Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On November 6, the FTC announced a final order with a skincare company, resolving allegations that the company misled consumers by posting fake reviews on a retailer’s website and failed to disclose company employees wrote the reviews. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2019, the FTC filed the complaint against the company asserting that (i) the product reviews posted on the company’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.”
The Commission, in a 3-2 vote, approved the final order, which prohibits the company from misrepresenting the status of an endorser, including misrepresentations that the endorser or reviewer is an “independent or ordinary user of the product.” The order 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.” The final order does not include any monetary relief for consumers.
In dissent, two Commissioners objected to the final order, stating that the agency is “doubling down on its no-money, no-fault settlement with [the company], who was charged with egregious fake review fraud.” The dissent urged the Commission to publish a statement on monetary remedies in order to restate “legal precedent into formal rules” and designate specific misconduct as penalty offenses through Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act, which allows the agency “to seek penalties against parties who engage in conduct known to have been previously condemned by the Commission.”
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.
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.
On June 11, HUD announced that it worked with an online search platform to better align the platform’s advertising policies with the requirements of the Fair Housing Act (Act)—specifically, the Act’s prohibition on discriminatory advertising in connection with the sale, rental, or financing of housing, with HUD noting that the prohibition “includes restricting who sees housing-related ads on these bases.” HUD states that the online search platform adopted a policy that prohibits “advertisers from engaging in certain discriminatory practices when placing housing-related ads using [the platform]’s advertising services” and has indicated that it will continue to work with HUD to uphold the principles of the Act in the online and targeted advertising space. The announcement notes that HUD will continue to review online advertising platforms to ensure compliance with the Act.
On February 19, the FDIC issued a notice and request for comment regarding modernizing “its signage and advertising requirements to better reflect how banks and savings associations currently operate and how consumers use banking services.” The Request for Information (RFI) solicits input on how the agency “can revise and clarify its sign and advertising rules related to FDIC deposit insurance.” Major changes to these rules have not been made since 2006, and the agency states that “the rules do not reflect evolving banking channels and operation.” Accordingly, the RFI also requests suggestions about how the FDIC can use technology or other solutions to help consumers distinguish FDIC-insured entities from nonbanks, and to prevent consumers from being harmed by non-insured entities’ potentially misleading or fraudulent representations. The RFI lists 21 questions to focus the public input. Comments must be received by March 19.
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.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association webinar
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference