As part of the Federal Trade Commission’s ongoing efforts to shut down scams that target financially vulnerable consumers, a U.S. district judge has issued a $478 million judgment at the request of the FTC against the marketers of three get-rich-quick systems that the agency says are used for deceiving consumers. The order is the largest litigated judgment ever obtained by the FTC.
The judgment was awarded against companies and individuals who marketed the schemes, titled “John Beck’s Free & Clear Real Estate System,” “John Alexander’s Real Estate Riches in 14 Days,” and “Jeff Paul’s Shortcuts to Internet Millions.”
Nearly a million consumers paid $39.95 for one of these “get-rich-quick” systems, and some consumers purchased personal coaching services, which cost up to $14,995. According to the FTC complaint filed in June 2009, one system was marketed to consumers with the promise that consumers could “quickly and easily earn substantial amounts of money by purchasing homes at tax sales in their area ‘free and clear’ for just ‘pennies on the dollar’ and then turning around and selling these homes for full market value or renting them out for profit.”
The FTC said that nearly all the consumers that bought the systems lost money.
The FTC’s suit alleged violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act, based on the defendants’ representations in connection with the advertising, marketing, promoting and sale of the systems. The FTC also alleged that the defendants’ violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule through their marketing to consumers.
Two of the individual defendants, Douglas Gravnik and Gary Hewitt, were held jointly and severally liable for the monetary part of the judgment. The judge also imposed a lifetime ban from infomercial products and telemarketing against Gravnik and Hewitt. Gravnik and Hewitt indicated that they are likely to appeal the order to the extent it imposes a lifetime ban. A third individual, John Beck, is responsible for $113.5 million of the judgment.
In its case, the FTC filed 30 consumer declarations detailing consumers’ experiences with the defendants’ products. The defendants objected to many of these declarations on various grounds, including hearsay, relevance, and the best evidence rule among other objections, but these objections were all overruled.
The defendants also objected to the use of a survey by the FTC that showed that less than 0.2 percent of consumers who purchased the defendants’ system made any profits and only 1.9 percent of consumers who purchased coaching material made any revenue. The defendants moved to exclude all evidence relating to the survey on the ground that the pre-notification letter “poisoned the well in such a way as to invalidate whatever survey finding the FTC obtained” and argued that the manner in which the survey was conducted rendered the results unreliable. The court found that the survey was performed under accepted principles used by experts in the field and was admissible.
The court granted summary judgment for the FTC , finding that the defendants made material misrepresentations that were either false or unsubstantiated. The court pointed out that the materials provided by the defendants to consumers taught consumers how to purchase tax liens and certificates, but these purchasers do not obtain title to the property and thus were not “purchasing” the homes as the advertising materials stated.
The court also granted summary judgment on the Telemarketing Sales Rule allegations. The basis of the defendants’ argument was that the violations were isolated and should not be the basis for liability. The court found that there was no dispute that the defendants’ telemarketers repeatedly initiated calls to consumers who asked the defendants not to contact them. The FTC also produced “overwhelming” evidence that the defendants lacked a meaningful compliance program or any written procedures in place to comply with the regulations.
Jeffrey Klurfeld, director of the FTC’s Western Region, stated in a press release that “This huge judgment serves notice to anyone thinking of using phony get-rich-quick schemes to defraud consumers. The FTC will come after you if you violate the law.”
In this case, the FTC had already completed its surveys when it went to court. Trial judges will often be very impressed with FTC surveys and will grant judgment to the agency in nearly every case. Therefore, it is critical that a company that is being targeted by the FTC obtain counsel at the earliest possible stage, before the agency files anything in court. Counsel should be ready to vigorously defend the client’s marketing practices with techniques such as the use of countersurveys and customer testimonials and expert testimony, before the FTC files in court.