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On March 3, the 21st annual National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) began. According to the FTC announcement, NCPW will run from March 3 through March 9 and aims to help consumers understand their rights while giving them access to free educational materials. The FTC, together with its federal, state and local partners, consumer groups, and other national advocacy organizations intend to provide advice on scams, identity theft, and other fraudulent business practices. A schedule of three specific social media events hosted by the FTC is provided in the announcement.
On February 27, the FTC announced a $5.7 million settlement with the operators of a video social networking app concerning alleged violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Case (COPPA). Among other things, the FTC claims the operators failed to provide parents notice of its information collection practices, illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13 without first obtaining verifiable parental consent, failed to delete personal information when parents requested, and retained information “longer than reasonably necessary to fulfill the purpose for which the information was collected.” Under COPPA, operators of websites and online services directed at children are prohibited from collecting personal information of children under the age of 13, unless the company has explicit parental consent. The FTC alleges that the operators knew a “significant percentage” of its users were under 13 and received thousands of complaints from parents that their children under 13 had created accounts on the app. While neither admitting nor denying the allegations, the operators have agreed to the monetary penalty, will change their business practices to comply with COPPA, and will remove all videos made by children younger than 13. According to the FTC, this settlement is the largest civil penalty obtained to date by the agency for COPPA violations.
On February 26, the FTC announced it had recently provided the CFPB with its annual summary of work on ECOA-related policy issues including the following FTC research and policy development initiatives:
- The FTC held a series of public hearings on competition and consumer protection in the 21st century. Session seven specifically addressed issues related to the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics. Panelists addressed how fairness, bias, and discrimination may impact the use of such technologies and debated whether current legal protections such as ECOA sufficiently cover these issues.
- The FTC continued its qualitative study of consumer experiences when buying and selling automobiles at dealerships, which the agency believes will help focus initiatives, such as educating consumers about the purchase and financing process and providing business education to promote compliance with the FTC Act and ECOA.
- The FTC’s Military Task Force, which consists of a cross-section of agency representatives, continued to work on military consumer protection issues. Workshops were conducted to examine financial issues and scams targeting military consumers, including servicemembers and veterans. In addition, the FTC participated in a training program for servicemembers and their families to discuss ECOA and Regulation B protections.
- The FTC maintained its membership in the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending, along with the CFPB, DOJ, HUD, and the federal banking regulatory agencies, and participated in the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.
Concerning fair lending, the FTC stated that it provided education on several topics, including those related to credit transactions that fall under Regulation B.
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 coordination with the CFPB to reauthorize their memorandum of understanding (MOU), which outlines the two agencies’ cooperation under the Consumer Financial Protection Act to prevent duplication of efforts and ensure consistency. The interagency agreement outlines processes for, among other things, coordinated law enforcement activities; consultation on rulemaking activities, including rulemaking regarding prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices; and coordinated sharing of supervisory and examination information, strategic and operational planning, consumer complaint information, and consumer education efforts. The MOU also addresses provisions related to information sharing and claims of confidentiality.
On February 25, the FTC announced it has approved a final consent order with an online student loan refinance lender resolving allegations that the lender violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting in television, print, and internet advertisements how much money student loan borrowers can save from refinancing their loans with the company. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the lender inflated the average savings consumers have achieved by refinancing through the lender, in some instances doubling the average savings by selectively excluding certain groups of consumers from the data. Additionally, the FTC also alleged that in some instances, the lender’s webpage misrepresented instances where a loan option would result in the consumer paying more on a monthly basis or over the lifetime of the loan, simply stating the savings would be “0.00.” In October 2018, without admitting or denying the allegations, the lender agreed to a consent order that required it to cease the alleged misrepresentations and agree to compliance monitoring and recordkeeping requirements. Following a public comment period, the FTC Commission voted 5-0 to approve the final consent order.
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit issued a summary order reversing the lower court’s dismissal of an FTC and New York State action, which alleges a biotechnology group’s (defendants) marketing campaign for a dietary supplement was deceptive under the FTC Act. According to the opinion, defendants claimed in advertising and marketing materials that a suite of dietary supplements (i) improve memory and provide other cognitive benefits; (ii) the effects are clinically proven; and (iii) have an active ingredient that “supplements” brain proteins. The FTC and New York State brought an action alleging deceptive marketing in violation of the FTC Act because the defendants study of the supplements showed “no statistically significant improvement in the memory and cognition of the participants,” and the few positive findings did not “provide reliable evidence of a treatment effect.” The lower court dismissed the action, finding the challenge to the study “never proceed[ed] beyond the theoretical” as the complaint only showed there were “possibilities that the study’s results do not support its conclusion.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit found the complaint adequately alleges that the results of the study contradict representations made in the marketing materials, such as, the supplement “improved memory for most subjects within 90 days,” and concluded the lower court erred in dismissing the action.
On February 11, a bipartisan group of 29 state Attorneys General, the District of Columbia Attorney General, and an official from the Hawaii Office of Consumer Protection, responded to the FTC’s request for comment on whether the agency should make changes to its identity theft detection rules (the Red Flags Rule and the Card Issuers Rule), which require financial institutions and creditors to take certain actions to detect signs of identity theft affecting their customers. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
In their response, the Attorneys General urge the FTC not to repeal the Rules, arguing that it “would place consumers at greater risk of identity theft, especially consumers in states that have not enacted” laws that complement the Rules. Instead, the response letter requests the FTC modify the Rules to “ensure their continued relevance” and “keep pace with the ingenuity of identity thieves.” The suggestions include: (i) that notices of changes to email addresses and cell phone numbers be sent to both the prior and updated addresses and phone numbers, an expansion of the current use of mailing addresses; (ii) the encouragement of more current forms of authentication, including multi-factor authentication, to replace examples which imply that knowledge-based authentication by itself is sufficient; and (iii) the addition of new suspicious activity examples related to the use of an account, such as a covered account accessed by unknown devices or IP addresses, an unauthorized user unsuccessfully trying to guess account passwords through multiple attempts, and attempts by foreign IP addresses to access multiple accounts in a close period of time.
On February 8, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina had issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze regarding a debt collection operation allegedly collecting phantom debts. According to the FTC, the debt collection operation deceptively claimed to be attorneys, or to be affiliated with attorneys, to pressure consumers into paying debts which they did not owe, including threatening legal action if they did not pay, in violation of the FTC Act and the FDCPA. The order names 10 companies and six individuals as defendants and temporarily prohibits the defendants from, among other things, (i) misrepresenting information as it relates to collection efforts; (ii) threatening to take unlawful action; (iii) communicating with third parties without having obtained prior consent, other than to determine a consumer’s location; and (iv) failing to provide consumers with written debt information five days after initial contact.
On February 1, the FTC announced that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that the operator of a computer-financing scheme cannot use his bankruptcy to discharge a $13.4 million judgment entered in 2016 for violating a 2008 FTC order. The FTC alleged that the defendant and his affiliated companies collected more than $14 million from consumers based on promises that they would finance the purchase of new computers but failed to actually deliver the computers. The court determined that the contempt judgment issued in 2016 could not be discharged because it resulted from the defendant’s fraudulent conduct “based on both misrepresentation and concealment.” In a press release describing the ruling, the FTC stated that the defendant’s attempt to shield himself from complying with the order by filing for bankruptcy was an attempt to “avoid justice.”
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Navigating the challenges of the latest data protection regulations and proven protocols for breach prevention and response" at the ACI National Forum on Consumer Finance Class Actions and Government Enforcement
- Tim Lange to discuss "Ease your pain at the state level: Recommendations for navigating the licensing issues in the states" at the Online Lenders Alliance Compliance University
- Amanda R. Lawrence, Aaron C. Mahler, and Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Expanded role for the FTC ahead: Implications for bank and nonbank financial institutions" at an American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Webinar
- Buckley Webcast: Flirting with alternatives — Opportunities and challenges created by alternative data, modeling, and technology
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Reporting requirements for credit unions: CTRs and SARs" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions BSA Seminar
- Daniel P. Stipano and Moorari K. Shah to discuss "Vendor management: What is the NCUA looking for?" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions BSA Seminar
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Summer Regulatory Compliance School
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss "CRA modernization" at the National Association of Industrial Bankers and the Utah Association of Financial Services Annual Convention
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Ethical guidance in conducting internal investigations – The intersection of Yates and Upjohn" at the American Bar Association Southeastern White Collar Crime Institute
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Risk management in enforcement actions: Managing risk or micromanaging it" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Navigating the conflicting federal and state laws for doing business with cannabis companies" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Tim Lange to discuss "Services and value" at the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association Annual Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Data privacy litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "HMDA data is out, now what?" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "How to balance a successful (and stressful) career with greater personal well-being" at the American Bar Association Women in Litigation Joint CLE Conference