FTC Beat
Jun 30

FTC to Search Engines: Distinguish Paid Search Results or Risk FTC Action

While Google is already subject to commitments it made to the FTC regarding the requirement to afford advertisers non-discriminatory access to its search engine, the FTC’s latest guidance makes clear that Google and other search engines must also maintain clear disclosures to the public about sponsored content in search results.

On June 24, 2013, in a series of letters to general search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Ask.com, as well as to specialized search engines, the FTC issued updated guidance concerning disclosures regarding paid advertisements in search results.

This latest FTC action follows on the heels of the Commission’s recent updates to the Dot Com Disclosures and the updated Endorsements and Testimonials Guides. The FTC’s letters came in response to industry and consumer organizations’ requests to the Commission to update its policies on search engine results, last released in 2002. The FTC also noted that it has observed a decline in search engines’ compliance since 2002.

The FTC’s central concern, first articulated in 2002, remains the problem that consumers may be deceived in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act unless search engines clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results.

Consumers assume that search results reflect the most relevant results. When results appear because the advertiser has paid a search engine for, say, prominent placement, that placement could be deceptive to consumers if they are unaware of the commercial relationship between the advertiser and the search engine.

The growth of mobile commerce in particular has spurred the FTC to issue new guidelines. Search results on a mobile phone screens are, by their nature, small, and consumers could be easily confused by paid search results if the “paid” nature of those results is not clear.

In the new guidance, the FTC states that if search engines continue to distinguish advertising results by giving a different background color or shading combined with a text label (such as “sponsored” or “ad”), the search engines should consider multiple factors to ensure that any labels and visual cues are sufficiently “noticeable and understandable” to consumers. The agency clarified that there is no “one size fits all” and that search engines may use various methods, provided the disclosures are noticeable and understandable.

Proper disclosures, according to the FTC, include the following:

• Visual Cues – Search engines must select hues of sufficient luminosity to account for varying monitor types, technology settings, and lighting conditions. The FTC notes that search engines should consider using web pages of different luminosities for mobile devices and desktop computers. Further, the FTC recommends that search engines should use:

o more prominent shading that has a clear outline;
o a prominent border that distinctly sets off advertising from the natural search results; or
o both prominent shading and a border

• Text Labels – The FTC asserts that text labels must be used in addition to the visual cues a search engine may use to distinguish advertising. Text labels must:

o use language that explicitly and unambiguously conveys that a search result is advertising;
o be large and visible enough for consumers to notice it;
o be located near the search results (or group of search results) that it qualifies and where consumers will see it; and
o be placed immediately in front of an advertising result, or in the upper-left hand corner of an ad block, including any grouping of paid specialized results in adequately sized and colored font.

The new guidance also recognizes that technology will continue to evolve, such as voice assistants on mobile devices (e.g., the iPhone’s “Siri”). While technology may change, the new guidance makes clear that the FTC Act’s Section 5 prohibition on deceptive practices remains. Therefore, businesses must make sure that they differentiate advertising from other information. For instance, if a voice interface is used to deliver search results (for example, “find me a Mexican restaurant”) the search engine should disclose audibly any paid advertisements in adequate volume and cadence for ordinary listeners to hear and comprehend.

The FTC continues to be vigilant in monitoring the online marketplace. Search engines and advertisers need to review their practices, keeping in mind that disclosures that may be readily apparent on a desktop may be hidden on a mobile screen. As with the “Dot Com Disclosures,” the agency is providing guidance to businesses; however, FTC enforcement remains vigilant and companies that do not clearly disclose paid advertising in search results could face an FTC investigation.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on internet advertising.

Jun 28

CFPB Takes Action Against ‘Abusive’ Acts by Debt-Relief Company

Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency of the financial industry, has proved that it has considerable bite. Created under the Dodd-Frank act to fill gaps in regulatory coverage, the CFPB’s mandate is to enforce federal regulations that, among other things, restrict “unfair deceptive or abusive acts or practices” in consumer finance. The CFPB in recent months announced two major debt relief crackdowns, the most recent of which permanently shut the doors of a Florida company.

Last month, the CFPB announced that it filed a complaint against a Florida debt-relief company that misled consumers across the country by charging upfront fees for debt-relief services without actually settling most of the consumers’ debts. According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in abusive practices by knowingly enrolling vulnerable consumers who had inadequate incomes to complete debt-relief programs. The complaint charged American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc. (ADSS) and its owner, Michael DiPanni, with actions that were not just unfair and deceptive, but also abusive. Indeed, this case if the first time that the CFPB in its short history has enforced this prohibition on “abusive” acts or practices.

While “unfair” and “deceptive” are familiar terms to anyone who follows the Federal Trade Commission, the term “abusive” is new to Dodd-Frank and has been the subject of much consternation among Republicans in Congress, who consider it too vague. With this complaint, the CFPB provided what may be its first example of the type of conduct it will consider “abusive.” ADSS allegedly collected about $500,000 in fees from hundreds of consumers in multiple states, charging illegal upfront fees for debt-relief services and “falsely promising them it would begin to settle their debts within three to six months when, in reality, services rarely materialized.

The CFPB said the actions were “abusive” because consumers reasonably relied on the company to “act in their interest by enrolling them in a debt-relief program that they can be reasonably expected to complete, and which will therefore result in the negotiation, settlement, reduction, or alteration of the terms of their debts.” The CFPB simultaneously filed a proposed consent order that would settle the matter by halting the company’s operations and imposing a $15,000 fine.

ADSS and its owner may have walked away relatively unscathed, with only a civil penalty, but others caught in the CFPB’s cross hairs have not been as fortunate. Earlier this year, the CFPB filed suit against two lawyers and two debt relief companies in New York, alleging that they charged thousands of consumers illegal advance fees and left some worse off financially, while illegally profiting themselves. One of the lawyers, Michael Levitis, also faces mail and wire fraud charges brought by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office – the first-ever criminal charges stemming from a CFPB referral. What’s notable in this complaint is that the acts are described as both deceptive and unfair, but not as abusive.

Although a relatively new agency, the CFPB is proving that it has the chops to take down offenders in the financial industry. Both the Florida and New York cases are signs of future enforcement, and they send a stern warning to offenders – if you prey on vulnerable consumers, be prepared for a fight.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on financial services.

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Jun 25

FTC Signals Interest in Enforcement of Deceptive Advertising Laws Against Payment Processors

Ignorance of the law is no excuse; nor is (willful) ignorance of a business partner’s illegal activities.

That’s a lesson to be learned from a recent amended complaint filed by the FTC which named a payment processor in its complaint against a telemarketer that allegedly engaged in a scam concerning credit card interest rate reduction. The Commission originally filed suit against the telemarketing company, Innovative Wealth Builders, Inc., and its owners in January for misrepresenting the debt relief service they were selling, charging a fee before providing debt relief services, and billing consumers without their express informed consent. The January action resulted in the temporary shutdown of the company’s operations pending outcome of the suit.

But earlier this month, the Commission filed an amended complaint, adding charges against Independent Resources Network Corp., IWB’s payment processor. The payment processor was accused of assisting and facilitating IWB’s deceptive practices, in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). 16 C.F.R. § 310.3(b).

The TSR was created by the FTC in 1995 at the direction of Congress, which directed the Commission to proscribe rules to address abusive and deceptive telemarketing acts. The FTC has amended the TSR several times in order to respond to developments in telemarketing schemes. The amendments allow for liability for third parties such as payment processors and lead generators that have provided “substantial assistance or support” to any seller or telemarketer while knowing, or consciously avoiding knowing, that the seller or telemarketer is engaged in activity in violation of the TSR.

In the FTC’s complaint against IRN, the Commission notes that IRN “processed millions of dollars of credit card transactions for IWB, thereby earning considerable fees for itself.” The complaint identifies several indicators that would have, or should have, put IRN on notice of IWB’s practices in violation of the TSR, including the following:

• IWB sent IRN copies of company documents including, but not limited to, telemarketing scripts and samples of the IWB defendants’ “financial plan”
• IRN was aware that IWB had a variety of complaints on consumer websites
• IWB had an “F” rating with Better Business Bureau and IRN accessed the BBB website several times
• IRN received thousands of copies of chargeback disputes initiated by dissatisfied consumers
• IRN received multiple fraud alerts from Discover regarding IWB

Instead of ceasing to process transactions for IWB, IRN responded to these “red flags” by increasing the percentage it withheld from transactions processed for the telemarketer and holding such sums in a reserve account.

Some takeaways from the complaint and other FTC developments: if you are going to invest in basic due diligence to determine the risk level and credibility of a prospective account, you should probably follow through with your findings, following the letter of the law. The FTC recently issued additional proposed rule changes to the TSR to address more payment processing concerns.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on financial services.

Jun 23

Affiliate Marketers Need to Be Aware of the CFTC

Some affiliate marketers have recently gotten involved in the risky world of online trading. Online trading, particularly the trading of binary options, has become an attractive alternative for some affiliate marketers to traditional forms of online marketing.

However, those companies that do get involved in this market must be aware of the presence of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates these markets.

Simply put, binary options means “two options.” The system offers traders a simple choice whether an asset will close above a certain price (a “call option”) or below (a “put option”) at the end of the day. Lately, there seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding the legality of binary options trading in the United States.

The question is not so much whether binary options are legal in the United States but whether the firms offering them are listed on a proper U.S. exchange and are properly registered with and regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Nadex, for example, is a regulated U.S. exchange, which is designated by the CFTC and permitted to accept U.S. residents as members.

In a recent lawsuit, the CFTC charged the Ireland-based “Intrade The Prediction Market Limited” and “Trade Exchange Network Limited” with offering commodity option contracts to U.S. customers for trading, including option contracts on whether certain U.S. economic numbers or the prices of gold and currencies would reach a certain level by a certain future date, all in violation of the CFTC’s ban on off-exchange options trading.

For now, it seems that regulators like the CFTC have focused their attention on the actual firms offering these trading options. However, the CFTC has been sending cease and desist letters to affiliates in this space as well. Affiliates working in such risky markets must know the firms for which they are working. Some online trading firms may say they do not accept U.S. customers, but saying it is very different than actually representing and warranting that fact in a contractual document with their affiliates and indemnifying affiliates from liability.

For further information, see my article in the April 2013 issue of FeedFront, a magazine for affiliate marketers.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on e-commerce.

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Jun 12

Wyndham Case Challenges FTC’s Authority Over Cybersecurity

Over the past decade the Federal Trade Commission has brought cybersecurity enforcement actions against various private companies, imposing tens of millions of dollars in monetary penalties and requiring companies to maintain more stringent data-security practices. No company has ever challenged the FTC’s authority to regulate cybersecurity in this way in court – until now. On June 17, 2013, a federal court will finally get a chance to weigh in on whether the scope of the FTC’s regulatory jurisdiction is so broad as to include setting standards for cybersecurity.

In FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, et al., the FTC launched a civil action against the parent company of the Wyndham hotels and three of its subsidiaries for data security failures that led to three major data breaches in less than two years. The Commission’s complaint charges that Wyndham’s security practices were unfair and deceptive in violation of the FTC Act.

Unlike many other data-security FTC enforcement actions, in which the defendant has chosen to cut its losses and settle out of court, Wyndham has decided to stand and fight with a motion to dismiss. Judge Esther Salas of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is expected to rule on Wyndham’s motion on June 17.

The FTC complaint alleges that Wyndham Hotels and Resorts (a Wyndham subsidiary and named defendant) had a privacy policy that stated that they “safeguard customers’ personally identifiable information by using industry standard practices” and they “make commercially reasonable efforts to make to make [their] collection of such information consistent with all applicable laws and regulations.”

The FTC argues that this policy covers the individual hotels and that it was deceptive because the defendants failed to implement “reasonable and appropriate” data-security measures. Wyndham’s motion to dismiss attacks the facts of the deception claim by quoting language from the Wyndham Hotels and Resorts privacy policy that expressly explains that the privacy policy does not apply to the individual hotels. Wyndham argues that, taken as a whole, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts’ privacy policy is not deceptive.

With respect to the FTC’s unfairness claim, Wyndham’s motion asserts that the FTC is attempting to circumvent the legislative process by acting as if “it has the statutory authority to do that which Congress has refused: establish data-security standards for the private sector and enforce those standards in federal court.”

According to Wyndham, “on multiple occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s the FTC publicly acknowledged that it lacked authority to prescribe substantive data-security standards under the [FTC Act]. For that very reason, the FTC has repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation giving it such authority.” Further, Wyndham highlights the Senate’s failure to pass the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which sought to address the need for specific data-security standards for the private sector, and President Obama’s February 2013 Executive Order on cybersecurity that was issued in response to the Congressional stalemate.

On its face, Wyndham’s motion to dismiss seems quite strong. However, the facts that the FTC is alleging do not cut in Wyndham’s favor. The Commission’s complaint alleges that Wyndham’s failure to “adequately limit access between and among the Wyndham-branded hotels’ property management systems, [Wyndham] Hotels and Resorts’ corporate network, and the Internet” allowed intruders to use weak access points (e.g., a single hotel’s local computer network) to hack into the entire Wyndham Hotels and Resorts’ corporate network. From there, the intruders were able to gain access to the payment management systems of scores of Wyndham-branded hotels.

According to the FTC, Wyndham failed to remedy known security vulnerabilities, employ reasonable measures to detect unauthorized access, and follow proper incident response procedures following the first breach in April 2008. Thus, the corporation remained vulnerable to attacks that took place the following year. All told, the intruders compromised over 600,000 consumer payment card accounts, exported hundreds of thousands of payment card account numbers to a domain registered in Russia, and used them to make over $10.6 million in fraudulent purchases.

Unfortunately – as Wyndham notes in its motion to dismiss – hacking has become an endemic problem. There has been no shortage of stories about major cyber-attacks on private companies and governmental entities alike: from Google and Microsoft to the NASA and the FBI. And the FTC has not been shy about bringing enforcement actions against private companies with inadequate security measures.

If Wyndham prevails, the case could usher in a major reduction in FTC enforcement efforts. However, if the court sides with the FTC, the commission will be further empowered to regulate data security practices. With such high stakes on both sides, any decision is likely to result in an appeal. In the meantime, companies in various industry sectors that maintain personal consumer information are awaiting next week’s decision.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on data privacy.

May 31

‘Marketplace Fairness Act’ Would Change Tax Game for Online Retailers

On May 6, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” which allows states to collect sales tax on online purchases, whether or not the online retailer has a physical presence in the state. If this bill becomes law, it would change the structure that has been in place since the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Quill v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992), which held that states could collect sales tax on online transactions only if they also had a physical presence in the state such as a warehouse, a store, or in some cases, an online affiliate.

The act would allow states to require all retailers with more than $1 million in sales to collect and remit sales taxes to state and local jurisdictions. Retailers would collect the tax at the point of purchase, code each sale by zip code, and remit the taxes to the eligible states and local municipalities. Although states would not be required to implement a tax on online sales, many would probably choose to do so as they look for ways to generate much-needed revenue to compensate for budget shortfalls. By taxing online sales, states could generate an estimated $23 billion a year in local and state sales taxes. Additionally, states are likely to receive pressure from local businesses seeking to level the playing fields for brick-and-mortar retailers who feel that they’re at an unfair advantage for having to charge tax on goods that customers can often buy tax-free online.

As Internet sales taxes become more common, one group likely to benefit is Internet affiliates. Prior to this bill, states such as Illinois sought to circumvent Quill by stating that Internet affiliates created the requisite “nexus” of a physical presence within a state. This caused online stores, including retailer behemoth Amazon, to cease using affiliates in any states where the affiliate would constitute a nexus. If a physical nexus is no longer required, affiliates would no longer be singled out and terminated due to their presence in any particular state.

Considerable support for a bill of this sort was likely inevitable. When online shopping was still new, online sales were minimal and most people did their shopping locally, meaning that the loss of state and local tax revenue was minimal. However, the dramatic increase in the choices available online, along with quick and free shipping, means that by some estimates up to 85 percent of Internet users do at least some shopping online. The corresponding decrease in patronage at local stores meant that states were missing out on taxes from those purchases. As a result, this bill would give states the opportunity to collect what they see as lost revenue.

That is not to say, however, that the bill will eventually become law. The bill faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House, where some lawmakers see the bill as a tax increase. They face additional pressure from the Conservative Action Project, which has obtained more than 50 signatures from business and political leaders in a letter opposing the Marketplace Fairness Act on the premise that “retailers would be subject to laws imposed by states with which they have no direct connection, and in whose political system they have no voice. It is regulation without representation, allowing politicians to raise revenue, without fear of a public backlash.”

Currently, it appears that the bill is unlikely to become law. However, politicians will continue to raise revenue regardless. If the federal law does not pass, states will likely continue to issue broad and increasingly strained interpretations of what constitutes a “presence” in the state in order to collect revenues from online merchants.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on e-commerce.

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May 28

FTC Serves Notice on App Developers About Children’s Privacy

The Federal Trade Commission has made it quite clear that it is serious about advising mobile app developers that the rules of the road will be changing very soon. Since 2011, the Commission has been working to update the rules governing the collection of children’s personal information by mobile apps. The relevant law is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and the rules are set to change in just over a month, on July 1.

As part of its effort to encourage compliance, the Commission recently issued more than 90 warning letters to app developers, both foreign and domestic, whose online services appear to collect data from children under the age of 13. The letters alert the recipients about the upcoming COPPA rule change and encourage them to review their apps, policies, and procedures for compliance. According to the letters, the Commission did not evaluate whether the recipients’ apps or company practices are in compliance. Therefore, we view this move as a public warning to all app developers that may be collecting personal information from children.

Until now, COPPA, which was originally enacted in 1998, defined “personal information” to include only the basics such as a child’s name, contact information, and social security number. Over the past decade, it has become antiquated by the development of mobile apps and other technological advancements affecting data collection. Unfortunately but understandably, COPPA’s original incarnation failed to account for the proclivities of today’s children, who – reared in the age of smartphones, Facebook, and Google-everything – routinely use mobile apps to share their lives with their friends, their family, and the world.

The FTC has expressed major concerns that, unbeknownst to many users, mobile app developers also collect and disseminate their users’ persistent identifiers (things such as cookies, IP addresses, and mobile device IDs). This information, which can recognize users over time and across different websites and online services, is often used by developers and third parties to market products to children based on each child’s specific online behavior. Come July 1, this practice will be illegal.

Under the revised rule, the definition of “personal information” has been expanded to include persistent identifiers, photos and videos with a child’s image, and recordings of a child’s voice. Additionally, developers of apps directed to children under 13 – or that knowingly collect personal information from children under 13 – will be required to post accurate privacy policies, provide notice, and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing such information. However, there are some exceptions for developers that only use the information to support internal operations (i.e., analyze the app’s functionality, authenticate app users, etc.)

Protecting children’s privacy continues to be one of the Commission’s major initiatives, and the FTC has levied some hefty penalties for COPPA violations over the past year. That said, the Commission has indicated that it may be more lenient in cases where a small business has violated the rule despite well-intentioned attempts to comply. As we mentioned back in February, developers should beware of increased data privacy enforcement on the state level, as well. We encourage all mobile app developers to be proactive and review/update their policies to ensure compliance and avoid costly penalties.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on data privacy.

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May 02

FTC: Data Brokers That Compile Tenant Data May Be Covered by FCRA

On April 3, 2013, the Federal Trade Commission issued a press release that marks yet another step in its continuing trend of actions involving data brokers and data providers. As we have noted in earlier blog posts, the agency is making a concerted effort on a number of fronts to enforce the laws that protect consumer data and privacy.
The FTC’s current action involves a letter that it sent to a number of data brokerage companies that provide tenants’ rental histories to landlords. The letter is simply a notification to the companies that they may be considered credit reporting agencies under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and that they thus may be required to ensure that their websites and practices comply with that law.

The FTC letter also listed some of the obligations of credit reporting agencies to take reasonable steps to ensure the fairness, accuracy, and confidentiality of their reports — such as (1) ensuring that landlords are actually using the report for tenant screening purposes and not as a pretext, (2) ensuring the maximum possible accuracy of the information in the tenant reports, (3) if the company is a nationwide provider, providing consumers with a free copy of their report annually, and (4) ensuring that all obligations are met concerning notifications to landlords (e.g. letting consumers know about a denial based on a tenant report, the right to dispute information in the report, and the right to get a free copy of the report).

The FTC letter specifically noted that the agency has not evaluated whether the company receiving the letter is in compliance with the FCRA but that “we encourage you to review your websites and your policies and procedures for compliance.”

We have discussed FTC actions against data brokers before. In March, we discussed the FTC’s announcement of a settlement with Compete, Inc., a web analytics company. Compete sells reports on consumer browsing behavior to clients looking to drive more traffic to their websites and increase sales. Compete obtained the information by getting consumers to install the company’s web-tracking software in their computers. The FTC alleged that the company’s business practices were unfair and deceptive because the company did not sufficiently describe the types of information it was collecting from its users.

We are confident that the companies that received the letter regarding tenant information are reviewing their websites and polices, as encouraged by the FTC. However, what really intrigues us is the motivation behind the FTC sending the letters to the companies.

Of course, part of that motivation is to help ensure that the companies follow rules for privacy protection. Nonetheless, it is also interesting to note that there is a significant consequence under the FCRA – namely, individuals are permitted to seek punitive damages for deliberate violations of the FCRA. Thus, the letter arguably provides notice for the companies to become compliant immediately since future violations may be considered deliberate breaches that warrant punitive damages.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on data privacy.

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Apr 26

FTC, Rent-to-Own Stores Settle Charges of Spying on Consumers Via Rented Computers

The Federal Trade Commission recently approved nine final orders that settle charges against seven rent-to-own stores and a software design firm and its principals. The charges stemmed from shocking allegations that the companies spied on consumers using computers that the consumers had rented from them. Among other things, the Commission’s complaint alleged that the computers were equipped with software (PC Rental Agent) that used the rented computer’s webcam to take “pictures of children, individuals not fully clothed, and couples engaged in sexual activities.”

PC Rental Agent was designed by one of the defendants, DesignerWare, LLC, a Pennsylvania-based software company that licenses software to rent-to-own companies to assist them in locating stolen merchandise and collecting late payments. PC Rental Agent has three critical features: a kill switch, geophysical location tracking, and a Detective Mode. Using the “kill switch” and geophysical location tracking, DesignerWare could remotely disable and locate the rented computers. However, at the request of the rent-to-own stores, DesignerWare would remotely activate the “Detective Mode” on an individual computer and “surreptitiously log the computer user’s keystrokes, capture screenshots and take pictures with the computer’s webcam and send the data to DesignerWare servers.”

DesignerWare did not review the data gathered, rather it forwarded it, unencrypted, directly to an email account designated by the particular rent-to-own store. In numerous instances the data included “private and confidential details about the computer users” including user names and passwords for email, banking, and social media accounts in addition to users’ social security numbers, financial statements, and medical records.

In settling the complaint, the companies agreed to a ban on the use of monitoring software and deceptive methods to gather consumer information. This includes a bar on the use of fake software registration screens to collect personal consumer information and the use of geophysical location tracking without consumer notice and consent. The seven rent-to-own companies are also barred from using improperly gathered information to collect on customer accounts. DesignerWare and its principals are barred from providing others with the means to commit illegal acts. Additionally, all of the defendants are subject to recordkeeping requirements that will allow the FTC to monitor their compliance for the next 20 years.

In a case with such sensational facts, it is quite notable that beyond the FTC monitoring requirement, the penalties are essentially a restatement of the rules by which all companies must regularly abide. It is unclear why no civil penalty was issued for behavior that sounds as egregious as this behavior does. Perhaps it is because there were no allegations of malicious intent or that the data was transferred to third parties or used in any way other than to retrieve rented computers. Whatever the case may be, this is yet another reminder that companies should ensure that they give proper notice before collecting customers’ personal information and avoid collecting more information than necessary.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on online fraud and abuse.

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Apr 25

What’s That Charge on My Mobile Phone Bill? The FTC Wants to Know

“Cramming” – while it sounds like the experience of being in the middle row of a cross-country flight – actually refers to unauthorized charges on phone bills. Residential and business telecommunications customers have experienced cramming on their wireline bills for years, particularly for premium and other pay-per-call services. And the FTC has brought nearly two dozen cases against those companies.

With so many U.S. consumers using mobile phones (and many replacing their wireline phones and relying on wireless service exclusively), cramming has migrated to mobile phone bills. We have previously discussed the FTC’s ongoing review of mobile payments and the agency’s continuing concerns with cramming practices.

Last week, the FTC filed its first legal action to shut down a mobile cramming operation. In federal court in Georgia, the FTC alleges that since 2011, Wise Media, LLC, its CEO Brian Buckley, and its owner Winston Deloney have made millions of dollars by placing unauthorized charges for premium text messages services offering “horoscopes, flirting, love tips and other information” on consumers’ mobile phone bills. The FTC’s complaint also names Concrete Marketing Research, LLC, a company owned by Deloney, as having received funds earned through the allegedly unfair and deceptive practices.

According to the FTC, consumers did not “opt in” to receive these text message services, for which Wise Media charged $9.99 per month. The charges appeared on the bills and were repeated each month. Many consumers did not notice the charges and simply paid them. Some consumers noticed the charges but had great difficulty finding a contact for Wise Media, according to the complaint. Other consumers contacted the company, indicating they had not authorized the charges, but were still charged. Still others allegedly were told they would receive refunds, but Wise Media never issued those refunds. Instead, the underlying mobile phone carriers often ended up refunding money to complaining customers. The FTC noted that mobile phone carriers had experienced a high rate of complaints on Wise Media charges. One unnamed major phone carrier had even terminated Wise Media based on its excessive rates.

The FTC’s complaint charges that Wise Media and the other defendants violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by representing that consumers were obligated to pay for premium text services they never ordered. According to the FTC, these representations were false or misleading statements, constituting deceptive acts or practices under Section 5. Further, the complaint states that the placing of charges on consumers’ mobile phone bills without consumers’ “express informed consent” constituted unfair acts and practices also prohibited by Section 5.

The agency is seeking substantial relief and penalties from Wise Media and the other defendants. The FTC’s requested relief includes a request for a temporary and preliminary injunction to prevent future violations of the FTC Act by defendants, an asset freeze, and the refund of monies paid and “the disgorgement of ill-gotten monies.” In fact, after the filing of the complaint, Wise Media and the other defendants entered into a stipulation with the FTC agreeing to a temporary restraining order, an asset freeze, and other relief. The court also ordered that a receiver be appointed to oversee Wise Media’s assets and is requiring financial disclosures by the defendants.

This action signals that the FTC is continuing to monitor closely the mobile payment marketplace and that it will use its broad Section 5 authority to curb alleged deceptive practices in this medium. In fact, on May 8, the FTC staff will host a roundtable discussion on preventing mobile cramming, which will feature consumer advocates, industry leaders, and government regulators. It will be interesting to see what actions the major mobile carriers may propose, as the carriers have been on the receiving end of many of the consumer complaints (and refunds) resulting from third-party charges.

Ifrah Law is a leading white-collar criminal defense firm that focuses on online fraud and abuse.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, healthcare, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partner Michelle Cohen, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Jeff Hamlin, Steven Eichorn, Sarah Koch, and Nicole Kardell. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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