On September 21, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it has joined the Federal Communications Commission in signing a renewed memorandum of understanding (MOU) between public authorities who are members of the Unsolicited Communications Enforcement Network (UCENet). The MOU aims to promote cross-border collaboration to combat unsolicited communications, including email and text spam, scams, and illegal telemarketing.
“The FTC is committed to using all of its tools to fight robocalls and other unsolicited communications that try to prey on consumers,” said FTC attorney and Chair Lina M. Khan. “This scourge does not respect borders, and our recommitment to this MOU underscores the importance of international communication and cooperation to combat this problem.”
UCENet members agreed to renew and make evergreen the MOU, a non-binding instrument which the FTC and its partners signed in 2016.
The 2016 MOU was aimed at facilitating information sharing, capacity building, and enforcement assistance among the partners. For the past seven years, it also has facilitated communication about emerging threats and complaint trends related to spam, scams, and illegal telemarketing.
The UCENET MOU is part of the FTC’s continuing to work to fight harms that can arise from unwanted messages. According to the announcement, unsolicited communications in the form of illegal and spoofed robocalls, text messages, and emails are often the source of scams that harm millions of consumers in the United States each year. The revised MOU also has been signed by UCENet partners in Canada,
On August 22, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that as a result of an FTC lawsuit, a federal court has temporarily shut down an alleged business opportunity scheme that purportedly lured consumers to invest $22 million in online stores, using alleged unfounded claims about income and profits.
The operators of Automators also claimed to use artificial intelligence to ensure success and profitability for consumers who agreed to invest with Automators, according to the agency.
In addition to offering consumers high return as “passive investors” in profitable e-stores, Automators, which previously used the names Empire and Onyx Distribution, also offered to teach consumers how to successfully set up and manage e-stores themselves using a “proven system” and the powers of artificial intelligence, according to the FTC.
“The defendants preyed on consumers looking to provide for their families with promises of high returns and the use of AI to power such returns,” said FTC attorney Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Their lies caused consumers to lose tens of thousands of dollars, with many losing their life savings. The FTC is working to hold defendants accountable and to secure redress for their victims.”
The FTC’s complaint against defendants Roman Cresto, John Cresto, and Andrew Chapman, through their companies Automators AI, Empire Ecommerce and Onyx Distribution, claims that the vast majority of defendants’ clients did not make the promised earnings or even recoup their investment. Instead, most clients allegedly lost significant amounts and Amazon and Walmart have routinely suspended or terminated the stores that defendants operated for repeated policy violations,
On August 14, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it will require Experian Consumer Services, which offers consumers access to their Experian credit information, to pay $650,000 to settle charges it sent consumers unsolicited email without offering them a way to opt out of such messages, as required under the CAN-SPAM Act.
In a complaint filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the FTC, the agency says that California-based Experian Consumer Services (ECS), also known as ConsumerInfo.com, Inc., spammed consumers with marketing offers after they signed up for an account with the company in order to manage their Experian credit report information.
In the emails, the FTC alleges that the company failed to provide clear and conspicuous notice of consumers’ ability to opt out of receiving additional marketing messages and a mechanism for doing so, in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act, according to the complaint.
“Signing up for a membership doesn’t mean you’re signing up for unwanted email, especially when all you’re trying to do is freeze your credit to protect your identity,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “You always have the right to unsubscribe from marketing messages, and the FTC takes enforcing that right seriously.”
Consumers who wish to freeze or take other steps to manage their Experian credit information online must create an account with ECS. The complaint charges that consumers who signed up for a free membership account with ECS were then sent emails promoting Experian’s products and services such as one touting Experian Boost,
Florida has become the latest state – approximately ten – to enact a comprehensive privacy law. On June 6, 2023, Governor DeSantis recently signed SB 262 which includes some new privacy provisions. Florida also recently passed a child privacy law that is notably similar to California’s Age Appropriation Act that becomes effective July 1, 2024.
The Florida Digital Bill of Rights Law
Covered entities (“controllers”) include those that earn $1 billion in global gross annual revenues and either (i) receive 50% of gross annual revenue from online ad sales; (ii) operate a consumer smart speaker and voice command service with an integrated virtual assistant through a cloud-connected service and hands-free verbal activation; or (iii) operate an app store or digital distribution platform that has at least 250,000 apps available for download.
Note, however, that non-covered entities that serve as data processors for covered entities may potentially be impacted. More specifically, such processors are required to support a covered entities’ compliance efforts and to maintain responsible contracts that include provisions governing data processing. In fact, the new law sets forth specific requirements that must be included in such data processing agreements.
Not unlike other states, the Florida Digital Bill of Rights Law has numerous exemptions and applies to consumer information. Exemptions include entities covered by HIPAA (and business associates), financial institutions and affiliates (subject to GLBA), non-profits, certain government entities, and higher education institutions. There are also specific data exemptions.
FTC issues policy statement addressing emerging technologies that might harm consumers and violate the FTC Act.
On May 18, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning that the increasing use of consumers’ biometric information and related technologies, including those powered by machine learning, raises significant consumer privacy and data security concerns and the potential for bias and discrimination.
Biometric information refers to data that depict or describe physical, biological, or behavioral traits, characteristics, or measurements of or relating to an identified or identifiable person’s body.
“In recent years, biometric surveillance has grown more sophisticated and pervasive, posing new threats to privacy and civil rights,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Today’s policy statement makes clear that companies must comply with the law regardless of the technology they are using.”
In a policy statement, the Commission said the agency is committed to combatting unfair or deceptive acts and practices related to the collection and use of consumers’ biometric information and the marketing and use of biometric information technologies.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of biometric information technologies. For instance, facial, iris, or fingerprint recognition technologies collect and process biometric information to identify individuals. Other biometric information technologies use or claim to use biometric information in order to determine characteristics of individuals, ranging from the individuals’ age, gender, or race to the individuals’ personality traits, aptitudes, or demeanor.
On May 3, 2023, the FTC announced that it is proposing a blanket prohibition preventing Facebook from monetizing youth data. The Commission alleges that the company violated the 2020 privacy order and now proposes new protections for children and teens.
The Federal Trade Commission proposed changes to the agency’s 2020 privacy order with Facebook after alleging that the company has failed to fully comply with the order, misled parents about their ability to control with whom their children communicated through its Messenger Kids app, and misrepresented the access it provided some app developers to private user data.
“Facebook has repeatedly violated its privacy promises,” said FTC lawyer Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The company’s recklessness has put young users at risk, and Facebook needs to answer for its failures.”
As part of the proposed changes, Meta, which changed its name from Facebook in October 2021, would be prohibited from profiting from data it collects, including through its virtual reality products, from users under the age of 18.
The company would also be subject to other expanded limitations, including in its use of facial recognition technology, and required to provide additional protections for users.
This marks the third time the agency has taken action against Facebook for allegedly failing to protect users’ privacy.
The Commission first filed a complaint against Facebook in 2011, and secured an order in 2012 barring the company from misrepresenting its privacy practices.
The Federal Trade Commission recently announced a proposed a “click to cancel” provision requiring sellers to make it as simple for consumers to cancel their enrollment as it was to enroll.
According to the FTC, if consumers are unable to easily leave any program when they want to, the negative option feature becomes nothing more than a way to continue charging them for products they no longer want. To address this issue, the proposed rule would require businesses to make it at least as easy to cancel a subscription as it was to start it. For example, if a consumer can sign-up online, cancellation much be able to be effectuated on the same website, in the same number of steps.
But that’s not all the FTC is proposing regarding subscriptions and recurring payments.
The FTC is also proposing:
- Expanded Scope: The proposed “Rule Concerning Recurring Subscriptions and Other Negative Option Plans” would cover all forms of negative option marketing, whether via internet, phone, through print materials, and in-person transactions. Any persons “selling, offering, promoting, charging for, or otherwise marketing a negative option feature” would be subject to the new Rule.
- Additional Consent Requirements: The proposed rule requires marketers to obtain independent consent for the negative option feature and precludes the inclusion of additional information that could interfere a consumer’s ability to provide consent. It sets forth requirements about how consent must be obtained. Marketers would be required to obtain consent for the whole transaction and maintain proof for three years.
As part of the independent, non-profit BBB National Programs, the National Advertising Division independently evaluates and regulates the truth and accuracy of national advertising. It also works to increase the public’s confidence in advertising. The NAD also offers dispute resolution process for advertisers.
Recently, the NAD reviewed Pier 1’s automatic renewal subscription rewards loyalty program that charges consumers a recurring monthly or annual fee for products discounts, and free shipping and returns on select items. In doing so, the NAD recommended that the company provide enhanced “clear and conspicuous” disclosures.
As described by the NAD, items added to a consumer’s cart on the company website automatically include the rewards subscription via a pre-checked box. Additionally, the terms of the renewal subscription program appeared under the pre-checked box. According to the NAD, consumers are required to take affirmative action to uncheck the box to opt-out of the automatically renewing subscription and cost related thereto.
According to the NAD, one issue was whether promoting a lower price for a product or service is deceptive if that price is only made available to those that agree to the automatically renewing subscription. The other issue was whether the material terms of the automatic renewal subscription program were “clearly and conspicuously” disclosed prior to a consumer’s decision to make a purchase.
The NAD ultimately concluded that, unless the terms of the automatically renewing subscription are appropriately disclosed, it is misleading to promote a discounted price if the discount is only available when a consumer consents to a subscription.
FTC advertising compliance and defense lawyer Richard B. Newman was recently quoted in an article for Law.com titled “FTC Bags First Settlement in Probe of ‘Review Hijacking’ in E-Commerce.”
The article discusses the FTC’s first case alleging “review hijacking,” in which a marketer steals or repurposes reviews of another product. The case involves a marketer of vitamins and other supplements that allegedly carried out this tactic by merging its new products on Amazon with different well-established products that had more ratings, reviews and badges.
Mr. Newman stated, “[n]ot only is the FTC currently seeking to promulgate us that come with big civil penalties for such conduct, it has recently blanketed the digital advertising industry with warning letters.”
According to the FTC, the marketer “took advantage of an Amazon feature that allows vendors to create or request the creation of ‘variation’” relationships between some products that are similar but differ only in narrow, specific ways – such as color, size, quantity, or flavor. Products with a variation relationship share the same product detail page on Amazon.com and appear as alternative choices, so shoppers can compare and choose among similar products.”
“The product detail page of products that are in a variation relationship displays the total number of ratings, the average star rating, and the reviews for all of the products in the variation relationship,” the FTC said in its complaint. “They also share any ‘#1 Best Seller’
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.
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.