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On November 16, the FTC announced an action against a company that markets and sells business opportunities for allegedly pitching deceptive moneymaking schemes promising big returns to consumers. Claims were also brought against the company owners. The FTC alleged in its complaint that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Business Opportunity Rule, and the Consumer Review Fairness Act by selling business packages and business coaching through an internet retailer under various names that promised consumers they could “generate passive income on autopilot.” However, the FTC claimed the defendants charged consumers between $5,000 and $100,000 for the programs and used fake consumer reviews in their marketing and sales pitches. Few consumers ever made money from these schemes, the FTC said. Additionally, the defendants allegedly charged consumers thousands of dollars to participate in a cryptocurrency investment service, which defendants claimed could generate profits for consumers “while you sleep.” According to the FTC, the defendants harmed consumers by, among other things, (i) deceiving them about potential earnings; (ii) using fake testimonials; (iii) suppressing negative reviews and promising refunds to consumers if they removed their complaints; (iv) threatening to sue dissatisfied consumers and adding language to contracts to prevent consumers from leaving negative reviews; and (v) failing to provide required disclosures when selling their programs.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the defendants will be prohibited from making deceptive earnings claims and misleading consumers about the nature of their products, including the likelihood of profits. Defendants must also stop engaging in behavior that interferes with consumer reviews and complaints. The defendants will also be required to pay $2.6 million in monetary relief. The proposed order includes nearly $53 million in total monetary judgment, which is partially suspended due to defendants’ inability to pay.
On February 16, the FTC and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection reached a settlement in an action taken against a Utah-based company and its affiliates (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly using deceptive marketing to persuade consumers to attend real estate events costing thousands of dollars. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection claimed that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), and Utah state law by marketing real estate events with false claims and using celebrity endorsements. The defendants allegedly promised consumers they would (i) earn thousands of dollars in profits from real estate investment “flips” by using the defendants’ products; (ii) receive 100 percent funding for their real estate investments, regardless of credit history; and (iii) receive a full refund if they do not make “a minimum of three times” the price of the workshop within six months. Additionally, consumers who received refunds were allegedly required to sign agreements preventing them from speaking with the FTC, state attorneys general, and other regulators; submitting complaints to the Better Business Bureau; or posting negative reviews. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are, among other things, permanently banned from marketing or selling any real estate or business coaching programs, and are restrained from making misleading earnings claims or misrepresenting any material aspect of the performance or nature of goods or services that are the subject of a sales offer. Additionally, the defendants are permanently banned from using contract terms to suppress customers’ ability to review their products or speak to law enforcement agencies, and may not release customer information in connection with any activity related to the subject matter of the order. The settlement also includes monetary judgments totaling more than $111 million.
On February 12, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a California-based investment training operation alleging use of deceptive claims to sell costly “training programs” targeting older consumers. According to the complaint, the operation allegedly 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.” The FTC also alleges that the operation’s instructors claim to be successful traders who have amassed substantial wealth using the strategies, but are actually salespeople working on commission. However, the FTC asserts, among other things, that the operation fails to track customers’ trading results and that its earnings claims are false or unsubstantiated. Moreover, the FTC alleges the operation requires that dissatisfied customers requesting refunds sign agreements barring them from posting negative comments about the operation or its personnel, and specifically prohibits customers from reporting potential violations to law enforcement agencies. Among other things, the FTC seeks injunctive relief against the operation, as well as “rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies, and other equitable relief.”
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