The Federal Trade Commission recently announced that it has taken action to stop an alleged interconnected web of operations purportedly responsible for delivering tens of millions of unwanted Voice Over Internet Protocol and ringless voicemail bogus debt service robocalls to consumers nationwide.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed the complaint in federal court on the FTC’s behalf.
The DOJ also filed a proposed consent order against one of the companies and individuals involved in the operation, which would, if approved by the court, bar them from making further misrepresentations about debt relief services and ordering them to comply with the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
“This case targets the ecosystem of companies who perpetrate illegal telemarketing to cheat American consumers who are struggling financially,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue to take aggressive action to protect consumers from the scourge of illegal robocalls.”
“The Department of Justice is committed to stopping individuals and companies from making illegal robocalls and peddling predatory debt relief services,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will continue to work with the FTC to enforce the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule against those who use misleading sales tactics to prey on consumers.”
According to the complaint, Stratics Networks, Inc.’s outbound calling service enabled its clients to route and transmit millions of robocalls using VoIP technology.
Lead generators beware. The FTC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would turn the lead generation industry on its head.
Amongst numerous items currently on the FCC’s agenda, there is discussion on closing the “lead generator” loophole.
The FCC first issued a Report and Order requiring mobile wireless providers to block text messages from numbers on a reasonable Do Not Originate list, which includes numbers that purport to be from invalid, unallocated or unused North American Numbering Plan numbers, and numbers for which the subscriber to the number has requested that texts purporting to originate from that number be blocked. The FCC already requires similar blocking of voice calls by gateway providers.
The Report and Order would also ensure that any erroneous text blocking can be reported to the provider doing the blocking by requiring mobile wireless providers to maintain a single point of contact for texters to report erroneously blocked texts. This single point of contact is already required for voice call blocking.
Even more significant for lead generators is that the FCC has issued a NPRM that would require carriers to “investigate and potentially block texts from a sender after they are on notice from the Commission that the sender is transmitting suspected illegal texts…”
Additionally, the FCC has proposed an extension of DNC protections to text messages.
California’s stringent Automatic Renewal Law is heavily focused upon free trial requirements, promotional periods and annual programs. Various obligations and restrictions are discussed, here.
In 2021, Jack Gershfeld initiated legal action against TeamViewer US, Inc. Mr. Gershfeld alleged that TeamViewer violated California’s Consumer Privacy Act and Unfair Competition Law when it automatically renewed his software subscription without his consent.
TeamViewer is a remote access and control computer software, allowing maintenance and management of computers and other devices. In short, Mr. Gershfeld alleged that he purchased a one-year subscription, that automatically renewed thereafter at a higher price.
The California district court reviewed TeamViewer’s website enrollment funnel and post-purchase acknowledgments. In doing so, the lower court held that TeamViewer did not violate California’s ARL because there was an adequate disclosure on the “checkout summary.” The lower court noted that the disclosure partially stated, in bold and directly above the “Continue to Payment” button, that the “subscription will automatically renew every 12 months, unless you terminate your contract at least 28 days before the end of the initial term or any renewal term.”
Additionally, TeamViewer was found to have secured appropriate consent because Mr. Gershfeld was required to check a box affirmatively acknowledging that his subscription was subject to a hyperlinked end user license agreement.
TeamViewer’s post-purchase acknowledgment was also deemed adequate. Here, it sent an invoice to Mr. Gershfeld reminding him, in bold, that “The license term of the subscription is automatically extended for another 12 months if not cancelled in written form 28 days prior to expiry.” TeamViewer forwarded another reminder two months prior to the renewal,
February 2023 has been a busy couple of months at the Federal Trade Commission. High-profile consumer protection actions and announcements span a broad spectrum of digital advertising and marketing. From “review hijacking, health product-related claim substantiation issues and lead generation, to the first Health Breach Notification Rule case and a reminder that willful blindness is not a defense for service providers that turn a blind-eye to third-party conduct. The FTC also announced a new office to keep pace with digital marketplace developments, and issues a Criminal Liaison Unit Report.
First Law Enforcement Action “Review Hijacking”
According to the Commission, a marketer of vitamins and other supplements, called The Bountiful Company, abused a feature of Amazon.com to mislead consumers into thinking that its newly introduced supplements had more product ratings and reviews, higher average ratings, and “#1 Best Seller” and “Amazon’s Choice” badges. The agency alleges that Bountiful carried out this tactic by merging its new products on Amazon with different well-established products that had more ratings, reviews, and badges.
“Boosting your products by hijacking another product’s ratings or reviews is a relatively new tactic, but is still plain old false advertising,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The Bountiful Company is paying back $600,000 for manipulating product pages and deceiving consumers.”
Bountiful, based in Bohemia, New York, manufactures vitamin, mineral, and other nutritional supplements. Its brands include Nature’s Bounty and Sundown. As alleged by the FTC, Bountiful sells its supplements to Amazon,
On January 30, 2023, the Criminal Liaison Unit of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP CLU) issued its 2022 Criminal Liaison Unit Report, describing the history of the BCP CLU, its program operations, and major accomplishments over the past five years. In an effort to ensure criminal prosecution of appropriate consumer fraud cases, the BCP CLU refers cases to partner agencies with criminal jurisdiction, including U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the county, Divisions of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and others.
“For the worst individual and corporate wrongdoers, civil remedies may not be sufficient to protect the public from further harm,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Government works best when agencies work together toward a common goal, and we are proud that our partnership with criminal enforcers leads to justice for bad actors and a safer marketplace for us all.”
The FTC, which is not authorized to bring criminal law enforcement actions, established the BCP CLU in 2002 to bring the “worst of the worst” offenders to the attention of prosecutors. As it grew, the BCP CLU worked to establish relationships with prosecutors and educate them about the Commission’s consumer fraud and deception cases. Success in initial cases proved that criminal consumer protection cases were not only viable, but could result in substantial prison sentences.
Over the past five years, the report notes, BCP CLU referrals have led to criminal charges against 107 new defendants,
The Federal Trade Commission has taken action against Instant Brands, manufacturer of Pyrex-brand kitchen and home products, for allegedly falsely claiming that all its popular glass measuring cups were made in the United States during a time some measuring cups were imported from China. The FTC’s proposed order against Instant Brands would stop the company from making deceptive claims about products being “Made in USA” and require them to pay a monetary judgment.
“Consumers rely on marketers to make truthful ‘Made in USA’ claims,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If marketers move their manufacturing outside the United States, even temporarily, they must update their advertising to make it accurate.”
According to the FTC’s complaint, Instant Brands faced increased demand for its glass measuring cups in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when consumer interest in home baking spiked. Pyrex has purportedly long used the U.S. origin of its products as a selling point. By early 2021, the company was allegedly not able to meet the demand for certain measuring cup sets sold on Amazon with cups produced in the United States. From March 2021 to May 2022, Instant Brands produced some Pyrex cups in China, according to the FTC.
When the production shifted to China, the company allegedly continued to market the Chinese-made products on Amazon as “Made in USA,” despite the cups themselves being marked “Made in China.” While the Chinese cups were being sold the company also purportedly continued its marketing that implied all Pyrex cups were of U.S.
On January 13, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that as a result of a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit, investment advice company WealthPress has agreed to a proposed court order that would require it to refund more than $1.2 million to consumers and pay a $500,000 civil penalty for allegedly deceiving consumers with purportedly “outlandish and false claims about their services.”
The case marks the first time that the FTC has collected civil penalties against a company that received the Notice of Penalty Offenses regarding money-making opportunities sent last October, and the first civil penalties for violations of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. (ROSCA)
“We’ve brought several cases this year against companies making false earnings claims, and we won’t hesitate to bring more,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “WealthPress is now paying the price for deceiving its customers and ignoring our Notice of Penalty Offenses on money-making claims.”
The FTC’s complaint against WealthPress and its owners, Roger Scott and Conor Lynch, alleges that the company used deceptive claims to sell consumers investment advising services—often claiming that the services’ recommendations were based on a specific “system” or “strategy” created by a purported expert. The company charged consumers hundreds or even thousands of dollars for access to these services.
WealthPress sold consumers on their services with purported false claims about the likelihood consumers would make money by following the recommended trades,
The Business Opportunity Rule (“Bizz Opp Rule”) was first adopted in 2012. It applies to commercial arrangements where a seller solicits a prospective buyer to enter into a new business, the prospective purchaser makes a required payment, and the seller – expressly or by implication – makes certain kinds of claims. Without limitation, opportunities where a seller says it will help the buyer set up or run a business are covered. The Bizz Opp Rule generally exempts business opportunities that meet the definition of a “franchise.” Consult with an FTC defense attorney to see if that that applies to you.
A covered seller has three key legal responsibilities that involve providing the prospective purchaser with specific information to help them evaluate a business opportunity and associated risks, including a disclosure document and an earnings claims statement. The seller must also comply with general truth-in-advertising principles, including avoiding deceptive practices.
The Disclosure Document
First, the seller has to provide a buyer a one-page Disclosure Document. To keep things simple the seller should use the standard form.
The seller has to provide the Disclosure Document seven (7) days before the prospective buyer signs a contract or pays any money for the business opportunity. The Disclosure Document must list key pieces of information: (i) Identifying information (e.g., company name, business address, telephone number, the sales person’s name, and the date the document was provided to the prospective buyer;
Looking for advice on substantiating your company’s advertising claims? FTC staff just issued a new Health Products Compliance Guidance publication that merits careful attention. You may be wondering if the publication reflects major changes to the FTC’s 1998 guidance.
Say you have routinely consulted the FTC’s 1998 brochure. Dietary Supplements: An Advertising Guide for Industry, the new publication, is designed to take its place. For the most part, the legal fundamentals remain unchanged, but there are key revisions.
The new publication’s substantiation compliance guidance is not just for companies that sell dietary supplements.
One major change is the title, which is meant to make it clear that the guidance applies across the board to all health-related claims.
The new publication draws upon key compliance points conveyed by FTC actions brought since 1998.
When it comes to advertising claim substantiation, a lot has happened since 1998 – including more than 200 FTC law enforcement actions challenging false or deceptive health claims.
The new guides incorporate the lessons of those cases in numerous new examples – revisions designed to add a practical gloss on long-standing compliance fundamentals. In addition, the new publication reflects updates from other FTC guidance documents – for example, guidelines on endorsements and testimonials and the enforcement policy statement on homeopathic drugs.
The new publication aims to correct misunderstandings and “urban myths” that have circulated about FTC substantiation standards.
The Federal Trade Commission has recently announced that it is seeking public comment on potential updates and changes to the Green Guides for the Use of Environmental Claims. The Commission’s Green Guides help marketers avoid making environmental marketing claims that are unfair or deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The Commission seeks to update the guides based on increasing consumer interest in buying environmentally friendly products.
“Consumers are increasingly conscious of how the products they buy affect the environment, and depend on marketers’ environmental claims to be truthful,” said FTC attorney and Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine. “We look forward to this review process, and will make any updates necessary to ensure the Green Guides provide current, accurate information about consumer perception of environmental benefit claims. This will both help marketers make truthful claims and consumers find the products they seek.”
The Green Guides were first issued in 1992 and were revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012. They provide guidance on environmental marketing claims, including how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how marketers can substantiate these claims to avoid deceiving consumers.
The FTC is requesting general comments on the continuing need for the guides, their economic impact, their effect on the accuracy of various environmental claims, and their interaction with other environmental marketing regulations. The Commission also seeks information on consumer perception evidence of environmental claims, including those not in the guides currently.
About This Blog and Hinch Newman’s Advertising + Marketing Practice
Hinch Newman LLP’s advertising and marketing practice includes successfully resolving some of the highest-profile Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general digital advertising and telemarketing investigations and enforcement actions. The firm possesses superior knowledge and deep legal experience in the areas of advertising, marketing, lead generation, promotions, e-commerce, privacy and intellectual property law. Through these advertising and marketing law updates, Hinch Newman provides commentary, news and analysis on issues and trends concerning developments of interest to digital marketers, including FTC and state attorneys general advertising compliance, civil investigative demands (CIDs), and administrative/judicial process. This blog is sponsored by Hinch Newman LLP.