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.

Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a settlement with PayPal, Inc. over allegations that Venmo, a PayPal-owned mobile payment and social networking application, misled customers on issues relating to account transfers and privacy settings and enabled fraud through inadequate security practices.

Founded in 2009, Venmo lets users easily transfer money to one another and share information regarding such payments through a social network feed.  From a user perspective, Venmo operates a lot like any other major social media network, letting users “pay” each other in the same way you “tag” a friend in an Instagram post.  Thanks to its familiar social media-style interface and the ease with which it lets users split everyday expenses like bar tabs and rent payments, Venmo quickly became a favorite among millennials and college students.

According to the FTC, however, Venmo’s perceived simplicity was deceptive.  In a complaint originally filed against Venmo-parent PayPal in 2016, the FTC alleged that Venmo’s notification policy misled consumers and constituted a “deceptive or unfair practice” under Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.  Under the policy, Venmo notified users that funds were credited to their account before Venmo had reviewed and verified the underlying transaction.  According to the complaint, this practice resulting in unexpected delays and reversals.  It also created an ideal environment for fraud.  By falsely conveying to sellers that transactions had cleared, scammers were able to buy goods and services with fake or fraudulent information, leaving sellers with nothing when the transactions were ultimately reversed.

The FTC further charged that Venmo misled consumers about the privacy of information about their transactions.  Under the application’s default settings, whenever a user pays or is paid through the application, a description of the transaction and its participants is shared with all of the user’s “friends” in a social networking feed.  While Venmo offers privacy settings that let users limit who can view their transactions, it failed to accurately explain to users how those privacy settings actually work.

Additional charges alleged that Venmo misrepresented the extent to which consumers’ accounts were protected by “bank grade security systems” and violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act’s Safeguards and Privacy Rules.

“This case sends a strong message that financial institutions like Venmo need to focus on privacy and security from day one,” acting FTC chairman Maureen Ohlhausen said in a statement.  “Consumers suffered real harm when Venmo did not live up to the promises it made to users about the availability of their money.”

For businesses dealing directly with consumers, this case underscores the importance of taking your duty to educate consumers about your product seriously, especially when it comes to how customer information will be used.  Such businesses should regularly review disclosures and other consumer-facing messages to ensure they are not only accurate but also consistent with reasonable consumer expectations.  And whenever costumers are given options as to how their information will be used, make sure those options are clearly conveyed and, perhaps most importantly, honor their choices.

Only a few days ago, my colleague Elizabeth Patton posted about the Federal Trade Commission’s release of its annual Data Book outlining the most recent statistical data about uses of the National Do Not Call Registry, a national database maintained by the FTC listing the telephone numbers of individuals and families who have requested that telemarketers not contact them.

Today, the FTC followed that up by issuing its biennial report to Congress on the Registry. The FTC reports that many businesses and organizations have attempted to exploit exceptions to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and that these organizations have occasionally faced stiff civil penalties as a result. As such, companies engaged in telemarketing tactics should take the time to understand the TSR and its exceptions and make sure their practices are in compliance.

Among other things, the TSR makes it illegal for a business or individual taking part in “telemarketing” — defined as “a plan, program, or campaign . . . to induce the purchase of goods or services or a charitable contribution” involving more than one interstate telephone call — to call any phone number listed in the Registry. There is an exception, however, for calls to consumers with whom the company has an “established business relationship.” This exception allows sellers and their telemarketers to call customers who have recently made purchases or made payments, and to return calls to prospective customers who have made inquiries, even if their telephone numbers are on the Registry.

To fall within the “established business relationship” exception, the call must be to a person with whom the seller has an existing relationship based on: (1) the consumer’s purchase, rental, or lease of the seller’s goods or services or a financial transaction between the consumer and seller, within the eighteen months immediately preceding the date of a telemarketing call; or (2) the consumer’s inquiry or application regarding a product or service offered by the seller, within the three months immediately preceding the date of a telemarketing call.

According to the FTC, businesses routinely abuse this exception by engaging in calls in which the seller identified in the telemarketing call and the seller with whom the consumer has a relationship are technically part of the same legal entity, but are perceived by consumers to be different because they use different names or market different products.

Whether calls by or on behalf of sellers who are affiliates or subsidiaries of an entity with which a consumer has an established business relationship fall within the exception depends on consumer expectations. In other words, the question is whether the consumer likely be surprised by the call and find it inconsistent with having placed their phone number on the Registry. The greater the similarity between the seller and the subsidiary or affiliate in the eyes of the consumer, the more likely it is that the call will fall within the established business relationship exception.

Another issue arises when businesses place telemarketing calls to consumers after acquiring the consumers’ telephone numbers from others — so-called “lead generators” — without screening the numbers to remove those listed on the Registry. Such calls generally do not fall within the established business relationship exception because, while consumers may have a relationship with the lead generator, they do not have an established business relationship with the seller who has purchased the leads. Thus, a single sales pitch can produce multiple illegal calls, generating one or more calls from both the lead generators and the telemarketer.

The report also clarifies that the submission of a sweepstakes entry form does not create an “established business relationship” between the consumer and the company administering the sweepstakes, and notes several enforcement actions that have been brought against companies for making illegal calls that relied upon sweepstake entry forms as a basis for making telemarketing calls.

Recent actions by the FTC indicate that businesses and other organizations that use or rely on telemarketing tactics would be well-advised to review their telemarketing practices and ensure they are in compliance with the TSR and related federal regulations.

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.

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.

Ever been skeptical of symptom relief claims made by medicine made of things like crushed bees or poison ivy?  It seems you are not alone–the FTC is skeptical too, and a recent FTC announcement may leave marketers scrambling to change the claims made on homeopathic drugs.

Homeopathy, dating to the 1700s, is based on the theory that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms when provided in larger doses to healthy people.  While many people believe in these remedies, the efficacy claims for these products are generally not supported by modern scientific methods and are generally not accepted by modern medical experts.

Last week, the FTC released an Enforcement Policy Statement on Marketing Claims for OTC Homeopathic Drugs.  In the statement, the FTC provided specific guidelines for marketing the efficacy of homeopathic remedies.  The FTC acknowledged it has historically not pursued many enforcement actions against homeopathic marketers, but stressed that the same rules apply to marketing homeopathic drugs as other health-related products, and indicated its lax enforcement may be a thing of the past.

Copyright: <a href='//www.123rf.com/profile_kerdkanno'>kerdkanno / 123RF Stock Photo</a>Generally, an advertiser is required to have adequate substantiation for any claim, but the substantiation that qualifies as “adequate” is more demanding for health-related claims.  For health-related claims, an advertiser must have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to support the claim.  And for claims that a product can treat or prevent a disease or its symptoms, the FTC has required support in the form of well-designed human clinical testing.  This is a real problem for homeopathic drugs—most have absolutely no scientific support for their treatment claims (let alone the human clinical testing required).

So what is a marketer to do – how can you identify what the homeopathic drug supposedly treats without saying (expressly or implicitly) that it is effective at doing so?  After all, for the vast majority of homeopathic drugs, the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.  So just making a treatment claim could violate the regulations.  The answer according to the FTC: disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

The FTC is recommending that homeopathic drug marketing include disclaimers that consist of at least two components: (1) a statement that there is no scientific evidence that the product works and (2) a statement that the treatment claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.  And it is not enough to put these disclaimers in the fine print.  As stated by the FTC any disclaimer “should stand out and be in close proximity to the efficacy message; to be effective, it may actually need to be incorporated into the efficacy message.”  The FTC also warns against marketers attempting to spin this into a positive; says the FTC: “Marketers should not undercut such qualifications with additional positive statements or consumer endorsements reinforcing a product’s efficacy.”

The FTC’s new guidance helps define clear rules and puts marketers on notice of the pitfalls of marketing homeopathic products.  If in doubt about whether a advertising message is misleading, consider consulting an attorney and obtaining consumer surveys to ensure the advertisement is clear and not misleading.