Federal Trade Commission Act

Customer feedback is a two-way street.  On the one hand, positive customers reviews can inspire trust in potential new customers who might otherwise be apprehensive about purchasing products or services from an unfamiliar company.  Negative reviews, on the other hand, typically have the opposite effect.  As such, businesses may be tempted to stifle or “bury” negative customer feedback in order to preserve their reputation.  Businesses that engage in such complaint suppression tactics, however, run the risk attracting the ire of federal enforcement agencies.

For example, just last week, a federal court ruled that the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is likely to prevail in its case against World Patent Marketing, Inc. (“WPM”), a business that has marketed and sold research, patenting, and invention-promotion services to consumers since 2014.  According to the FTC, WPM intimidated and threatened customers to prevent them from complaining and to compel them to retract complaints, often through cease and desist letters from WPM’s lawyers frivolously insisting that such conduct constitutes unlawful defamation or even criminal extortion.

The court agreed with the FTC that WPM’s tactics likely violate Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which proscribes any unfair act or practice that “is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”  The court explained that complaint-suppression tactics like those employed by WPM cause substantial consumer injury “because they serve to limit the flow of truthful information” about the quality of a business’s services to prospective consumers, making it “nearly impossible for consumers to make informed decisions.”

The court also found that there are no countervailing benefits to such tactics, as “existing customers do not benefit from having their complaints suppressed and prospective consumers do not benefit from being denied access to material information.”  To the contrary, suppressing customer complaints in this manner permitted WPM  “to hinder competition and harm legitimate competitors in the marketplace.”

This case highlights a need for businesses to take special care when responding to customer complaints and negative online reviews.  However damaging a bad Yelp review may be for your business, getting sued by the federal government is certainly worse.

Paul Fling writes:

Fraud, deception, and unfair business practices are problems all companies and consumers are bound to come across. That is where the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) comes in. The FTC enforces federal consumer protection laws—in particular, laws focused on preventing fraud, deception, and unfair business practices. Largely, the FTC enforces federal antitrust and other unfair business practice laws to encourage fair competition in the marketplace and to keep consumer prices low.

U.S. Federal Trade Commission Building, Washington, D.C.Put simply, the FTC protects America’s consumers and promotes competition. For example, the FTC credits its anti-competitive antitrust enforcement efforts with improving access to health care—first, by helping prevent anti-competitive agreements that may raise health care prices, and second, by encouraging innovation in health care. Additionally, the FTC shields consumers from internet and telemarketing scams, price-fixing schemes, and even false and deceptive advertising. According to the FTC, its efforts benefit consumers in two crucial areas: their health and their economic well-being.

The FTC enforces over 70 laws. Those laws include acts that are familiar to many companies and consumers, such as the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Telemarketing Sale Rule, the Identity Theft Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the Clayton Act. However, the FTC has some level of responsibility in enforcing laws in a much wider range of areas, such as trademarks, credit reporting, internet privacy, college scholarship fraud, money lending, underage drinking, and more. With respect to advertising, for example, the FTC keeps an especially close watch on ads regarding food, medications, dietary supplements, alcohol, and tobacco—including monitoring and writing reports that assess alcohol and tobacco marketing practices.

The Federal Trade Commission Act provides the FTC with power to prevent unfair competition and business practices, seek retributions for injuries to consumers, conduct investigations, and make legislative recommendations. Consequently, the FTC enforces many of its wide-reaching laws under the Federal Trade Commission Act. A full list of laws the FTC may enforce and other information regarding FTC enforcement can be found on the FTC’s website.


Paul Fling is a summer associate, based in the firm’s Minneapolis office.

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
Copyright: kchung / 123RF Stock Photo

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.