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On May 20, the FTC announced that it and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection amended their complaint 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. The amended complaint adds additional defendants and new charges asserting the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants after the FTC and the Utah Division of Consumer Protection accused the defendants of violating the FTC Act, the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), and Utah state law, by marketing real estate events with false claims and celebrity endorsements. Among other things, the defendants allegedly told 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. The amended complaint alleges that, in addition to the claims made at the real estate events, the defendants reiterated the false or misleading statements in the course of their telemarketing activities in violation of the TSR.
On May 19, the FTC filed a complaint against a large payment processing company and its former executive for allegedly participating in deceptive or unfair acts or practices in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by processing payments and laundering, or assisting in the laundering of, credit card transactions targeting hundreds of thousands of consumers. The FTC’s complaint alleges, among other things, that the payment processing company received and ignored repeated “warnings and direct evidence” dating back to 2012 showing that the former executive was using his company to open hundreds of fake merchant accounts and shell companies, and allowed him to continue to open merchant accounts until 2014. According to the FTC, the “schemes included, but were not limited to, a debt relief scam that used deceptive telemarketing, business opportunity scams that used deceptive websites, and a criminal enterprise that used stolen credit card data to bill consumers without their consent” in which the both defendants received fees for processing the scheme’s payments. The FTC also claims that the payment processing company violated its own anti-fraud policies by failing to adequately underwrite, monitor, or review its sales agents and their risk management processes, and failed to timely terminate the merchant accounts involved in the scheme.
The payment processing company’s proposed settlement imposes a $40 million monetary judgment and prohibits the company from assisting or facilitating TSR and FTC Act violations related to payment processing. Additionally, the company will be required to (i) screen and monitor prospective restricted clients; (ii) establish and implement a written oversight program to monitor its wholesale independent sales organizations (ISO); and (iii) hire an independent assessor to monitor the company’s compliance with the settlement’s ISO oversight program.
The former executive’s proposed settlement imposes a $270,373.70 monetary judgment, and bans him from payment processing or acting as an ISO for certain categories of high-risk merchants. He is also prohibited from credit card laundering activities, making or assisting others in making false or misleading statements, and assisting or facilitating violations of the FTC Act or TSR.
Neither defendant admitted or denied the allegations, except as specifically stated within the proposed settlements.
On May 20, the FTC and the FCC sent letters to three more Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers, warning the companies to stop routing and transmitting robocall campaigns promoting Covid-19 related scams. According to the FTC, two of the companies are routing coronavirus-related fraud robocalls originating overseas. In April, the agencies sent an initial round of letters to three VoIP service providers for similar issues (covered by InfoBytes here). As in April, the letters warn the companies that they have been identified as “routing and transmitting illegal robocalls, including Coronavirus-related scam calls” and must cease the behavior or they will be subject to enforcement action. Additionally, the agencies sent a separate letter to a telecommunications trade association thanking the group for its assistance in identifying the campaigns and relaying a warning that the FCC will authorize U.S. providers to begin blocking calls from the three companies if they do not comply with the agencies’ request within 48 hours after the release of the letter.
On May 13, the FTC filed a complaint against a Pennsylvania-based telemarketing operation for allegedly misrepresenting “no obligation” trial offers to organizations and then enrolling recipients in subscriptions for several hundred dollars without their consent. The complaint also charged a New York-based debt collector with violating the FTC Act by illegally threatening the organizations if they did not pay for the unordered subscriptions. The FTC alleged that the telemarketing operation violated the FTC Act and the Unordered Merchandise Statute by calling organizations such as businesses, schools, fire and police departments, and non-profits to offer sample books or newsletters without disclosing that they were selling subscriptions and then sending publications without the recipients’ consent. The FTC alleged that, if the organizations agreed to accept what they believed to be free publications, the defendants enrolled the organizations in a negative option program without their consent, and automatically charged the organizations for annual subscriptions. The telemarketer worked with a debt collection firm that allegedly misrepresented that the debts were valid and used false threats to collect outstanding balances. According to the FTC, the debt collection firm handled collections nationwide despite not having a valid corporate registration in any state and only being licensed to collect debt in Washington State. The FTC seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, along with monetary relief “including rescission or reformation of contracts, restitution, the refund of monies paid, and the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.”
On May 14, the FTC and SBA sent letters to two companies for allegedly misleading small businesses seeking Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The first letter was sent to a California-based media company, which owns the web address “sba.com.” The letter claims the website suggests an “an affiliation or relationship with the SBA and approved PPP lenders” and encourages customers to apply for PPP loans through the site. The second letter, sent to a Utah-based company, asserts the company and its affiliate lead generators may be violating Section 5 of the FTC Act. Among other things, the FTC notes that one of the company’s affiliate lead generators advertises itself as an SBA loan packager for a $495 fee, even though the SBA prohibits lead generators from charging fees to PPP loan applicants. Both letters instruct the recipients to remove all deceptive claims and advertisements and remediate any harm that may have been caused. The letters require the companies to notify the FTC within 48 hours of the actions taken in response.
On May 5, the FTC released a report updating Congress on the agency’s FCRA education and enforcement efforts. The report, titled “Efforts to Promote Consumer Report Accuracy and Disputes,” was requested by Congress as part of the 2020 spending bill that funds the FTC. The report details the agency’s efforts to inform consumers and businesses regarding their rights and obligations under the FCRA, including educating consumers on disputing errors and identity theft. For businesses, the report discusses the guidance provided by the FTC for furnishers and users, including the 2016 publication Consumer Reports: What Information Furnishers Need to Know. The report notes that over the last decade. the FTC has brought over 30 enforcement actions under the FCRA against consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), users of consumer reports, and furnishers of information to CRAs. The FTC notes that once supervisory authority over the nationwide CRAs was transferred to the CFPB in 2011, the FTC has focused its FCRA enforcement on other entities in the credit reporting area, noting that 14 of its FCRA cases involved allegations related to handling consumer disputes of inaccurate information or procedures for ensuring the accuracy of information furnished in reports. A complete list of the 14 cases can be found in the report’s Appendix B. The FTC states that it will continue to look for education and enforcement opportunities, citing a joint workshop with the CFPB held last December, which discussed current trends in consumer reporting accuracy and sought public comments to assist the agency in targeting its efforts in the future.
On April 23, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a $5 billion settlement between the FTC and a global social media company, resolving allegations that the company violated consumer protection laws by using deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users’ privacy preferences in violation of a 2012 privacy settlement with the FTC. The settlement, first announced last July (covered by InfoBytes here), requires the company to take a series of remedial steps, including (i) ceasing misrepresentations concerning its collection and disclosure of users’ personal information, as well as its privacy and security measures; (ii) clearly disclosing when it will share data with third parties and obtaining user express consent if the sharing goes beyond a user’s privacy setting restrictions; (iii) deleting or de-identifying a user’s personal information within a reasonable time frame if an account is closed; (iv) creating a more robust privacy program with safeguards applicable to third parties with access to a user’s personal information; (v) creating a new privacy committee and designating a dedicated corporate officer in charge of monitoring the effectiveness of the privacy program; (vi) alerting the FTC when more than 500 users’ personal information has been compromised; and (vii) undertaking reporting and recordkeeping obligations, and commissioning regular, independent privacy assessments. The order “resolves all consumer-protection claims known by the FTC prior to June 12, 2019, that [the company], its officers, and directors violated Section 5 of the FTC Act.” While the court acknowledged concerns raised by several amici opposing the settlement, the court concluded that the settlement and the proposed remedies were reasonable and in the public interest. On April 28, the FTC announced the formal approval of amendments to its 2012 privacy order to incorporate updated provisions included in the 2019 settlement.
On April 23, the FTC released its 2019 Annual Highlights, which outlines the Commission’s efforts over the past year to protect consumers and promote competition. The report discusses various enforcement actions, policy and advocacy initiatives, and education and outreach programs, and notes that FTC actions in 2019 have led to more than $232 million in refunds to consumers. The report covers a range of consumer protection enforcement actions related to, among other things, unfair and deceptive marketing as well as privacy and data security issues. The report also discusses joint consumer protection enforcement-related efforts with foreign agencies and multilateral organizations, as well as information-sharing and enforcement cooperation measures intended to streamline and facilitate joint law enforcement investigations. In addition, the report highlights recent policy actions, such as advocacy comments, amicus briefs, and Congressional testimony, and discusses education efforts undertaken in 2019 including: (i) a series of public hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century; (ii) workshops with state regulators and law enforcers; (iii) workshops on consumer protection issues such as small business financing, consumer reporting accuracy, and privacy matters; and (iv) education outreach programs. According to the stats and data section of the report, the FTC received more than 3.2 million consumer reports in 2019, in which identity theft and imposter scam complaints represented over 40 percent of the total reports received.
On April 22, the FTC filed a complaint against a Canadian company and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly participating in deceptive and unfair acts or practices in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by, among other things, laundering credit card payments for two tech support scams that were sued by the FTC in 2014. The FTC alleges in its complaint that the defendants entered into contracts with payment processors to obtain merchant accounts to process credit card charges. While these contracts prohibited the defendants from submitting third-party sales through its merchant accounts, the FTC claims that the defendants used the accounts to process millions of dollars of consumer credit card charges on behalf of the two tech support operators and also processed charges for lead generators that directed consumers to the tech support scam. The FTC alleges that the defendants were aware of the unlawful conduct of at least one of the two operators and attempted to hide these charges from the payment processors.
Under the proposed settlement, the defendants neither admitted nor denied the allegations, except as specifically stated within the settlement, and (i) will pay $6.75 million in equitable monetary relief; (ii) are permanently enjoined from engaging in any further payment laundering or violations of the TSR; and (iii) will screen and monitor prospective high risk clients.
On April 20, the FTC filed a complaint against a rent-to-own payment plan company for allegedly making false, misleading, and deceptive representations in violation of the FTC Act to consumers regarding the marketing, sale, and terms of their payment plans. In its complaint, the FTC alleged that while the company offered “same as cash” and “no interest” payment plans to consumers seeking to purchase items at retailers nationwide, it actually charged consumers substantially more than the item’s retail price. Accessing the actual terms of the payment plans was confusing for consumers, the FTC contended, and allegedly led to consumers frequently paying roughly twice the item’s sticker price if they made the initial and all scheduled recurring payments. According to the FTC, the company (i) received tens of thousands of consumer complaints; (ii) was aware consumers were confused by the terms of their payment plans; and (iii) had been presented with concerns from retailers regarding the company’s training materials, which, among other things, instructed sales associates to say “‘there actually isn’t an interest rate, because it’s not a loan.” Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the company is, among other things, (i) prohibited from misrepresenting the costs, nature, terms, and any other material facts related to its payment plans; (ii) required to clearly and conspicuously disclose the total cost to own a product when marketing its plans; (iii) ordered to monitor third parties, including retailers that offer the company’s payment plans to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement; and (iv) required to receive express, informed consent from consumers prior to billing them for a plan. The company is also required to pay $175 million in equitable monetary relief.
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Ongoing challenges of TRID compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Live: Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Resisting temptation in a crisis: How to make sure ethics and compliance don't get diluted under financial strain" at a New York City Bar Association webcast
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "BSA for BSA seasoned officers" at an NAFCU webinar
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "LIBOR transition: Preparations for legal professionals" at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Garylene D. Javier to discuss "Navigating workplace culture in 2020" at the DC Bar Conference