U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

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.

Following up on my blog post related to the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) prohibition on illegal sales calls and robocalls, today the FTC issued its National Do Not Call Registry Data Book for Fiscal Year 2017.  Now in its ninth year, the 2017 fiscal year Data Book contains “statistical data about phone numbers on the Registry, telemarketers and sellers accessing phone numbers on the Registry, and complaints consumers submit to the FTC about telemarketers allegedly violating the Do Not Call rules.”  New this year, according to the FTC, is a breakdown of robocalls versus live calls, information about the topic of those calls as reported by consumers, and a state-by-state analysis of consumer complaints.

In its press release issued today, the FTC reported that the Registry now contains over 229 million phone numbers and that there were over 7 million consumer complaints about unwanted telemarketing calls in 2017.  Of those, over 4.5 million were complaints about robocalls, which is a marked increase from the prior year.  Notably, the most frequent topic that consumers identified when submitting a robocall complaint was “Reducing Debt,” which accounted for over 700,000 of the complaints received in 2017.

As a reminder, companies should make sure to follow proper procedures when making sales calls, particularly pre-recorded sales calls, to consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) operates a single National Do Not Call Registry at donotcall.gov for both personal land lines and cell phones.  Although the FTC notes that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) regulations prohibit telemarketers from utilizing automated dialers to call cell phone numbers without a consumer’s prior consent, the FTC allows consumers to “register” cell phone numbers (in addition to land line numbers) on the Registry in order to notify telemarketers that they don’t want to receive unsolicited telemarketing calls.  Once a consumer registers a particular number, it will stay on the Registry until the consumer cancels the registration or discontinues service for that number.

If a consumer receives an unwanted sales call after more than 31 days have passed since placing a number on the Registry, the FTC encourages reporting that call.  However, the FTC notes that the Registry only prohibit sales calls, meaning that companies may still make certain calls like political calls, charitable calls, debt collection calls, informational calls, and telephone survey calls.  In addition, companies may make a sales call to a consumer if they have recently done business with the consumer or received written permission from the consumer.

In light of developing technology, the FTC has seen an increase in the last several years of illegal sales calls, particularly calls with pre-recorded messages and fake caller ID information known as “robocalls.”  The FTC prohibits robocalls that promote the sale of any good or service.  However, the FTC notes that certain pre-recorded messages are permitted — e.g. purely informational calls, political calls, calls from certain health care providers, calls related to collecting a debt, and calls made by banks, telephone carriers, and charities.

To combat illegal sales calls and robocalls, the FTC reports that it has sued hundreds of companies/individuals and obtained over a billion dollars, is coordinating with law enforcement and industry groups, and is pursuing the development of technology-based solutions.  According to the FTC, companies that violate the Registry or conduct an illegal robocall may be fined up to $40,654 per call.  Thus, companies should always make sure to follow proper procedures when making sales calls, particularly pre-recorded sales calls, to consumers.

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.

When done correctly, sweepstakes and prize contests can be an effective tool for building brand awareness and gaining customers.  However, businesses that fail to abide by applicable statutes and regulations when using these promotional devices can suffer disastrous consequences, including civil enforcement actions, government inquiries, or even criminal penalties.

For instance, earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it had sent more than $532,000 in restitution payments to victims of a vacation prize scheme.  The scheme, conducted primarily by VGC Corp. of America between 2008 and 2011, involved a promotion offering expensive vacation packages to callers who correctly answered a simple trivia question.  All callers (regardless of whether they answered correctly) were told they had won the vacation package but had to pay an “administrative fee” before they could collect.  Callers were later informed of several limitations and restrictions to the offer, but only after they had already paid between $200 and $400 in fees.

This case serves as a reminder of the need for businesses that implement these kinds of marketing tactics to have at least a basic understanding of the statutory and regulatory framework.  A number of federal laws require that certain disclosures be “clear and conspicuous” in contest promotions, including but not limited to all rules and conditions of the promotion and the odds of winning any given prize.

Additional regulations may apply depending on the particular type of contest or giveaway at issue.  Promotions in which prizes are awarded to members of the public on the basis of skill or knowledge (“skill contests”), or where the gift or prize is available to all recipients who respond according to the companies’ instructions (“premium offers”), can typically require payment in order to participate.  However, promotions that award prizes to consumers by pure chance (“sweepstakes”) cannot require payment of any kind, as whenever a sweepstakes-style contest requires a payment, it risks crossing the line into an illegal lottery.

Any businesses considering implementing these kinds of promotional devices should take the time to understand these distinctions and abide by all disclosure requirements.  If the past is any indication, the FTC and other federal agencies will continue their strict enforcement of these rules.

Amid the hullabaloo over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week in Matal v. Tam, a much broader and potentially more significant development might be overlooked. It shouldn’t be.

The case involved Simon Tam’s band “The Slants,” and as our Elizabeth Patton wrote earlier this week, it invalidated the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging marks. The crucial development that might be missed, however, is separate from the fascination over whether this decision spells the end of efforts to invalidate the trademark registrations held by the NFL for its football team in Washington, D.C. – it does. Rather, the Slants’ case should be seen for what is lurking in the opinions of the concurring justices. That is, the Tam decision marks a potent evisceration of the First Amendment’s commercial speech doctrine, ensuring heightened constitutional protection for commercial speakers.

U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
Copyright: Blakeley / 123RF Stock Photo

The commercial speech doctrine has long been invoked to allow broader, more intrusive regulation by government of speech that can be characterized as “commercial.” This is the doctrine that justifies not only the Trademark Office’s regulation of trademarks, but also the Federal Trade Commission’s regulation of social media, and a local municipality’s regulation of highway billboards. The commercial speech doctrine holds that because commercial speech is more robust – that is, because it is financially better equipped to defend itself – the government may have a freer hand in regulating such speech. Under this doctrine, a government regulation of commercial speech has heretofore been subject to a lesser degree of constitutional review – the so-called “intermediate” scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s Central Hudson test.

The Tam case dramatically undermines those prior principles.

Indeed, the various opinions in the Tam case buttress a development in the law that has been building in recent years, where the Supreme Court has been much more skeptical of government attempts to regulate the speech of businesses and other commercial actors. This latest case now solidifies a five-justice majority, and potentially a larger one, that will require rigorous, full-bore, core-speech “strict scrutiny” for government regulations of commercial speech when the regulations attempt to restrict or punish non-misleading commercial speech on the basis of the “viewpoint” expressed in the speech.

In other words, there are at least five justices, and likely more, who no longer focus on whether the speech being regulated is “commercial.” Instead, these justices are willing to apply strict scrutiny – and even a presumption of unconstitutionality – to a regulation that can be characterized as “viewpoint” based.

The nose-counting for this principle looks like this:

In his separate concurrence in Tam, Justice Thomas reiterated his long-held view, one that he persistently expressed along with the late Justice Scalia, that all government regulation of commercial speech should be subjected to strict scrutiny if the speech to be regulated is not misleading. Thus, as First Amendment scholars have long recognized, Justice Thomas already stands in the camp that rejects the rationale of the commercial speech doctrine, that commercial speech is entitled to less protection under the First Amendment.

In addition to Justice Thomas, a four-justice wing led by Justice Kennedy concurred with the outcome in Tam. Kennedy, along with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan (that is, the so-called “liberal” wing of the Court) sounded a clarion call for the highest level of constitutional scrutiny on regulations that attack a person’s speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is engaged in commercial speech. Justice Kennedy wrote that “it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys.” He then said that regardless of whether the speech in question is commercial – that is, regardless of the nuances of the commercial speech doctrine – “[a] law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an egregious form of content discrimination which is presumptively unconstitutional.” (emphasis added)

Thus, there is a five-justice majority, between Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, that will apply full First Amendment protection against a government regulation that discriminates on the basis of a speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is commercial or not.

And finally, there is reason to anticipate sympathy for this view even among the rest of the justices. The portion of Justice Alito’s principal opinion that reflected only a four-justice plurality of himself, and Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer, observed that the Supreme Court has said “time and again” that the public expression of ideas “may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”

These pronouncements line up to be an eight-justice majority, and potentially a unanimous Court once Justice Gorsuch’s views become known (he did not participate in the Tam case). The Court has thus made clear that the government is barred from regulating truthful, non-misleading commercial speech where the only justification for the regulation is that the commercial speech offends the sensibilities of the listeners.

This expansion of the strict-scrutiny regime into territory once thought to be an area of more fulsome government regulation puts into play all kinds of statutory regimes. Clearly, in addition to the anti-disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, that statute’s additional prohibitions against the registration of trademarks that are “scandalous” or “immoral” soon will be invalidated. (Indeed, the Trademark Office has already signaled its recognition of the likely invalidity of these provisions in briefing it submitted to the Federal Circuit last year.) As a reuslt, trademark applicants who previously were unable to obtain registrations of marks with profanity in them or marks with sexual innuendoes now likely will be able to obtain such registrations.

Similarly, the FTC’s regulatory guidance that has required media companies to disclose whether content on their websites are “sponsored” is potentially subject to strict scrutiny because these restrictions are a regulation of commercial speech based on the viewpoint of the speaker.

Other statutory regimes are equally at risk under this now more robust protection of commercial speech. Hence, states that have enacted “veggie libel” laws that prohibit advertising that criticizes a state’s agricultural products are now likely to face a presumption of unconstitutionality and a need to justify the laws under a strict scrutiny regime.

In addition, states that have enforced restrictions on companies’ truthful, non-misleading advertising will face more legal challenges. One prime example will be the states where marijuana has been legalized but the states have also restricted how those cannabis businesses may advertise their products. Those regulations discriminate against the cannabis business’ advertising based on their viewpoint. The Tam decision means that those regulations are presumptively unconstitutional.

Similarly, municipalities that have prohibited or restricted the advertising of ride-sharing or room-sharing businesses also will find it much more difficult to defend such commercial speech regulations because they enjoin speech on the basis of the speakers’ viewpoints.

The fundamental sea change that can be seen in the Tam decision is that non-misleading, truthful commercial speech is no longer the benighted stepchild of the First Amendment. Rather, such speech now is entitled to the strongest form of constitutional protection when the government seeks to regulate such speech because of the speaker’s viewpoint – that is, when the speech is targeted “based on the government’s disapproval of the speaker’s choice of message.”

The practical effect of the Tam case, when read together with the earlier line of decisions applying the highest form of First Amendment protection against viewpoint discrimination, is that businesses now have an even stronger First Amendment basis to resist government efforts to control the way they speak to the public and their customers when their speech is not misleading.

Retailers often use product reviews to supplement advertising and drive sales.  Such use has become more prevalent as sales shift from brick and mortar stores to internet sales, where splattering a webpage with purported product reviews is easy, cheap, and grabs eyeballs.

Online product reviews
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Many major online retailers offer product reviews submitted by consumers. Many online retailers will provide product reviews on their website that the company has solicited or otherwise selected for favorability. Such reviews are supposed to be authentic and accurate. While the retailer can select which reviews are displayed, the reviews should be real and the consumer can decide how much weight to give a review.  However, purported third party website reviews exist for the specific reason that they are supposed to be independent and will give the good and the bad. Several companies and individuals recently discovered that faking a third party review website will result in action from the FTC.

The website of Trampoline Safety of America purported to use experts to give safety ratings to different trampoline brands, rating those made by Infinity and Olympus Pro the highest.  However, what was not disclosed to consumers according to the FTC was that Trampoline Safety of America was operated by Infinity and Olympus Pro and the company owners.  According to the FTC the comments and videos on the website were also not authentic customer reviews, but were created by the owners of Infinity and Olympus Pro.  Following FTC action, the parties are heading toward settlement.

While such conduct is obviously improper, it is important always to disclose conflicts regarding product reviews and to only use consumer reviews or testimonials that are actually given by customers.  All factual claims, especially medical related claims, must be supported by actual data or testing.  Not only has the FTC shown a willingness to crack down on companies that violate such requirements, consumer protection lawyers and competitor companies can also be expected to bring claims and seek damages.

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.

 

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
Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

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.