (iii) language in disclosures should be simple and clear, and in the same language as the endorsement itself.
For more information on the FTC’s activity covering testimonials and social media influencers, review the recent Buckley Insight, which summarizes several FTC enforcement actions involving online reviews and social media and provides key takeaways for companies considering online advertising and social media campaigns.
The FTC has stepped up its advertising related enforcement activity in recent months, particularly focusing on companies that fail to clearly and conspicuously disclose underlying connections between testimonial providers and product sellers. Summarized below are several recent FTC enforcement actions involving online reviews and social media, as well as some key takeaways for companies considering online advertising and social media campaigns.
Recent FTC Enforcement Actions
First, in its complaint against a skincare company, the FTC alleged that the company misled consumers by posting reviews written by company employees. Specifically, the FTC’s allegations included assertions that (i) product reviews posted on a retailer’s website were not “independent experiences or opinions of impartial ordinary users of the products” and therefore, were false or misleading under Section 5 of the FTC Act; and (ii) the failure to disclose the reviews were written by the owner or employees constitutes a deceptive act or practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act, because the information would “be material to consumers in evaluating the reviews of [the company] brand products in connection with a purchase or use decision.”
In a 3-2 vote the Commission approved an administrative consent order, which notably does not include any monetary relief for consumers. The order prohibits the company from misrepresenting the status of an endorser, which includes misrepresentations that the endorser or reviewer is an “independent or ordinary user of the product.” requires the company and owner to “clearly and conspicuously, and in close proximity to that representation, any unexpected material connection between such endorser and (1) any Respondent; or (2) any other individual or entity affiliated with the product.”
In dissent, two Commissioners objected to the lack of monetary relief, stating, “[t]hat monetary relief can be difficult to calculate should not deter the FTC from seeking it. When the agency’s estimates are uncertain, the Commission sometimes demands no monetary relief whatsoever, which leads to under-deterrence of blatant fraud and dishonesty. This needs to change.”
Second, the FTC also charged a now-defunct company and its owner with selling social media followers and subscribers to motivational speakers, law firm partners, investment professionals, and others who wanted to boost their credibility to potential clients, as well as to actors, athletes, and others who wanted to increase their social media appeal. According to the FTC, the company “provided such users of social media platforms with the means and instrumentalities for the commission of deceptive acts or practices,” in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act.
The Commission unanimously voted to file the proposed court order, which bans the company from selling or assisting others in selling “social media influence.” The order, which was later approved by a federal district court, imposes a $2.5 million monetary judgment against the company owner, but suspends the majority upon the payment of $250,000.
In a business-focused blog post released in conjunction with the enforcement actions noted above, the FTC:
- Reminds marketers that when “people at the helm” are “calling the illegal shots,” the FTC will name them in their individual capacities in actions;
- Emphasizes that companies must instruct their employees and agents to clearly disclose in reviews any material connection to the product; and
- States that the truth-in-advertising provisions of the FTC Act apply to companies that claim to be “strictly B2B,” if they are providing others with the means and instrumentalities for deception.
Relatedly, in February 2019, the FTC approved final consent orders with two marketing companies for, among other things, misrepresenting paid endorsements as independent consumer opinions. The companies allegedly hired Olympic athletes to endorse a mosquito repellent on social media and formatted advertisements to appear as independent statements of impartial publications. The FTC argued that the company failed to disclose, or disclose adequately, that (i) the Olympians were paid to endorse the mosquito repellent; and (ii) the online consumer reviews were by individuals who were reimbursed for buying the product and included statements by the owner and employees of the public relations firm hired to promote the product.
The final consent orders (here and here) require that each company to cease the misrepresentations and notify future endorsers of their responsibility “to disclose clearly and conspicuously, and in close proximity to the endorsement, in any print, radio, television, online, or digital advertisement or communication, the endorser’s unexpected material connection to any Respondent or any other individual or entity affiliated with the product or service.”
Key Takeaways for Online Advertising and Social Media Campaigns:
- These complaints and consent orders incorporate the basic concepts of the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, which address how the prohibition against deceptive practices in section 5 of the FTC Act applies to endorsements and testimonials in advertising. As an FTC blog post puts it:
Suppose you meet someone who tells you about a great new product. She tells you it performs wonderfully and offers fantastic new features that nobody else has. Would that recommendation factor into your decision to buy the product? Probably.
Now suppose the person works for the company that sells the product – or has been paid by the company to tout the product. Would you want to know that when you’re evaluating the endorser’s glowing recommendation? You bet. That common-sense premise is at the heart of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Endorsement Guides.
- The dissenting commissioners in the skincare product case suggested that the FTC should have obtained “monetary relief” for consumers rather than simply order the company to comply with the law in the future, implying that the company should have been required to make refunds to consumers. The FTC doesn’t have the power to obtain civil penalties for deceptive practices unless the practice violates a specific regulation or order, but many states do have that power.
- The FTC Endorsement Guides don’t have the force of law of a formal regulation but they influence enforcement decision of not only the FTC, but also other federal and state and local agencies. Some of the principles in the Guides have very wide application. For example:
- An endorsement “relating the experience” of one or more people is considered to be a representation that their experience is typical of what most people can achieve with a product or service.
- For example, an ad in which a consumer says “I saved $100 a month on my mortgage by going through XYZ Mortgage” is deemed to be a claim that most consumers will experience the same result.
- A statement that “results not typical,” or even “based on the experiences of a few people—you probably won’t have similar results” usually won’t cure the deceptive impact of a claim by an endorser that he or she achieved certain results, unless the advertiser can provide empirical testing “demonstrating that the net impression of its advertisement with such a disclaimer is non-deceptive.”
- As with any advertising claim, the implied claim of typicality in an endorsement must be substantiated, i.e., the advertiser must have data showing that the results actually are typical.
If you have any questions about the enforcement actions noted above or marketing and advertising related issues, please contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
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.
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