The FTC filed a lawsuit earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah charging telemarketers with violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule.  The FTC alleges that defendants deceptively claimed their “business coaching” would help consumers earn thousands of dollars a month by starting a home-based Internet business.

According to the complaint, the defendants’ telemarketing operation relied on “leads” supplied by other companies.  Typically, these were consumers who had purchased some work-from-home-related product or service online for less than $100. For a fee or a percentage of defendants’ sales, the company that sold the product or service would encourage the buyer to contact an “expert consultant” or “specialist” to see if they qualify for an “advanced” coaching program.  However, when the consumer called to speak to a “specialist” they were merely routed to defendants’ telemarketers.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants then charged consumers up to $13,995 for their purported business coaching program, which merely provided information that was already freely available on the Internet.  Ultimately, most people who bought the service did not develop a functioning business, earned little or no money, and ended up deeply in debt.

The FTC filed a lawsuit this week against Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lending company that operates an online marketplace for personal loans.  The lawsuit accuses Lending Club of luring consumers to its website with online advertisements promising “no hidden fees,” only to go ahead and deduct significant “up-front” origination fees from the loan proceeds.  As a result, customers were surprised when the amount that actually showed up in their bank account was less than the “Loan Amount” they thought they had signed up for.

According to the FTC, this deception is made worse by the fact that Lending Club never adequately discloses the up-front fee to consumers during the entire online application process.  The fee is only mentioned once—inside an explanatory “pop-up bubble” that only appears if the applicant happens to click or tap on a relatively small and inconspicuous icon. Because applicants are not required to click or tap on the icon in order to move forward with their loan application, many applicants never saw the disclosure at all.

“This case demonstrates the importance to consumers of having truthful information from lenders, including online marketplace lenders,” said Reilly Dolan, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Stopping this kind of conduct will help consumers make informed choices about loan offers.”

This case is a reminder of advertisers’ responsibility to ensure that advertisements are honest and forthcoming, especially in the ever-changing landscape of online advertising.  Some key takeaways:

  • If a disclosure is needed to prevent an online ad from being deceptive or unfair, it must be clear and conspicuous. This rule applies to all forms of online advertising, including paid blog posts or ads on social media platforms.
  • The “clear and conspicuous” rule also applies across all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the ad. Advertisers must therefore ensure that required disclosures function properly on all programs and devices.
  • Putting necessary disclosures in hyperlinks or “pop-up bubbles” is strongly discouraged, particularly where the disclosure involves important information like additional costs or consumer safety. Where they are used, ensure the link is labeled accurately and that it functions properly regardless of device or platform.

Failing to have adequate substantiation for advertising claims can land companies in hot water.  Case in point: The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently announced that it had settled charges against a company and its CEO related to their advertising of anti-aging products using what the FTC believed were false or unsubstantiated claims.  According to the FTC’s Complaint, Telomerase Activation Sciences, Inc. and Noel Patton (“TA Sciences”) lacked scientific evidence to support claims that their topical cream product and capsule/power product provided certain anti-aging and other health benefits.  Specifically, the FTC alleged that it was false, misleading, or unsubstantiated for TA Sciences to make the following representations about one or both products:

  • reverses aging;
  • prevents and repairs DNA damage;
  • restores aging immune systems;
  • increases bone density;
  • reverses the effects of aging, including improving skin elasticity, increasing energy and endurance, and improving vision;
  • prevents or reduces the risk of cancer;
  • decreases recovery time of the skin after medical procedures.

Additionally, the FTC alleged that TA Sciences made misrepresentations related to a paid program being independent and educational, related to consumers in its ads being independent users, and in promotional materials provided to other marketers.

The FTC alleged that TA Sciences’ conduct violated section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts, thus allowing the FTC to bring suit to enjoin such conduct.  The FTC’s suit alleged counts of (1) false or unsubstantiated efficacy claims, (2) false establishment claims, (3) deceptive format, (4) deceptive failure to disclose material connections with consumer endorsers, (5) false independent users claims, and (6) means and instrumentalities to trade customers.  The FTC’s proposed settlement order prohibits TA Sciences from making a number of representations related to these counts.  It also requires TA Sciences to notify purchasers of the products at issue about the FTC settlement order.  After a period of public comment, the FTC will decide whether to make the order final.

Of course, companies should ensure that they have adequate substantiation for advertising claims, whether health-related or otherwise.  As a reminder, the FTC requires that advertisers have a reasonable basis for advertising claims before disseminating them.  For more information regarding claim substantiation, review the FTC Policy Statement Regarding Advertising Substantiation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) regulates dietary supplements as food, not as drugs.  In general, dietary supplements are taken orally and contain a dietary ingredient such as a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb, botanical, or other substance used to supplement the diet.  The FDA warns consumers that dietary supplements may be harmful, may contain hidden or deceptively-labeled ingredients, and are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or alleviate the effects of any disease.  In fact, the FDA has recalled numerous products containing potentially harmful ingredients.

Although federal law requires that dietary supplements be labeled as such (either as a “dietary supplement” or with “[ingredient description] supplement”) and that products be labeled correctly and advertised fairly, the FDA does not pre-approve dietary supplements or require that they be proven safe before they are marketed and sold.  Nor does the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) pre-approve any advertising related to dietary supplements.  As a result, there is no requirement that manufacturers/sellers prove that their products are safe or that all advertising claims are accurate before they market or sell the products.  Instead, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure product safety and truthful advertising, and the FDA and FTC only get involved after such products have already entered the market—with the FDA regulating safety issues and the FTC regulating advertising issues.

To bolster its ability to regulate such safety issues, the FDA requires that sellers of dietary supplements report any serious adverse events reported by consumers or health care professionals within 15 days of receipt and that the FDA monitor and investigate those reports.  Likewise, the FDA monitors and investigates any adverse event voluntarily reported by consumers or health care professionals and encourages such voluntary reports to be made directly to the FDA as soon as possible.

As always, manufacturers/sellers of dietary supplements should make sure that their products are safe, properly labeled, and advertised truthfully.  In addition, companies should make sure to report any serious adverse events to the FDA within the required time frame.

Moonlight Slumber, LLC, an Illinois company that advertised its baby mattresses as “organic,” has agreed to settle FTC charges that it misrepresented or could not support these and other claims to consumers.

The FTC’s administrative complaint alleged that in marketing and advertising its baby mattresses, Moonlight Slumber misrepresented a range of claims on its website and in its packaging.  For example, the complaint charged the company represented that two of its lines of its mattresses are “organic.”  According to the FTC, however, very little of the mattresses were made from organic material.

The proposed settlement order prohibits Moonlight Slumber from making misleading misleading representations regarding whether any mattress, blanket, pillow, pad, foam-containing product, or sleep-related product is “organic,” “natural,” or “plant-based,” among other things.  The order also requires the company to have competent and reliable evidence, including scientific evidence when appropriate, to support any claims in these areas.

This is the FTC’s first case challenging “organic” product claims, and could be a signal that more are to come.  Companies using this language to market or promote their products should take note and ensure that they can support any such claims.

The Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) regulates cancer drugs and devices, both for use by humans and pets. Such drugs and devices must obtain FDA approval or clearance before they can be marketed or sold to consumers, so that the FDA can ensure each product is safe and effective for its intended use. The FDA is concerned about the marketing and selling of products that have not been approved, particularly because such products may contain dangerous ingredients or may cause harm by negatively impacting beneficial treatments. Often such products are advertised as “natural” or are labeled as a dietary supplement, which may be a tip-off to consumers that the products have not been approved by the FDA.

cancer pic
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The FDA has identified the following advertising phrases as “red flags” that may signify a fraudulent product:

  • Treats all forms of cancer
  • Miraculously kills cancer cells and tumors
  • Shrinks malignant tumors
  • Selectively kills cancer cells
  • More effective than chemotherapy
  • Attacks cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact
  • Cures cancer

Additionally, the FDA has stated that the following catch phrases should tip-off consumers to a potentially bogus health-related product:

  • One product does it all
  • Personal testimonials
  • Quick fixes
  • “All natural”
  • “Miracle cure”
  • Conspiracy theories

In April, the FDA sent 14 warning letters to companies that it determined were making fraudulent claims on their websites related to purported cancer treatments. Fraudulent claims are those that deceptively promote a product as effective against a specific condition—in this instance, cancer—that has not been scientifically proven to be safe and effective for its claimed purposed. According to the FDA, if the companies to which it sent letters do not comply with its warnings, the FDA may take further legal action in order to ensure that such products do not reach consumers.

The FDA requests that consumers avoid use of potentially unsafe or unproven products and to discuss any cancer treatments with their healthcare providers (or, in the case of pets, with their veterinarian and veterinary oncologist). As always, companies that market or sell products requiring FDA approval should ensure that such products are fairly advertised, are properly labeled, are effective and safe for their intended use, and are indeed approved as required.

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently filed a Complaint in the Southern District of California against six entities and four individuals, accusing them of deceiving customers with their use of “free” and “risk-free” trial period advertising related to cooking products, golf-related products, and online subscription services on their websites, in TV infomercials, and via email.

risk-free trial offer
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The FTC’s Complaint alleges that the defendants violated section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts, by misrepresenting the trial offers applicable to their products.  Specifically, the FTC accuses the defendants of advertising their products as having a “risk-free” trial period when, in reality, the consumers are required to return the product at their expense before the trial period ends in order to avoid being charged additional amounts for the product.  The FTC also accuses the defendants of failing to adequately disclose the material terms and conditions of the trial offer, of their continuity/subscription plan offers, and of their refund and cancellation policy.  For example, the FTC takes issue with the defendants’ failure to clearly disclose that they would start charging the consumer if he/she did not cancel the trial period or return the product.

In addition to violations of the FTC Act, the FTC’s Complaint also alleges violations of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (“ROSCA”).  The FTC describes ROSCA as an act that “prohibits any post-transaction third party seller (a seller who markets goods or services online through an initial merchant after a consumer has initiated a transaction with that merchant) from charging any financial account in an Internet transaction unless it has disclosed clearly all material terms of the transaction and obtained the consumer’s express informed consent to the charge.”  The FTC’s Complaint against the defendants focuses on section 4 of ROSCA, which prohibits the sale of products through an improper “negative option” feature.  A “negative option” feature is a provision in an offer to sell goods or services under which the consumer’s silence is taken as an acceptance of the offer.  It is improper to utilize a “negative option” feature unless the seller satisfies the following requirements: (1) clearly and conspicuously disclose all material terms of the transaction before obtaining the consumer’s billing information, (2) obtain the consumer’s express written consent before charging the consumer, and (3) provide a simple mechanism for the consumer to stop recurring charges.  The FTC’s Complaint alleges that, in violation of section 4 of ROSCA, the defendants did not meet any of those three requirements with respect to their cooking and golf-related goods and services.

The FTC seeks an injunction preventing future violations of the FTC Act and ROSCA as well as other relief necessary to redress injury to consumers.  It is clear that the FTC looks closely at advertisements claiming to offer “free” and “risk-free” trial periods and that companies should make sure to adhere to the FTC’s and ROSCA’s requirements.

 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) requests that consumers report any issues they experience with FDA-regulated products so that the FDA can further protect the public health. But it isn’t always clear which products the FDA regulates and which products it doesn’t. Generally, the FDA regulates the following product categories: certain foods, drugs, biologics, medical devices, electronic products that give off radiation, cosmetics, veterinary products, and tobacco products. Within each category is a number of products subject to the FDA’s regulatory authority. A more detailed, though non-exhaustive, list of the products the FDA regulates can be found on the FDA’s website. According to the FDA, these products account for about one-fifth of annual spending by U.S. consumers.

FDA
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The FDA is committed to ensuring that the products it regulates are safe, effective, and correctly labeled. But the FDA does not pre-approve for safety and effectiveness all of the products it regulates before such products can be marketed and sold. For example, the FDA does pre-approve new drugs, biologics, and certain medical devices, but does not pre-approve cosmetics (with the exception of certain color additives) or dietary supplements (though a notification is required for those containing a new dietary ingredient). However, the FDA requires that cosmetics, dietary supplements, and other products be safe for their intended use and be properly labeled/advertised. Accordingly, for such products that the FDA does not pre-approve, the FDA still has regulatory authority to take action when a safety issue arises. With respect to tobacco products, the FDA does not regulate safety in the same way as with other products, as the FDA views tobacco use as a major threat to public health. Notably, last year, the FDA finalized a new rule extending its regulatory authority to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and restricting youth access to such products.

As always, companies should ensure that they products they market and sell are safe for their intended use, are properly labeled, and are fairly advertised. One form of advertising that has caught the FDA’s attention is the phrase “FDA Approved.” The FDA’s recently-updated explanation on what it does and doesn’t approve (and under what circumstances) can be found on the FDA’s website. The FDA’s website also contains detailed information for companies that market and sell FDA-regulated products, including the ability to search for guidance documents that describe the FDA’s interpretation on various regulatory issues and the ability to submit questions regarding the FDA’s policies, regulations, and regulatory process.

Made in the USA Banner
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In the last two months, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has reached two settlements related to complaints it initiated against companies regarding “Made in the USA” advertising claims.

First, in February, the FTC announced that it had reached a settlement with a Georgia-based water filtration systems company named iSpring Water Systems, LLC.  According to the FTC, iSpring advertised its water filtration systems on its website and through third parties as “Built in USA” (and other similar claims).  The FTC found such advertising false or misleading because the water filtration systems were either entirely imported or contained significant parts that had been imported, thus violating the FTC’s long-standing requirement that “all or virtually all” of the product be made in the USA in order to be advertised as such.  The settlement allows iSpring to make certain qualified claims, with a clear and conspicuous disclosure, but prohibits iSpring from advertising contrary to the FTC’s “all or virtually all” requirement.  More information regarding the settlement is available on the FTC’s blog.

Second, earlier this month, the FTC announced that it had reached a settlement with a Texas-based pulley company named Block Division, Inc.  According to the FTC, Block Division advertised its pulleys in various media using “Made in USA” text and graphics.  The FTC found such advertising misleading given that the pulleys had significant and essential parts that had been imported.  Further, some of the pulleys contained steel plates stamped as “Made in USA” before they were imported.  The settlement allows Block Division to make certain qualified claims, again with a clear and conspicuous disclosure, but prohibits Block Division from advertising contrary to the FTC’s “all or virtually all” requirement.  More information regarding the settlement is available on the FTC’s blog.

Both of these FTC actions and resulting settlements demonstrate that the FTC takes “Made in the USA” claims seriously and will enforce its requirements regarding such advertising.  A prior blog post outlines those requirements in more detail.

In April 2016, the FTC filed a Complaint against Dr. Joseph Mercola and his companies alleging that their indoor tanning system advertisements violated section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices in commerce, and section 12(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits the dissemination of false advertisements in commerce for the purpose of inducing the purchase of foods, drugs, devices, services, or cosmetics.  According to the FTC, indoor tanning systems qualify as “devices” under the FTC Act.

tanning bed
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In its Complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants disseminated a number of false, misleading, deceptive, and unsubstantiated advertisements on the Mercola.com website, in search engine advertising, in a YouTube video of Dr. Mercola himself, and via newsletters.  Such advertisements include:

  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems is safe;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems will not increase the risk of skin cancer as long as consumers top using the system when their skin is only the slightest shade of pink and not burned;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems does not increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma skin cancer;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand indoor tanning systems reduces the risk of skin cancer;
  • The FDA has endorsed the use of indoor tanning systems as safe;
  • Research proves that indoor tanning systems do not increase the risk of melanoma skin cancer;
  • Certain Mercola brand tanning systems will pull collagen back to the surface of the skin, increase elastin and other enzymes that support the skin, fill in lines and wrinkles, and reverse the appearance of aging;
  • Tanning with Mercola brand tanning systems provides various benefits to consumers, including increasing Vitamin D and providing Vitamin D-related health benefits; and
  • The Vitamin D Council recommends Mercola brand tanning systems (without disclosing that the defendants arranged for the Vitamin D Council to be compensated for its endorsement).

Today, the FTC announced that, as a result of a settlement agreement reached with Dr. Mercola and its companies, the FTC is mailing $2.59 million in refunds to more than 1,300 purchasers of Mercola indoor tanning systems. According to the FTC, the average refund check is $1,897.  Additionally, under the settlement agreement, the defendants are banned from selling indoor tanning systems in the future.

More information regarding the FTC’s views on indoor tanning advertising can be found on the FTC’s website and blog.  According to the FTC, no government agency recommends indoor tanning and the FDA requires indoor tanning equipment to contain signs warning users of the risk of cancer.  In addition, the FTC actively investigates false, misleading, and deceptive advertisements related to indoor tanning.