On March 15, 2016, national retailer Lord & Taylor agreed to settle FTC charges that it “deceived consumers by paying for native advertisements.” The settlement is the first of its kind following the December 2015 guidance memorandum, Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses, issued by the FTC. Under the terms of the settlement, Lord & Taylor is prohibited from “misrepresenting that paid ads are from an independent source, and is required to ensure that its influencers clearly disclose when they have been compensated in exchange for their endorsements”.
On the day the settlement was announced, the FTC also published a copy of the underlying complaint. The complaint alleges that Lord & Taylor developed plans to promote a clothing line for women which included a comprehensive social media campaign of blog posts, photos, native-advertising editorials in online fashion magazines, and a team of “influencers” recruited for their fashion sense and audience on social media. The FTC alleged that Lord & Taylor edited, pre-approved, and paid for a favorable Instagram post that was uploaded to the account of a fashion magazine called Nylon. The regulatory agency further alleged that Lord & Taylor reviewed, pre-approved, and paid for a favorable article in Nylon. In both cases, however, Lord & Taylor failed to disclose its commercial arrangement with Nylon. Similarly, the FTC alleged that Lord & Taylor gifted a dress from the clothing line to fifty “influencers” who were paid between $1,000 and $4,000 to post favorable photos and comments about the dress on social media. Again, Lord & Taylor did not disclose or require influencers to disclose that they had been paid for their posts. Based on Lord & Taylor’s alleged misrepresentations and failure to disclose, the FTC accused Lord & Taylor of engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
What is Native Advertising?
Native advertising, also known as sponsored content, is designed to fit in with original online content in a seamless, non-intrusive manner. It allows advertisers to directly reach online consumers, without severely interrupting the original content on the publishing website, video game, or mobile app. In the past few years, this advertising has reached all corners of the internet.
FTC Concerns With Native Advertising
As native advertising has grown, so have the FTC’s concerns about the possibility of deceiving consumers. Therefore, at the close of 2015, the FTC released the guidance memorandum, Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses, which provides details and illustrative examples for businesses that use native advertising as part of their online marketing campaigns.
Native advertising creates a particular challenge for advertisers. Advertisers want to design an advertisement that appears native to the original content, but must do so without potentially confusing the consumer, who may mistake the advertisement for non-advertising content.
To assist advertisers in complying with these rules, the FTC issued its December 2015 guidance memorandum with examples and tips to ensure advertisers remain compliant. Most of the memorandum focuses on seventeen examples of advertising, including on news sites, in videos, through content recommendation widgets, and in video games. These examples illustrate how and why consumers might be confused by certain native advertising tactics. Most of the examples show how a native advertisement might bear too much similarity to the original content, which means the consumer might not understand that what they are viewing is, in fact paid-for, sponsored content.
Complying With FTC Native Advertising Requirements
The take-away from the Lord & Taylor settlement is that advertisers should avoid placing paid ads that appear to be independent editorial content. Put simply, advertisers must choose between control and disclosure. In other words, advertisers who want to make use of native advertising and “influencers” on social media must either relinquish influence or control over the advertising content or disclose the nature of the marketing arrangement. Bottom Line: Paid advertising must be identifiable as advertising.
The FTC’s December 2015 memorandum provides a variety of tips on how to appropriately disclose native advertising. The disclosures should be three things: (1) placed near the advertising; (2) prominent; and (3) clear. By ensuring that native advertising follows these disclosure guidelines, companies will avoid misleading consumers into thinking their native advertisement is non-sponsored, publisher content.
Finally, the memorandum specifically notes who is affected by these disclosure rules. The enforcement is not limited to just the sponsoring advertiser. Advertising agencies and operators of affiliate advertising networks are also obligated to adhere to the FTC’s disclosure requirements.
Put simply, if a reasonable consumer might see your native advertising and believe it to be non-advertising content, the FTC will likely take issue with your native advertising tactics. This is exactly what we saw in the Lord & Taylor settlement.
In 2015, Amazon filed suit against over 1,000 unnamed individuals for allegedly offering to sell fake online reviews (positive or negative) on Fiverr.com (“Fiverr”). The unnamed defendants offer to provide 5-star reviews and some defendants even encourage sellers to provide their own text to use in the review. In order to avoid detection, defendants offer to submit reviews from multiple IP addresses, utilize multiple Amazon accounts, and to complete a Verified Review (which means the reviewed has purchased the product, even though they don’t always require the actual product to be shipped for review). In short, the allegations are that these reviews for sale violate Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines (which prohibit paid reviews), Fiverr’s own Terms of Service (which requires compliance with third party guidelines), and deceptively provides false reviews to consumers (which violates consumer protection laws).
Interestingly, Amazon did not name Fiverr as a party to the complaint. Instead, Amazon went after the individual sellers and indeed explicitly stated in the complaint that “Amazon will amend this complaint to allege their true names and capacities when ascertained.”
In contrast to Amazon’s approach, the Metallica Plaintiffs in a previously filed case against Napster, sued Napster directly and not the individual users (and eventually obtained their desired result). Indeed, Amazon has not always omitted operators from its case captions. Last April, Amazon filed a similar lawsuit against a number of companies that operated websites to promote the sale of Amazon reviews. That lawsuit contained very similar allegations to this recent suit against individuals and alleged selling positive reviews, offering a Verified Review, a slow posting of reviews to avoid detection by Amazon, etc. Similar as well to the Napster case, the first Amazon lawsuit also yielded a successful result because the websites targeted in that case were all closed down.
So why is Amazon now going after the individual sellers? And why did Amazon omit Fiverr in this lawsuit?
One possible explanation is that Amazon, like Napster, first attempted to take down the providers (i.e. the website owners) that enabled the fraudulent review process. While that was successful, Amazon likely realized that it was insufficient because the individual reviewers would easily migrate to sites like Fiverr to continue their activities. So, Amazon was forced to file suit against the individual users.
At the same time, Amazon did not include Fiverr as a named defendant because it is more likely to get Fiverr’s cooperation in providing the identities of the unnamed defendants, and, because Fiverr is a legitimate global online marketplace offering tasks and services- in sharp contrast to the defendants in the prior Amazon lawsuit that operated sites and companies for the sole purpose of providing fraudulent Amazon reviews (and further antagonized Amazon by utilizing the Amazon logo on their sites). Additionally, as noted in the current Amazon complaint, Fiverr itself prohibits paid reviews and has tried to prevent them- again in sharp contrast to the companies in the first Amazon lawsuit, whose entire business was selling Amazon reviews.
Or it may be that Amazon has embarked on a process to stop paid reviews and these are the first steps in that ongoing process. As noted in this complaint against the Fiverr sellers, the lawsuit is “the next step in a long-term effort to ensure these providers of fraudulent reviews do not offer their illicit services through other channels.” Thus, Amazon may have simply first pursued the enablers (i.e. the company websites dedicated to fraudulent reviews) and then it pursued the individual reviewers on Fiverr.
The extent to which Amazon will continue to pursue questionable reviews remains to be seen. In 2015, Amazon limited its lawsuits regarding fraudulent reviewers to paid reviewers. In 2016, we may see an assault on the groups of independent people who exchange positive reviews on Amazon (i.e. each party agrees to submit a positive review of the other’s product). This type of arrangement also violates Amazon terms and poses similar concerns to the reliance of consumers on Amazon reviews. Amazon may also question whether this prohibited practice merits attention.
If you didn’t know any better, you might have gotten pretty fiery over for-profit education after reading one of the front page stories of Tuesday’s New York Times. The lengthy article titled “For-Profit Colleges Fail Standards, but Get Billions” is all about accusations of greedy institutions bilking taxpayers and taking advantage of students through fraud and other deceptive practices. Why the story ran on page one of the paper is anybody’s guess: the only timely element in the piece appeared toward the end of the article, where the author mentioned the Defense Department’s recent decision to bar the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program. By the time you got to that part of the article, you might have cheered the DOD’s decision to cut the educator off, despite the fact that the decision appears premature, based on allegations as opposed to findings (meaning they are meting out punishment before a full investigation or review).
The New York Times piece seems narrowly focused on denigrating an industry that has become the bastard-stepchild of higher education. Ever since U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin decided to take on for-profit education, the industry has been under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators as well as partisan research and advocacy groups. The article would have readers believe that all the negative attention is the equivalent of substantiated claims that for-profit education is a fraud on federal student loan programs. Thirty-seven state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission are all investigating for-profit schools. These schools must be horrible, right? But what the article lacks are legal holdings or findings of fact.
That several agencies are investigating industry participants is not tantamount to guilt: it is more reflective of the fact that regulators take their cues from other regulators. Once an industry becomes unpopular, everyone wants to jump in and get their piece of the pie … or the felled lion. For-profit education is now an obvious target. But, again, that does not make the industry per se bad.
Nor does the fact that many for-profit educators have settled with regulators mean they are guilty: people and companies alike perform a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to whether to fight or stand down. It often makes economic sense to settle out with regulators rather than stay the course through potentially lengthy costly litigation.
What is troubling is the undercurrent – and application – of guilt before innocence, both by the New York Times article and by regulators. What is missing is a comparison of how much for-profit education costs per student versus how much other schools cost, or what dropout rates and post-graduation employment rates look like across schools for single parents and the poor (the types of individuals typically enrolled in for-profit colleges). For instance, studies have shown that community colleges are costing taxpayers billions of dollars for uncomfortably high drop out rates. Other studies identify taxpayer subsidies covering significant amounts of college operating costs.
One of the major reasons why for-profit education has high drop-out rates and poor post-grad employment rates is that they are reaching individuals who otherwise may not have access to degree programs, such as single parents or people in economically depressed areas. These individuals have other complications in their lives that can make completing a degree or finding gainful employment more challenging (e.g., scheduling, transportation). These challenges are not the schools’ fault, but a reflection of external factors. Punishing the schools and taking away educational opportunities does not seem like the most thoughtful decision, but it’s the one that partisan groups, partisan journalists, and regulators seem to be angling for.
Instead of celebrating the Defense Department’s decision to cut off the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program, we should be troubled that it is doing so before completing an investigation. In a statement, the University noted that: “It is troubling that DoD has used requests for information from other governmental agencies as grounds for placing the university’s DoD MOU in a probationary status.”
For-profit education does have, and has had, its bad actors… as does every industry. But the all-out slam against the sector, the fight for its demise, is unfair and shortsighted. In the end, the greatest losers will be historically underserved populations who will be denied education opportunities.
TCPA Trouble Continues: FCC Slams Lyft and First National Bank for Terms of Service Requiring Consent
Most of the attention involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) has centered on the stream of class actions around the country. It is important to remember that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and state attorney generals can, and do, enforce the TCPA. In fact, the FCC recently issued citations to Lyft, the ride-sharing service, and First National Bank (“FNB”). Under the Communications Act, before the FCC may issue monetary penalties against a company or person that does not hold an FCC license or authorization, it must first issue a citation warning the company or person.
The TCPA requires prior express written consent for telemarketing calls/texts to mobile phones utilizing an autodialer or prerecorded call and for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines. FCC rules mandate that the “prior written consent” contain certain key features. Among these requirements is the disclosure informing the consenting person that “the person is not required to sign the agreement – directly or indirectly – or agree to enter into an agreement as a condition of purchasing any property, goods, or services.”
For years, the FCC focused on actual consumer complaints of having received telemarketing calls/texts without the required prior express written consent. Interestingly, here, the FCC did not allege that either Lyft or FNB sent texts/robocalls without the required consent. The FCC’s accompanying press release indicates that its Enforcement Bureau initiated the two investigations after becoming aware of “violative provisions in those companies’ service agreements.” The citations issued to Lyft and FNB, along with recent correspondence by the FCC to Paypal concerning similar issues, represent new FCC attention on terms/conditions of service in the TCPA context, particularly on “blanket take it or leave it” agreements. The FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief, Travis LeBlanc, put all companies on notice, urging “any company that unlawfully conditions its service on consent to unwanted marketing calls and texts to act swiftly to change its policies.” The FCC directed Lyft and FNB to take “immediate steps” to comply with FCC rules and the TCPA – presumably meaning that the companies should immediately revise their terms and practices.
According to the FCC, Lyft’s terms require customers to expressly consent to receive communications from Lyft to customer’s mobile numbers, including text messages, calls, and push notifications. The messages could include Lyft-provided promotions and those of third party partners. The terms advise customers that they can opt-out by following the “unsubscribe” option, and that customers are not required to consent to receive promotional messages as a condition of using the Lyft platform or the services.
However, the FCC found that contrary to Lyft’s terms of service, Lyft does not actually provide “unsubscribe options” for consumers. If a consumer independently searches and gets to Lyft’s “help center,” the only option to opt-out subsequently prevents consumers from using Lyft’s service. Thus, per the FCC, “Lyft effectively requires all consumers to agree to receive marketing text messages and calls on their mobile phones in order to use services.”
The FCC concluded that while Lyft’s terms of service stated that consumers were not required to consent as a condition to using Lyft, in actuality, consumers could not refuse consent and remain Lyft users. Thus, the FCC cited Lyft, warning that it would be liable for any advertising text messages for which it did not collect proper, prior express written consent. The agency further stated that it would continue to monitor Lyft’s practices.
In FNB’s investigation, the FCC noted that consumers wishing to use FNB’s online banking services are required to agree to receive text messages and emails for marketing purposes at consumer-provided phone numbers. FNB customers wishing to enroll in the Apply Pay service are similarly required to consent to receive marketing-related text messages and emails. The FCC objected to FNB requiring consumers to agree to receive marketing text messages in order to use the online banking and Apple Pay services, and failing to inform consumers that they have the option to refuse consent. The agency reiterated that under FCC rules, prior express written consent to receive telemarketing messages requires that, among other things, consumers receive a clear and conspicuous disclosure informing the consumer of his or her right to refuse to provide consent.
When it comes to autodialed/prerecorded telemarketing calls and texts to mobile phones and prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines, companies need to be diligent in ensuring they have proper, defensible prior express written consent. The FCC’s citations to Lyft and FNB make clear that organizations may not rely on blanket mandatory opt-in agreements. While it may be acceptable to seek consent in terms of service, consumers must be informed of their opt-out abilities, and must be able to access the opt-out and still use the service or make the purchase.
Companies should review their service agreements and the operational mechanisms to make sure consumers have information on opting-out. Further, any opt-out mechanisms must work as promised. A user’s opt-out should not block services/purchases. Of course, the best way to obtain consent is to seek a separate, prior express written consent in an agreement that contains all the required elements, as follows:
- Is in writing (can be electronic);
- Has the signature (can be electronic) of the person who will receive the advertisement/telemarketing calls or texts;
- Authorizes the caller to deliver advertisements or telemarketing messages via autodialed calls, texts, or robocalls;
- Includes the telephone number to which the person signing authorizes advertisements or telemarketing messages to be delivered;
- Contains a clear and conspicuous disclosure informing the person signing that:
- By executing the agreement, the person signing authorizes the caller to deliver ads or telemarketing messages via autodialed calls, texts or robocalls; and
- The person signing the agreement is not required to sign the agreement (directly or indirectly) or agree to enter into such an agreement as a condition of purchasing any property, goods, or services.
As a reminder, the FCC repeatedly takes the position that the company claiming prior express written consent will bear the burden of providing that consent.
Car dealerships are notorious for running loud, flashy ads with too-good-to-be-true offers for outrageous deals to buy or lease cars. Some dealerships downplay or even hide the seemingly endless list of qualifications on those offers which render many potential buyers ineligible for the deals, much to the irritation of misled consumers. The FTC has taken action to stop these misleading practices by continuing its effort to crack down on deceptive advertising among automobile dealerships, which began in 2014 with the FTC’s “Operation Steer Clear,” a nationwide sweep of deceptive car dealership advertising. The FTC’s efforts in this area have continued, most recently resulting in settlement with two Las Vegas auto dealerships.
Planet Hyundai and Planet Nissan of Las Vegas were the subject of FTC enforcement actions alleging that the dealers’ ads misrepresented the cost to buy or lease a car by omitting critical information or deceptively hiding it in fine print. For instance, Planet Hyundai advertised a car for sale with “$0 Down Available,” but fine print revealed that a buyer would have to trade in a car worth a minimum of $2,500 or meet other qualifications in order to take advantage of the offer. Planet Nissan’s advertisements ran purportedly reduced prices side by side with former prices which had been struck through (“Was
$12,888, Now $9,997”). However, the ads did not adequately disclose the qualifications which buyers had to meet to get those prices. Similarly, the ads touted that the cars were for “Purchase! Not a lease!,” when in fact many of the cars were leases. In both cases the FTC alleged that the prominently advertised prices are not generally available to consumers. The dealerships both entered into consent agreements in which they did not have to admit guilt or pay any fines or penalties, but were obligated to abide by relevant laws and regulations pertaining to deceptive advertising.
Further automobile enforcement efforts may be on the horizon. In a late July regulatory filing, GM disclosed that it is currently the subject of an ongoing FTC investigation regarding “certified pre-owned vehicle advertising where dealers had certified vehicles allegedly needing recall repairs.” GM and the FTC declined to comment further, so it is not immediately clear whether the individual dealers were following GM corporate policy when certifying the pre-owned cars in need of recall repairs, or specifically how the ads were allegedly deceptive.
While many of the FTC’s enforcement actions focus on lower-cost products with a large national customer base, such as dietary supplements sold over the internet, these cases serve as a reminder that the FTC’s advertising requirements apply equally to big-ticket items sold locally. Merchants and service providers of every type, whether operating online or in brick and mortar shops, must ensure that their advertisements adequately disclose all material terms and conditions in a way that is not misleading or deceptive.
As online gaming companies compete for business, they are offering customers increasingly large incentives to play on their websites, often in the form of deposit bonuses. These deposit bonuses allow players to play with the bonus money as if it’s cash and keep the winnings (although players cannot cash out the bonus itself). However, some players and regulators believe that some of these promotions are misleading, because they allegedly do not clearly and conspicuously disclose all of the material terms of the offer.
The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently banned an advertisement by online gaming operator Betway which allegedly failed to disclose the material terms of the offer. Betway’s homepage prominently advertised a “£50 Free Bet*.” By clicking on the asterisk, users were taken to a tab listing the bonus terms, which stated that the operator would match new customers’ first deposit, from £10 to £50, with a bonus that must be used within a week from the initial deposit.
The ASA determined that the “£50 Free Bet” advertisement was misleading because it did not disclose the material terms and conditions of the offer in a clear and conspicuous manner. The ASA asserted that the “£50 Free Bet” advertisement would lead the average user to believe that they would receive a truly free bet—not that they had to first pay £50 before they could receive the “free” bet as a deposit bonus.
Gaming companies, like all advertisers, must be vigilant in ensuring that their advertisements fully disclose the terms of any offer up front. This includes information such as how much money the customer will receive (in this case, a matching deposit bonus up to £50), what the customer must do to earn the bonus (make a deposit), when the customer will receive the incentive (whether they receive it in a lump sum immediately upon deposit, or whether additional milestones in play or deposits must be reached), and how long they have to use the bonus funds. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General may bring actions for alleged deceptive advertising offers, and in many states customers may bring suit for the purportedly misleading offers. In operators’ quest to compete for customers and make attractive offers, they should proceed with caution and err on the side of full disclosure in doing so.
Photo at vi.wikipedia.org
A recent legal case in the UK between singer Rihanna and fashion retailer Topshop has highlighted differences between publicity rights in the UK and some US jurisdictions. Rihanna sued Topshop for its sale of a t-shirt bearing a large photograph of her. Rihanna had not approved or endorsed the sale of the t-shirt; rather, an independent photographer had taken the picture and licensed it for use on the shirts.
In the United States, many jurisdictions have laws governing the right of publicity; that is, the right to control the use of your image for commercial gain, or to be compensated for the commercial use of your image. The UK, however, does not have corresponding laws on image rights. Instead, Rihanna had to allege that Topshop engaged in “passing off” the shirts as being endorsed by the singer, thereby damaging her goodwill and business. In support, Rihanna argued that the circumstances of the sale of the shirts were likely to mislead customers into thinking that she had endorsed the product because the photograph was similar to those used in official album promotions, the nature of the shirt itself, and the fact that Topshop is a major and reputable retailer.
The lower court considered Rihanna’s prior connections to the store in considering whether passing off occurred. It noted that Topshop had previously run a competition in which the winner was awarded with a shopping trip to Topshop. Also, only weeks before the shirts went on sale, Topshop tweeted that Rihanna was shopping at one of its locations. Against that background, the court noted that the particular photograph on the shirt could have led her fans to believe that it was associated with the marketing campaign for the album, since the particular hairstyle and scarf worn by Rihanna in the photograph were widely used in a music video and associated publicity.
Ultimately Rihanna’s passing off arguments were successful, and the court granted an injunction prohibiting Topshop from selling the shirts without informing customers that they had not been approved or authorized by Rihanna. However, it is interesting to think what the result might have been in an instance where it was more obvious that Rihanna had not endorsed the product; for instance, if the t-shirts were sold, not through a trusted retailer which has been associated with the singer but instead by an independent seller hawking t-shirts on the street corner. In such circumstances the case in favor of passing off may have been weaker and Rihanna might not have been able to control the use of her image.
In contrast, the outcome under such a scenario might be very different in a state like California, which has strong right of publicity laws. California Civil Code §3344(a) forbids the use of another’s likeness “on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent…” The law establishes liability $750 or actual damages, whichever is greater, as well as “any profits from the unauthorized use that are attributable to the use and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages.” Punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs are also available under the statute.
While Rihanna’s victory in UK court does not establish a right of publicity in the country, it does provide an interesting case study in the workarounds that celebrities must use in order to protect their image from being improperly used in jurisdictions which do not have a right of publicity.
Last week, without much attention, four new regulations affecting online gaming operations in New Jersey became effective under the authority of the Division of Gaming Enforcement. The rules include changes to directives on funding from social games, requirements for exclusivity, and operator server locations.
However, the fourth rule is an addition which deals specifically with celebrity endorsements. What is most notable about this tenet is not the content, but the fact that regulators in New Jersey believe that iGaming will soon become an industry that uses celebrities to promote and market itself to consumers.
Because we’re lawyers, here is the actual language of Rule 13:69O-1.4 (u.):
Internet gaming operators may employ celebrity or other players to participate in peer to peer games for advertising or publicity purposes. Such players may have their accounts funded in whole or in part by an Internet gaming operator. An Internet gaming operator may pay a fee to the celebrity player. If a celebrity player is employed and the celebrity player generates winnings which he or she is not permitted to retain, such winnings shall be included as Internet gaming gross revenue in a manner approved by the Division.
It may be argued that the word “celebrity” is being used loosely in this context, as there isn’t exactly a line of blockbuster A-listers or superstar athletes waiting for their chance to be the face of online poker. Yet the addition of this specific provision importantly points to the fact that the Gaming Division not only anticipates a future where iGaming will carry big name endorsers, but that it wants to encourage effective advertising and publicity for the industry, which has had a slow start in its first year since becoming legal in the state.
Regulators looking to update this rule in the future should consider adding language geared toward consumer protection – namely, prohibitions against the use of celebrity endorsements in a deceptive or misleading manner. Last year, the FTC updated its advertising guidelines to account for the use of celebrity endorsements in advertising, specifically in the context of paid social media endorsements. Those guidelines provide, among other things, that celebrity endorsements must be truthful and accurately reflect the opinions of the celebrity, that paid celebrity endorsements must be adequately disclosed, and that the celebrity be a bona fide user of the product or services he/she is endorsing.
These guidelines should equally be applied by regulators in the context of iGaming, where increased competition, as more operators come on board, may lead operators to one up each other by throwing money at celebrities to endorse their games. The key to effective iGaming regulation is not just limited to overseeing how the game is played, but also to ensuring that the operators don’t play games that would unfairly hurt the competition and mislead the playing public. Updating these regulations so they are more inline with the FTC’s advertising guidelines will further these goals.
Online diploma mills, which require little or no coursework to complete a degree have recently garnered much attention within the online education realm. Websites which offer questionable diplomas for hundreds of dollars target vulnerable consumers seeking a degree to improve their life prospects, while simultaneously casting a shadow over legitimate online educational institutions which offer accredited programs and a complete educational experience including coursework, teacher interaction, and grading. In the latest crackdown on online diploma mills, the Federal Trade Commission obtained a temporary restraining order against Diversified Educational Resources, LLC and Motivational Management & Development Services, Ltd., companies which generated millions of dollars by selling worthless high school diplomas to thousands of consumers.
According to the allegations of the FTC’s complaint, the defendants have been operating purported online education sites since 2006, under the names Jefferson High School Online and Enterprise High School Online. The FTC alleges that the websites misleadingly represent that these are accredited schools by saying that the defendants “[p]rovide a respected and recognized high school diploma equivalency program,” that students completing the program will be “high school graduates,” and that the schools are registered with the Florida Department of Education. While the latter statement is technically true, the websites do not reveal that registering with Florida’s School Choice Program does not mean that the programs are accredited but rather, according to the complaint, registration is merely a “ministerial act, based solely on their own self-reported answers to Florida’s annual private school survey” which the Florida Department of Education does not verify. The truth of the accreditation status can only be found buried in dense paragraphs of text, in which the defendants note that they are “actively pursuing accreditation options” although they have not applied for any yet.
Consumers paid $200 to $300 to register on the websites. Those fees did not entitle them to any coursework, education, or test preparation. Rather, customers were immediately prompted to take a “test,” which was nearly impossible to fail because the websites provided hints to ensure that customers passed. After passing the test, customers received diplomas bearing the name “Jefferson High School Online” or “Enterprise High School Online.”
The “diplomas” that the defendants issued to customers were useless, according to the FTC. Many customers learned that their diplomas were invalid after unsuccessfully attempting to use them to apply to jobs, enroll in college, or join the military. Further, unsatisfied customers who sought a refund were refused, according to the FTC. Through this scam, the complaint says, the defendants collected over $11 million since 2009 without providing a real education product or service.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued a temporary restraining order and asset freeze in response to these allegations, suspending the domain names and prohibiting any material misrepresentations regarding online education. The case remains pending in the Southern District of Florida and the defendants’ responsive pleadings are due in October.
The fact is that social media has connected us to each other in ways which seemed unimaginable only a few decades ago. Take for example the progression of social activism through online fundraising. Over the course of two short months the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (“IBC”) went viral with millions of videos being posted by people drenching themselves in ice water in order to spread awareness and raise money for the research and treatment of ALS. To date, the total amount of donations made to the ALS Association through the IBC is an unprecedented $114 million. The Association’s FAQs webpage regarding the IBC indicates that this amount is almost five times its annual overall budget.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is also a good example of the online phenomenon of crowdfunding, where numerous individuals and groups pitch in to fund a project, cause or idea. Simply put, crowdfunding is fundraising through social media. There are several popular crowdfunding websites, however one of the most well-known sites is Kickstarter.com, which was launched in 2009, and boasts the facilitation of $1 billion in contributions by seven million backers who have so far funded 69,000 “creative projects” through the site. However, as is common when dealing with new technology, there are often unanticipated legal aspects of such innovation which can be problematic.
Earlier this year, the first crowdfunding consumer protection lawsuit was filed in the state of Washington (State of Washington v. Altius Management, LLC; Edward J. Polchlopek III (No. 14-2-12425-SEA)). In late 2012, defendant Ed Nash, as he is known, and his company Altius Management, were successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign to produce a limited-edition playing card game called Asylum. According to the campaign page, backers exceeded Nash’s goal of raising $15,000, giving more than $25,000 in total for the promise of the card game to be made. In addition, many of those who funded Nash’s campaign expected certain perks for contributing, referred to by Kickstarter as “rewards,” as was detailed in his campaign’s backer pledge amounts, which included multiple card decks and custom artwork according to varying contribution levels. However, two years later the card game has not been produced, backers have received no rewards or refunds and there has been no communication from Nash regarding the status of the Asylum project since July 2013.
With this being the first case of its kind, there is no precedent to see exactly how these proceedings will develop or how this case will affect Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites. We suspect it will proceed like many of the other cases we write about in the internet space. One thing is certain, whether they are made online or in person, people don’t like broken promises.