A great way to make money is to develop a product or service that responds to a consumer want or demand, and then to stay ahead of prospective competitors by offering better pricing or quality. A not-so-great way to make money is to convince consumers to buy a product or service that they don’t really want or need, at inflated rates. A highly dubious way to make money is to trick consumers into paying for something they didn’t want and didn’t mean to buy.
Businesses operating in this third category, which may include a scareware marketer or two, have to consider risk versus reward. Is the reward of temporary profits worth the risk of legal action; what is the likelihood of legal action; and what is the potential cost of such action?
Someone who operates on tricks over treats, or by pure scareware tactics, may expect business to dry up as consumers learn to avoid their traps. Such an operator must also face the looming threat of consumer legal action, government intervention, or run-ins with credit card companies alarmed by high chargeback rates.
For these types of businesses in the mobile marketing space, the cost of potential government intervention is going up. A recent settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and Jesta Digital LLC points to the severe penalties a business may face for operating on the sidelines of fair play. The consequences include a hefty fine, consumer refunds, restricted billing practices and stringent compliance measures for years to come.
Jesta (which also does business as Jamster) is known mostly for its marketplace of ringtones, photos, videos and apps. Starting in 2011, it ran a scareware campaign, purportedly for anti-virus software, that the FTC asserts crossed the line into deceptive advertising. The ads ran on the free version of the Angry Birds app for Android. Using a graphic that looks like the Android robot logo, the banner ad displayed a warning that viruses had been detected on the device – even though no virus scan was conducted. According to the FTC, when the consumers clicked on the “remove [virus]” button, or similar “warning” buttons, Jesta directed them through a number of pages about virus protection that left to very fine print a monthly service fee for ringtones and other content.
The FTC alleges that consumers were even charged at the instant of pressing a “Protect Your Android Today” button. Through the use of Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) billing, the company was able to charge consumers through their cell phone numbers without needing to obtain express authorization. (It may be that the use of the billing practice actually spurred the FTC into action as wireless carriers initiated their own penalties against Jesta for the large number of consumers demanding refunds.) The FTC also alleges that the anti-virus software often failed at download (apparently at one point, only 372 people out of 100,000 subscribers actually received some sort of anti-virus app download link).
The FTC describes numerous deceptive practices: mimicking the Android logo to confuse consumers into believing the virus warnings were credible, charging consumers without their knowledge or consent, failing to provide services charged for. The company apparently was aware that its scareware tactics crossed the line, as an email correspondence among company executives noted that the chief marketing officer was “anxious to move our business out of being a scam and more into a valued service.”
So now the company must pay the FTC a $1.2 million penalty and offer to refund consumers. The process of identifying and notifying consumers of their refund options and tracking all this to show to the FTC will be a costly undertaking. Another major cost will be the stringent and detailed billing practices that the company – and all participants, including principals and agents – must adhere to, disclosures it must make, and compliance monitoring and recordkeeping requirements it must adhere to, for 20 years. The settlement agreement is far more than a hand slap; its terms keep Jesta (and its principals!) beholden to the FTC for the foreseeable future.
Mobile marketers who may calculate risk versus reward and decide that a get-rich-quick scheme is worth the risk should think again. The FTC is making deceptive marketing tactics, like many scareware campaigns, a priority. We have seen strong action from the agency in the recent past, including hefty penalties for the company Innovative Marketing and its principal Marc D’Souza. Moreover, the newly-appointed head of consumer protection at the FTC, Jessica Rich, has noted that the FTC is expanding digital enforcement, increasing the risk of getting caught in the agency’s cross-hairs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Some lawyers who deal regularly with the Federal Trade Commission in investigations of allegedly false and deceptive online advertising have noticed that the agency is beginning to take steps in these investigations that are unprecedented and draconian – and that judges seem to be going along. Below is a set of questions and answers with Jeff Ifrah, founding partner of Ifrah Law, on these new enforcement methods.
1. What is the first thing that a lawyer representing a company being probed by the FTC on false-advertising charges can expect to see?
IFRAH: Agency lawyers will go to a federal district judge with a copy of a temporary restraining order (TRO) for the judge to sign on an ex parte basis (without the defendant or its lawyers being present). Judges are allowed to do this as long as a hearing is set in a few days for a preliminary injunction, at which the defendant is represented. Meanwhile, the company is essentially barred from doing business by the terms of the TRO.
2. What is the FTC’s usual next step?
IFRAH: The agency will then go before the same judge with a draft of a preliminary injunction that is pretty much identical to the temporary restraining order. These injunctions basically require the business to continue to remain at a standstill until a trial is held and a settlement is reached. In addition, they require the company to disclose on all its web sites that it is being investigated for false and deceptive practices and to disclose online all of its sensitive financial information and that of its owners. Very often, the defendant will not contest this injunction request by the FTC. It is remarkable how many lawyers simply capitulate and agree to these draconian orders and set their clients up to fail.
3. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t the injunction lifted when the defendant agrees to settle the case?
IFRAH: Yes, but by that time, it may be too late, and the company may have gone out of business as a result of the restrictions that were imposed on it by the injunction and as a result of the disclosures that it had to make.
4. Are there other problems with these preliminary injunctions?
IFRAH: Yes. The FTC usually asks for a preliminary injunction with many standard features, and the judge usually grants it. But no two cases or defendants are the same. The courts are not taking into account the fact that different situations require different results. Instead, the injunctions are overbroad and reach behavior that is beyond what is alleged in the complaint.
Some of these restraining orders and injunctions restrict how much money a defendant can spend in a month or what type of online advertising it can use while the case is pending. Other injunctions require affirmative behavior, such as a requirement that the defendant report to the FTC every time it creates or operates any type of business. In either case, the defendant is forced to open its entire existence to the FTC, and everything it does is subject to scrutiny.
Another problem with standard, overbroad injunctions is that a defendant may become uncertain as to what it must do to prevent being held in contempt of court for non-compliance. The language in the injunction is often so vague and undefined that the FTC can act in its discretion to find a defendant in contempt.
5. And is that the end of the story?
IFRAH: No, unfortunately, plaintiffs lawyers often look to copycat an FTC action, and as a result companies may then have yet another headache to deal with, if they haven’t already been irreparably damaged by the FTC’s actions.
This week, the FTC released updated guidance to its 2000 “Dot Com Disclosures,” a guide covering disclosures in online advertising. The online world has certainly changed in 13 years, and the new guidelines, available here, cover advances in online advertising, including mobile advertising.
One central theme still prevails: existing consumer protection laws and rules apply no matter where you offer products and services: newspapers, magazines, TV and radio commercials, websites, direct marketing, and mobile marketing. Thus, the basic principle applies that companies must ensure that their advertisements are truthful and accurate, including providing disclosures necessary to ensure that an advertisement is not misleading. Further, the disclosures should be clear and conspicuous – irrespective of the medium of the message.
In determining whether a disclosure is “clear and conspicuous” as the FTC requires, advertisers should consider the disclosure’s placement in the ad. Importantly, the 2000 guidelines defined proximity of disclosures to ads as “near, and when possible, on the same screen.” The new guidelines state that disclosures should be “as close as possible” to the relevant claim. The closer the disclosure is to the claim, the better it is for FTC compliance purposes.
Advertisers should also consider: the prominence of the disclosure; whether it is unavoidable (e.g., consumers must scroll past the disclosure before they can make a purchase); whether other parts of the ad distract attention from the disclosure; whether the disclosure should be repeated at different places on the website; whether audio message disclosures are of sufficient volume and cadence (e.g., too fast); whether visual disclosures appear long enough; and, whether the language of the disclosure is appropriate for the intended audience. The FTC suggests avoiding “legalese” or technical jargon.
Mobile marketers should take note that the FTC provided some additional guidance regarding disclosure issues particular to mobile marketing. In particular, the FTC stated that the various devices and platforms upon which an advertisement appears or a claim is made should be considered. For example, if the advertiser cannot make necessary disclosures because of the limit of the space (e.g., in a mobile app), then the claim should not be made on the platform.
The FTC does permit hyperlinks for disclosures in certain circumstances. However, hyperlinks must:
- be obvious
- be labeled appropriately to convey the importance, nature and relevance of the information they lead to (such as “Service plan required. Get service plan prices here”)
- be used consistently
- be placed as close as possible to the relevant information the hyperlink qualifies and made noticeable
- take consumers directly to the disclosure after clicking
Companies should assess the effectiveness of the hyperlink by monitoring click-through rates and make changes accordingly. The agency also suggests that advertisers design ads so that scrolling is not necessary to find a disclosure. The FTC discourages hyperlinks for disclosures involving product costs or certain health and safety issues (similar to its 2000 guidelines).
Probably the most helpful part of the new guidelines are the 22 different examples of proper/improper disclosures the FTC provides at the end of the guidelines. As companies move forward in promoting products and services online, particularly on mobile platforms, reviewing these examples along with the general principles of truthful and complete statements in advertising may save a company from an FTC enforcement action.
Organizations are increasingly marketing their products and services on mobile platforms. Advertisers should take note that special considerations apply in the mobile marketplace, especially the space and text size limitations. If a disclosure is necessary to prevent an advertisement from being deceptive, unfair, or otherwise violative of an FTC rule, it must be clear and placed next to the offer. If that can’t be done, the safest course would be to move the offer to another platform, such as a traditional website. The FTC and the states have demonstrated that they take a keen interest in mobile marketing and they will be watching claims and disclosures in the smartphone/tablet universe.
Once again, the FTC has completed a major enforcement action against the illegal use of robocalls, a form of prerecorded, computerized telemarketing calls. This time, the action resulted in a $1.1 million civil penalty against Roy M. Cox, an individual whom the FTC considered to be the architect of an illegal robocall operation. The FTC alleged that Cox and several companies he controlled were using robocalls to market credit card interest-rate reduction programs, extended automobile warranties, and home security systems. Due to Cox’s inability to pay, the dollar penalty has been waived and Cox has been permanently banned from participating in any telemarketing activities.
According to the December 2011 complaint, Cox and his co-defendants were not only making prerecorded sales calls to consumers without their consent, in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, but they were also illegally disguising their identity on customers’ caller ID displays. Instead of displaying the companies’ actual name and contact information, generic names such as “CARD SERVICES,” “CREDIT SERVICES,” or “PRIVATE OFFICE” would appear on a recipient’s caller ID. This tactic, known as “caller ID Spoofing,” is also prohibited by law.
As we reported in October, the FTC has been struggling to keep pace with these technological advancements, so it called on the public to come up with a solution. The commission offered a $50,000 prize to whoever could design a program to screen out illegal robocalls. The challenge was open to the public for three months and garnered nearly 800 submissions. The agency expects to announce a winner in early April.
The case against Cox and many of the FTC’s previous enforcement actions indicate that the FTC may be most concerned with robocalls that use patently deceptive advertising to lure in vulnerable, unsuspecting customers. Companies offering fraudulent credit card services, auto-warranty protection, and medical plans have made themselves an easy mark for the FTC, because of the likelihood that they will be reported by recipients or advocacy groups. However, companies interested in using computerized telemarketing must remember that even innocuous content can violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule (and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act) if recipients have not given prior written consent to receive such calls. Also, any company engaging in telemarketing should be subscribing to the federal “do not call” list and scrubbing its calling lists against the federal list. Some states still maintain their own lists as well. In addition to FTC or FCC enforcement, illegal robocalling can result in costly civil litigation, including class actions.
On November 19, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that they have launched a new coordinated effort to protect consumers, focusing on mortgage advertisements that they say are deceptive.
The CFPB and the FTC worked together to review roughly 800 mortgage ads. These ads were produced by entities involved in different aspects of the mortgage process, including mortgage brokers and lenders, lead generators, real estate agents, home builders, and others. The ads were featured on a wide range of media including newspaper, direct mail, email and social media.
The agencies stated that some of these ads had specifically targeted the elderly and veterans.
The letters warned the recipients that they may be in violation of the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (MAP Rule) that took effect in August 2011, which prohibits misleading claims concerning government affiliation, fees, costs, interest rates, payment associated with the loan, and the amount of cash or credit that is available to the consumer. The MAP Rule does not apply to traditional banks, meaning today’s actions affect only non-banks.
The FTC and the CFPB both have enforcement authority over non-bank mortgage ads under the MAP Rule. The agencies stressed that as part of the initiative they are working together to assure that consistent standards are applied across agencies. The agencies will conduct separate investigations focused on different targets to better utilize their resources and avoid double-teaming businesses.
“Working together and applying consistent standards to all types of clients in all types of ads is a very important means of making sure that mortgage advertisers are on notice that they have to comply with the law,” said Thomas Pahl, the assistant director of the FTC’s Division of Financial Practices.
The FTC and the CFPB issued more than 30 warning letters to mortgage advertisers, warning them that their advertisements may be deceptive. Both agencies stated that they have also opened formal investigations into other advertisers that may have committed more serious violations of the law. Violators of the MAP Rule can be subject to civil fines.
“Misrepresentation in mortgage products can deprive consumers of important information while making one of the biggest financial decisions of the lives,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated. “Baiting consumers with false ads to buy into mortgage products would be illegal.”
The review of the advertisements revealed several different types of claims that regulators could possibly find misleading, including ads that suggested that a company was affiliated with a government agency, ads that guaranteed approval and offered low monthly payments without discussing the conditions of the offers, and ads offering a low fixed mortgage rate without discussing significant loan terms.
The announcement shows that the FTC and the CFPB are taking an aggressive and proactive look at companies that offer products in the financial services sector. Companies that offer mortgage and other consumer lending products should know that the FTC and the CFPB are paying special attention to them and that their advertisements need to comply with federal regulations.
Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission released its revised Green Guidelines, providing parameters for advertising and marketing claims of supposedly eco-friendly products. The publication completes a two-year revision process that the FTC undertook, involving the updating of guidelines last visited in 1998. The Commission touted the new guidelines as helping marketers “avoid making misleading environmental claims” and leveling the playing field for “honest business people.”
The revised guidelines address 14 categories of claims, including general environmental claims, carbon offsets, certifications and seals of approval, and claims of recyclability and renewability. Under the guidelines, marketers and advertisers are cautioned to avoid general claims that products are green or eco-friendly: “Marketers should qualify general claims with specific environmental benefits. Qualifications for any claim should be clear, prominent, and specific.”
Marketers are further cautioned to disclose material connections to any certifying organization. And when it comes to claims of compostability, degradability, recyclability and other claims about product and packaging content, the FTC advises that marketers be able to substantiate such claims and avoid deceiving consumers by replacing one environmental red flag with another. For instance, the guidelines note that “[i]t would be deceptive to claim that a product is “free-of” a substance if it is free of one substance but includes another that poses a similar environmental risk.”
The FTC’s revisions appear to take on a holistic approach to environmental claims. A company cannot willy-nilly claim that its product or packaging is recyclable if it is only recyclable in limited locations, and it cannot claim it is “green” and made with recycled content “if the environmental costs of using recycled content outweigh the environmental benefits of using it.” The guidelines require the marketer to limit and qualify green claims based on a thorough review of the production, distribution, and disposal stream for the product and its packaging.
In many ways, this new guidance seems fair – it should help ferret out the unscrupulous marketer who wants to charge a premium, or carve a market niche, based on dubious environmental claims.
But how much benefit will the new guidelines bring? The guidelines, in and of themselves, do not truly bring more enforcement power to the FTC. With or without Green Guidelines, old or new, the FTC can bring enforcement actions against marketers for false and deceptive claims – like several enforcement actions from 2009 forward that the FTC highlights on its website. With or without the guidelines, the truly unscrupulous marketer remains subject to FTC oversight and liability.
Our concern is that the guidelines may discourage some well-intentioned market entrants. An entrepreneur may have a good green idea but opt not to pursue it because of heightened advertising and labeling standards. For instance, the FTC guidelines caution companies about the need to provide “competent and reliable scientific evidence” for several categories of environmental claims. That could necessitate big R&D bucks to the exclusion of Mom & Pop.
More importantly, the guidelines could provide more ammunition for big companies to pursue claims against small competitors and effectively shut out upstarts. NAD, the advertising industry’s self-regulatory body, apparently plans on using the guidelines. There have been a host of cases by companies like Clorox and Procter & Gamble taking to task smaller companies marketing eco-friendly alternatives. In the end, while the revised Green Guidelines may be a good faith effort by the FTC to level the playing field and may have some positive impact, it will be important to monitor its unintended consequences.