Over the past several years, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took an expansive view of its rules under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (“TCPA”). The TCPA bars certain calls, texts and faxes without prior express consent and requires disclosures and opt-out procedures. While the FCC and state attorney generals may enforce the TCPA, the law’s truth “teeth” come in the form of private lawsuits where statutory damages allow up to $1500 per call/text/fax advertisement. Organizations in every industry, including hospitality, financial services, retail, and healthcare, have settled TCPA lawsuits for millions of dollars.
Businesses viewed recent FCC rulings for the most part as pro-plaintiff, encouraging additional class action lawsuits. In July 2015, for instance, the FCC issued an “omnibus” declaratory ruling in which it expanded certain definitions and interpreted the TCPA in ways seen as empowering the plaintiffs’ bar. However, the FCC’s TCPA rules do not go unchecked, as they are subject to challenge in the courts. The D.C. Circuit recently sent a message to the FCC, ruling in Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley v. Federal Communications Commission that the agency’s 2006 rule requiring an opt-out notice on “solicited” facsimile advertisements ignored clear statutory language. The D.C Circuit’s ruling demonstrates that the court will invalidate FCC rules and interpretations when the agency exceeds statutory authority, even if the FCC may think it is making good policy. It also suggests that the D.C. Circuit may be ready to give a defiant “thumbs down” to significant parts of the FCC’s July 2015 order. A decision is expected on that appeal at any time and we anticipate that the D.C. Circuit will invalidate several aspects of that ruling. This action would have a tremendous impact on pending TCPA litigation and may curb the TCPA gravy train on which several class action firms have already ridden.
The TCPA, as amended by Congress through the Junk Fax Prevention Act, prohibits (among other things) sending an unsolicited advertisement to a fax machine. An “unsolicited advertisement,” as defined in the TCPA is “any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services which is transmitted to any person without that person’s prior express invitation or permission, in writing or otherwise.” Thus, the law allows fax advertisements transmitted with permission (“solicited faxes”). The law also contains another exception to the unsolicited fax advertisement ban where there is an established business relationship with the recipient (“EBR faxes”), provided the recipient voluntarily communicated the fax number or made it available, and a conspicuous opt-out notice meeting certain statutory requirements appears on the fax.
In 2006, the FCC ruled that “solicited” faxes – i.e. those fax advertisements for which the sender received prior consent – require the opt-out notice and associated opt-out procedures. The TCPA, in contrast, only mandates the opt-out notice for the EBR faxes. The 2006 ruling resulted in litigation against companies like Anda (a generic drug seller) that had permission to fax advertisements. Anda had valid permission from pharmacies to fax advertisements regarding time-sensitive topics such as pricing information and weekly specials. Plaintiffs nevertheless sued Anda in a $150 million class action lawsuit because Anda allegedly had not included the opt-out notice. Anda subsequently sought a ruling from the FCC clarifying that solicited faxes did not require the opt-out.
In the category of “sometimes when you ask, you get the answer you don’t want,” the FCC ruled that the opt-out notice applied to solicited and EBR faxes. However, the FCC stated it would waive application for faxes sent before April 30, 2015. The two Republican commissioners (including now Chairman Pai) vigorously dissented. Anda then appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
Late last month, the D.C. Circuit vacated the 2006 solicited fax rule and remanded it to the agency. The court focused on the TCPA’s statutory language, noting that the opt-out notice requirement only appears in the EBR fax provision. “Although the Act requires an opt-out notice on unsolicited fax advertisements, the Act does not require a similar opt-out notice on solicited fax advertisements…Nor does the Act grant the FCC authority to require opt-out notices on solicited fax advertisements.” The appeals court concluded that the case was quite simple – the FCC can only take action that Congress authorized. Congress did not authorize an opt-out notice requirement for solicited fax advertisements. Under an existing rule, senders must still allow recipients to opt-out if they no longer want to receive solicited faxes. But the FCC cannot require the opt-out notice on those solicited fax advertisements. Consequently, companies should not be liable under the TCPA for not including the opt-out notice on solicited fax advertisements.
While the FCC understandably wants to protect consumers and businesses from unsolicited calls, texts, and faxed advertisements – the agency must respect its authority and the limits to that authority. In other words, the FCC cannot choose how the TCPA “should” read. Congress made that choice.
With TCPA litigation continuing to explode, this ruling provides some comfort that the FCC will not go unchecked in its recent, broad TCPA interpretations. And, with the high stakes appeal of the 2015 Omnibus Ruling pending before the same court, there are strong signs that the D. C. Circuit will push the FCC back on its expansive interpretations of autodialer and liability for calls to reassigned numbers, among other challenged rules. Companies involved in ongoing TCPA litigation involving the challenged interpretations may want to seek stays from their courts or arbitrators pending the outcome of the next appeal.
Your business booked a large charity event. However, the customer contact turns out to be a nightmare. She complains (during and after the event) that the service was slow, the food looked and tasted like a frozen meal, and the drinks were watered down. She even claims she was overcharged. You reviewed the situation and, while you disagree, you offer her a credit. She declines and instead decides to post scathing reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and several other review sites. She also gets her friends to post similar reviews. You remember, however, that the booking contract this irate customer signed barred her from posting negative reviews and imposes a $200 per negative review penalty. You ring up your attorney and ask her to send Ms. Nasty Customer a demand. Your lawyer tells you there may be a problem with this approach – under a new law signed by President Obama in December, the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016 – form contracts restricting reviews or imposing penalties are void.
Exceptions and Carve-Outs
There are several significant exceptions to the new law, offering some protections to organizations. First, individually-negotiated agreements are not covered by the new legislation. Second, Congress carved out employer-employee and independent contractor agreements from the “form contract” definition. Thus, under the new Act, employment provisions barring negative online reviews of an employer are not void. However, the National Labor Relations Board strongly disfavors restrictions on employees’ rights to discuss wages and working conditions in public forum. Further, some states may also seek to bar restrictions on online reviews. California and Maryland already have enacted laws barring non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts.
Third, the Act does not bar an organization or individual from suing for defamation, libel, or slander. Thus, companies may still file suit for reviews containing false statements (and presumably include a clause in a form agreement or terms and conditions addressing such statements). Fourth, the law preserves any confidentiality required by law – such as HIPPA. Fifth, the Act expressly allows a party to remove or to refuse to display on a website/webpage operated by that party the content of a “covered communication” : (1) that contains personal information or the likeness of another person; (2) is libelous, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, sexually explicit “or is inappropriate with respect to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or other “intrinsic characteristic”; or (3) that is false or misleading. Thus, companies that host their own webpages for customer comments and interactions may remove customer reviews meeting these standards. It would also appear lawful to advise customers in company terms and conditions or form contracts that such content may be reviewed.
Congress further created a carve-out from the Act’s consumer review protections for trade secrets or commercial or financial information considered privileged or confidential, personnel and medical files where disclosure would result in an invasion of personal privacy, records compiled for law enforcement purposes, content that is unlawful, and content containing computer viruses, worms, or other damaging code.
Federal Trade Commission Enforcement
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) will enforce the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016. State Attorney Generals may also bring a civil action in federal court to obtain relief for their residents. The new law requires the FTC (within 60 days) to conduct education and outreach to businesses, including non-binding “best practices” for complying with the Act. Companies get 90 days (until March 14, 2017) before their contracts containing the now-proscribed practices are considered void.
The FTC may target a few “brand name” organizations in early enforcement actions to garner industry attention. Companies should be aware, however, that they retain the right to object to assessments that are exempted, including those that disclose confidential or personal information, or that are defamatory, misleading, obscene, vulgar, or unrelated to the products and services offered on the company’s webpage. So, while consumers cannot be penalized through a form contract by posting reviews, their rights to post are not unfettered. Contrary to the popular adage, as the Union Street Guest House learned, not all press is good press – and companies may still address false or defamatory reviews and those reviews containing other exempted content.
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently released a data breach guide for businesses, along with a video and blog to help companies following the immediate aftermath of a data breach. The FTC also provides a model data breach letter to notify individuals of a breach. The agency – which views itself as the nation’s primary “privacy police” has faced scrutiny from private parties and courts for allegedly enforcing privacy and data security standards without promulgating specific rules. The agency instead favors outreach efforts, such its blogs, guides and roundtables to educate industry and the public regarding what it views as best practices.
In this vein, the Guide and the model letter are not a “safe harbor” but offer suggestions on important steps that organizations can follow once they discover data breaches. The FTC emphasizes that the Guide does not pertain to the actual protection of personal information or prevention of breaches, because the agency has already issued separate guidance documents on those subjects. In fact, the FTC also recently updated its guide on protecting personal information.
Following a data breach, the Guide suggests key steps organizations can take, which include:
- Mobilizing the company’s breach response team to prevent further data loss – the team may include legal, information security, IT, human resources, communications, investor relations, and management; companies may consider hiring an independent forensics team;
- Securing physical areas – lock any physical areas affected by a breach; consider changing access codes;
- Taking affected equipment offline immediately – monitor all entry and exit points, and update authorized users’ credentials and passwords;
- Removing improperly posted information from the company’s website, for instance in a situation where personal information affected by the breach is posted on the company’s website. The FTC also advises companies to search the Internet to see if breached information has been posted on other websites and to contact the owners of those websites;
- Protecting evidence – the FTC reminds companies to retain forensic evidence (e. do not destroy it);
- Documenting the investigation, including interviewing people who discovered the breach and making sure employees (such as customer service representatives) know where to forward information that might assist the company in its investigation;
- Examining service provider relationships, to determine if providers have access to personal information and whether provider access privileges should be changed;
- Determining whether data was encrypted at the time of the breach (note: encryption may obviate the need for data breach reporting in many states);
- Implementing a communications plan that explains the data breach to employees, customers, investors, partners, and others such as the press. The FTC recommends “plain English” answers on a company’s website;
- Following legal requirements – such as state data breach notifications and notifying law enforcement;
- Offering at least a year of free credit monitoring – while not required, free monitoring has become standard and most regulators and consumers expect to see the offer in data breach notifications.
As to data breach notification letters, in addition to following the requirements of state laws, the FTC urges companies to advise people what steps they can take, based on the information exposed. When a breach compromises social security numbers, individuals should be directed to contact the credit bureaus to request fraud alerts or credit freezes. Since some scammers pounce on data breach victims, the FTC counsels organizations to tell consumers how they will be contacted going forward. For instance, if the company will never contact individuals by phone, the company should tell consumers that – so individuals can detect telephonic phishing schemes.
The FTC encourages businesses to use the Guide and its accompanying materials to educate employees and customers, such as through newsletters and websites. However, when facing an enforcement action or a lawsuit, will a company’s compliance with the Guide offer any relief from FTC or state Attorney General penalties or assist organizations in their defense in private data breach lawsuits? Ultimately, the crux of breach liability usually relates to how it occurred, but taking swift, corrective actions following a breach should aid an organization when dealing with regulators and third parties by showing good faith actions to prevent further damages. Conversely, a company that fails to take corrective actions can exacerbate a breach and further negatively impact affected individuals and the organization.
The FTC’s Guide and accompanying materials are helpful references, particularly for smaller businesses. As a practical matter, the words of advice I give companies facing a possible data breach is to first, take the time to determine what happened, how it happened, whether the breach continues, and what you can do to prevent it in the future. While several states require reporting within a set number of days (e.g., 45), the laws allow organizations time to conduct factual inquiries, take corrective measures, and prepare to notify affected individuals. Organizations should not rush through these key steps. Second, communication is key. A company facing a breach should develop a clear, consistent statement regarding the breach, the steps being taken and a single contact point. The lack of a communication plan or a consistent message can cause a huge loss of customer and employee confidence and raise regulators’ interest. Third, when preparing data breach notifications, organizations should note that it is likely that the letter will become public due to some states’ open records laws. Numerous websites exist that track and publicize data breaches, based upon information in the notifications – often including copies of the actual letters. Companies should not assume that regulators and consumers simply file the letters away. While your organization cannot prevent the publicity, having a clear, concise data breach notification that meets each state’s requirements without providing excess data will help the company through the process and associated publicity.
In the past few years, many organizations such as Capital One, Bass Pro Outdoor, and the Cosmopolitan Hotel have faced class actions alleging violations of California’s call recording law. This week, California’s Attorney General demonstrated that her office, working with state prosecutors, will also vigorously enforce the law under the state’s criminal statutes. Attorney General Harris announced an $8.5 million dollar settlement with Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. over the alleged failure to provide call recording announcements to California consumers.
The complaint alleged violations of Sections 632 and 632.7 of California’s Penal Code, including the purported failure of Wells Fargo’s employees to “timely and adequately disclose the recording of communications with members of the public.” These laws form part of California’s Invasion of Privacy Act. Section 632 makes it illegal to eavesdrop (monitor) or record a “confidential communication” without the consent of all parties. The statute defines a “confidential communication” as including “any communication carried on in circumstances as may reasonably indicate that any party to the communication desires it to be confined to the parties thereto.“ The law specifically excludes communications in circumstances “in which the parties to the communication may reasonably expect that the communication may be overheard or recorded. “ Section 632.7 bars the recording of cell phone conversations, without the consent of all parties.
Wells Fargo Bank settled the case, agreeing in a stipulated judgment to the $8.5 million settlement and certain compliance requirements. Specifically, Wells Fargo must make a “clear, conspicuous, and accurate disclosure” to any consumer in California of the fact that Wells Fargo is recording the call. The settlement requires that this disclosure occur “immediately at the beginning” of the call, but allows Wells Fargo to precede the disclosure with an introductory greeting identifying the customer service representative and the entity on whose behalf the call is made (presumably, a Wells Fargo-affiliated entity). Wells Fargo also committed to a compliance program for one year and periodic internal testing of its employees’ and agents’ compliance with the call disclosure requirement. The bank agreed to appoint an officer or supervisor with specific oversight responsibility for compliance with the settlement obligations. Within a year following the stipulated judgment, Wells Fargo must provide the Attorney General with a report summarizing the testing.
Interestingly, the Attorney General previously pursued a similar action against home improvement platform Houzz Inc. for allegedly failing to notify all parties of its recording of incoming and outgoing telephone calls. In that case, Houzz agreed to appoint a Chief Privacy Officer to oversee Houzz’s compliance, a first for a California Department of Justice settlement.
As we have advised before, all organizations recording calls – whether inbound or outbound – should immediately disclose to called parties that the call is being recorded. The disclosure should occur at the outset of the call. One type of introduction could be, “This is Michelle, calling on behalf of XYZ Company. This call is being recorded and/or monitored.” Some companies may wish to announce the option of a non-recorded line, available via a key press. It is also important to time the recording to begin after the announcement, to avoid potential liability based on even a few seconds of a recorded call before an announcement is given.
A few important reminders are worth repeating:
- The announcement requirement applies to inbound and outbound calls, including requested return calls.
- Recording announcements apply to all types of calls – not just sales calls.
- Maintain proof of the announcement.
- Implement a short, written call recording policy.
- Train customer service representatives to understand the call recording policies.
- Periodically “test” call recording procedures.
- Promptly investigate any call recording complaints and take appropriate corrective action.
- Have customer service representatives sign an acknowledgment that they understand they are being monitored and/or recorded.
The recording of customer service and other calls is an important component to prevent fraud, fulfill legal requirements and augment customer service, among other reasons. Companies can implement call recording effectively, but must comply with announcement requirements and should take proactive measures, such as training and testing, to protect against civil and criminal liability and to safeguard consumer goodwill.
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.
Every week, we learn about new data breaches affecting consumers across the country. Federal government workers and retirees recently received the unsettling news that a breach compromised their personal information, including social security numbers, job history, pay, race, and benefits. Amid a host of other public relations issues, the Trump organization recently discovered a potential data breach at its hotel chain. If you visited the Detroit Zoo recently, you may want to check your credit card statements, as the zoo’s third party vendor detected “malware” which allowed access to customers’ credit and debit card numbers. And, certainly, none of us can forget the enormous data breach at Target, and the associated data breach notifications and subsequent lawsuits.
For years, members of Congress have stressed the need for national data breach standards and data security requirements. Aside from mandates in particular laws, such as HIPAA, movement on data breach requirements had stalled in Congress. Years ago, however, the states picked up the slack, establishing data breach notification laws requiring notifications to consumers and, in many instances to attorneys general and consumer protection offices when certain defined “personal information” was breached. California led the pack, passing its law in 2003. Today, 47 states have laws requiring organizations to notify consumers when a data breach has compromised consumers’ personal information. Several states’ laws also mandate particular data security practices, including Massachusetts, which took the lead on establishing “standards for protection of personal information.”
Many businesses and their lobbying organizations have urged Congress to preempt state laws and establish a national standard. Most companies have employees or customers in multiple states. Thus, under current laws, organizations have to address a multitude of state requirements, including triggering events, types of personal information covered, how quickly the notification must be made, who gets notified, what information should be included in the notification, among others. State Attorneys General, on the other hand, assert that, irrespective of these inconveniences, their oversight of data breaches through the supervision of notifications and enforcement has played a critical role in consumer protection.
This week, the Attorneys General from the 47 states wrote to Congressional leaders, urging Congress to maintain states’ authority in any federal law, by requiring data breach notifications, and preserving the states’ enforcement authority.
The AGs’ key points are:
- State AG offices have played critical roles in investigating and enforcing data security lapses for more than a decade.
- States have been able to respond to constant changes in data security by passing “significant, innovative laws related to data security, identity theft, and privacy.” This includes addressing new categories of information, such as biometric data and login credentials for online accounts.
- States are on the “front lines” of helping consumers deal with the fallout of data breaches and have the most experience in guiding consumers through the process of removing fraudulent charges and repairing their credit. By way of example, the Illinois AG helped nearly 40,000 Illinois residents remove more than $27 million in unauthorized charges from their accounts.
- Forty states participate in the “Privacy Working” group, where state AGs coordinate to investigate data breaches affecting consumers across multiple states.
- Consumers keep asking for more protection. Any preemption of state law “would make consumers less protected than they are right now.”
- States are better equipped to “quickly adjust to the challenges presented by a data-driven economy.”
- Adding enforcement and regulatory authority at the federal level could hamper the effectiveness of the state law. Some breaches will be too small to have priority at the federal level; however, these breaches may have a large impact at the state or regional level.
Interestingly, just this week, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced a House bill mandating that companies inform consumers within 30 days of a data breach. The bill also requires minimum security standards. Representative Cicilline’s bill would not preempt stricter state-level data breach security laws. The bill also contains a broad definition of “personal information” to include data that could lead to “dignity harm” – such as personal photos and videos, in addition to the traditional categories of banking information and social security numbers. The proposed legislation would also impose civil penalties upon organizations that failed to meet the standards.
Without a doubt data breaches will continue – whether from bad actors, technical glitches, or common employee negligence. The states have certainly “picked up the slack” for over a decade while Congressional actions stalled. Understandably, the state AGs do not want Congress taking over the play in their large and established “privacy sandbox.” Preemption will continue to be a key issue for any federal data breach legislation before Congress. As someone who has guided companies through multi-state data breach notifications, I have seen firsthand that requiring businesses to deal with dozens of differing state requirements is costly and extremely burdensome. Small businesses, in particular, are faced with having to grapple with a data security incident while trying to understand and comply with a multitude of state requirements. Those businesses do not have the resources of a “Target” and complying with a patchwork of laws significantly and adversely impacts those businesses. While consumer protection is paramount, a federal standard for data breach notification would provide a common and clear-cut standard for all organizations and reduce regulatory burdens. While the federal standard could preempt state notification laws, states could continue to play critical roles as enforcement authorities.
In the interim, companies must ensure that they comply with the information security requirements and data breach notifications of applicable states. An important, and overlooked aspect is to remember that while an organization may think of itself as, say a “Vermont” or “Virginia” company, it is likely that the company has personal information on residents of various states – for instance, employees who telecommute from neighboring states, or employees who left the company and moved to a different state. Even a “local” or “regional” company can face a host of state requirements. As part of an organization’s data security planning, companies should periodically survey the personal information they hold and the affected states. In addition to data breach requirements in the event of a breach, organizations need to address applicable state data security standards.
The FTC’s complaint stated that Nomi’s technology (called its “Listen” service) allows retailers to track consumers’ movements through stores. The company places sensors in its clients’ stores, which collect the MAC addresses of consumers’ mobile devices as the devices search for WiFi networks. While Nomi “hashes” the MAC addresses prior to storage in order to hide the specific MAC addresses, the process results in identifiers unique to consumers’ mobile devices which can be tracked over time. Nomi provided its retail clients with aggregated information, such as how long consumers stayed in the store, the types of devices used by consumers, and how many customers had visited a different location in a chain of stores. Between January and September 2013, Nomi collected information on approximately 9 million mobile devices, according to the FTC’s complaint.
Nomi’s settlement does not require any monetary payment but prohibits Nomi from misrepresenting the options through which consumers can exercise control over the collection, use, disclosure or sharing of information collected from or about them or their devices. The settlement also bars Nomi from misrepresenting the extent to which consumers will be provided notice about how data from or about a particular consumer or device is collected, used, disclosed or shared. Nomi is required to maintain certain supporting records for five years. As is typical with FTC consent orders, this agreement remains in force for 20 years.
What can companies learn from Nomi’s settlement, even those not in the retail tracking business?
- While this is the first FTC action against a retail tracking company, the FTC has repeatedly stated that it will enforce the FTC Act and other laws under its jurisdiction against emerging as well as traditional technologies.
- The FTC noted that Nomi had about 45 clients. Most of those clients did not post a disclosure or notify consumers regarding their use of the Listen service, and Nomi did not mandate such disclosures by its clients. The FTC did not address what, if any, obligation, these businesses may have to make such disclosures. Will it become common/mandated to see a sign in a retail location warning that retail tracking via mobile phones is occurring (similar to signs about video surveillance)? One industry group’s self-regulatory policy requires retail analytics firms to take “reasonable steps to require that companies using their technology display, in a conspicuous location, signage that informs consumers about the collection and use of MLA [mobile location analytics] Data at that location.” This issue will become more prevalent as more retailers and other businesses use tracking technology.
- Interestingly, the FTC brought this action even though traditional “personal information” was not collected (such as name, address, social security number, etc.). Organizations should not assume that collecting IP addresses, MAC addresses, or other less personalized information presents no issues. The FTC takes privacy statements seriously, whatever the information collected (though certainly there is more sensitivity toward certain categories such as health, financial, and children’s information).
The bottom line is “do what you say” when it comes to privacy practices. All companies should evaluate their privacy policies at least every six months to ensure that they remain accurate and complete, have working links (if any), and reflect a company’s current practices.
The FTC’s “Do Not Call” and “robocall” rules do not apply to political survey calls. So, if Hillary Clinton sought to “voice blast” a survey about international issues, she could do so without violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (“TSR”). (Though under FCC rules she would have an issue calling wireless numbers). However, companies may not telemarket under the guise of exempt political calls. Caribbean Cruise Lines (CCL) and several other companies working with CCL recently learned this lesson the hard way. The FTC and a dozen state attorneys general sued CCL and others for offering cruises and vacation “add ons” following purported political calls. CCL settled, agreeing to pay $500,000 of a $7.2 million dollar penalty, and to comply with multiple compliance mechanisms.
CCL and the other defendants implemented an extensive calling campaign involving 12 to 15 million calls per day for approximately ten months offering a political survey. However, the survey calls invited consumers to “press one” to receive a “free” two-day cruise to the Bahamas (port taxes would apply). A live telemarketer working on behalf of CCL then offered consumers pre-cruise hotels, excursions, and other value packages.
While political calls remain exempt under the TSR’s robocall and Do Not Call provisions, if a caller offers a good, product or service during an otherwise exempt call, an “upsell” has occurred and the call is now telemarketing. FTC rules prohibit robocalls to telemarket except with prior express consent. Thus, the FTC asserted that CCL violated the TSR’s robocall provision since the called parties had not consented to the recorded sales calls. While the calls started as political survey calls, they were actually standard telemarketing, subject to all TSR telemarketing rules. The FTC also alleged violations of the Do Not Call rules, the caller identification rules, and the “company-specific Do Not Call requirements,” among other violations.
In addition to the reminder about “upsells” or “mixed messages,” this action highlights several important TSR enforcement lessons:
The TSR also bars third parties from providing “substantial assistance” to others who violate the rule. Here, the FTC’s complaint charged a group of five companies and their individual owner with assisting and facilitating the illegal cruise calls, by providing robocallers with telephone numbers to use in the caller ID field, to hide the robocallers’ identities.
The FTC will carefully review, and proceed against companies who violate other TSR provisions, including caller ID requirements, scrubbing of the federal Do Not Call database, and the company-specific Do Not Call list.
A settlement often requires ongoing recordkeeping. Here, the FTC required CCL to create records for ten years (and retain each one for 5 years), including records of consumer complaints and documentation of all lead generators.
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While it should not come as a surprise that a “mixed message” call must comply with the TSR, the recent joint case against CCL and others serves as a potent reminder that the FTC and state attorneys general continue to monitor robocalling and other mass telemarketing campaigns. Further, the enforcers will use the full panoply of legal requirements and enforcement mechanisms to address telemarketing violations. The seller, the telemarketer, the lead generator, the caller ID provider, and any other party providing substantial assistance may find themselves at the receiving end of a call from the FTC if they fail to follow each of the TSR’s obligations or engage in activities that the TSR prohibits.
Employers Running Background Checks: Top 10 Tips to Avoid Joining the Fair Credit Reporting Act Litigation “Club”
What do Whole Foods, Chuck E. Cheese, Michael’s Stores, Dollar General, Panera, Publix, and K-Mart have in common? Each of these companies has faced lawsuits (including class actions) under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). Although Congress passed the FCRA way back in 1970 and litigation has focused on credit reporting agencies’ duties under the law, class action plaintiff firms have recently focused on the FCRA’s employer-related provisions. Several large settlements (such as Publix’s $6.8 million class action settlement, Dollar General’s $4 million, and K-Mart’s $ 3 million) have spurred further litigation. While some of the alleged FCRA violations may appear minor or technical in nature, these “technical violations” still result in costly lawsuits. Employers should re-familiarize themselves with the FCRA to avoid becoming class action defendants.
The FCRA’s Employer-Related Provisions
Many employers understandably want to conduct background checks on prospective employees, or current employees who may be obtaining new responsibilities or accessing sensitive information. In particular, companies in the retail and restaurant sectors, whose employees have access to cash receipts and credit card account numbers, want to guard against employees whose background checks may reveal issues of concern. Further, organizations whose employees enter homes and businesses (such as service providers – e.g., carpet cleaners, plumbers, contractors) have additional concerns about potential liability.
The FCRA is usually thought of as a federal law that regulates consumer reporting agencies, like credit bureaus. However, the FCRA also prescribes certain requirements for employers who use consumer reports. The FCRA broadly defines the term “consumer reports” as information prepared by a consumer reporting agency “bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer’s eligibility for—credit or insurance to be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes; employment purposes” or other permitted purposes. This definition draws in more than a traditional credit report. It can include driving records, civil lawsuits, and reference checks, among other information.
Disclosure and Consent
Employers may not obtain a consumer report from a consumer reporting agency unless they first make a “clear and conspicuous” written disclosure to the prospective employee/employee. The disclosure document must consist “solely” of the disclosure that a consumer report may be obtained. The job applicant/employee must provide written permission for the employer to obtain a consumer report. The FTC has indicated the disclosure form may include a signature line for the individual’s consent. (In 2001, the FTC also issued an opinion letter stating it believes such consent can be obtained electronically, consistent with the federal E-Sign law). The employer further certifies to the consumer reporting agency that is has a permissible purpose for the report and that it has complied with the FCRA and applicable equal opportunity laws.
These steps sound simple enough, however, litigation has ensued based upon employers’ alleged failures to comply. For instance, in the Whole Foods case in federal court in California, the plaintiffs claim the online application process included a liability waiver in the disclosure form for the background check, allegedly violating the FCRA requirement that a disclosure form not include other information. In a separate case in federal court in Florida involving retailer Nine West, the plaintiff alleges he did not receive a separate form, and that the background check authorization was on a web page with various other types of information.
Adverse Action Based on Report
If the employer intends to take “adverse action” against the prospective employee/employee (based even in part on the information in the report), the FCRA requires the employer to follow certain additional steps. The term “adverse action” includes “a denial of employment or any other decision for employment purposes that adversely affects any current or prospective employee.”
Before the employer takes the adverse action, it must provide a “pre-adverse action” notice to the affected person. This notice must include a copy of the consumer report and a statutory “Summary of Rights.” (This is an updated form, required since January 2013 by the new Consumer Financial Protection Board, which now has responsibility for FCRA rulemaking). The purpose of this notice requirement is to permit the individual to discuss the report with the employer before the employer implements the adverse action.
Next, if the employer intends to take the adverse action, the FCRA requires the employer to provide an adverse action notice to the individual. This notice must contain certain information, including:this is a test one
a statement setting forth the applicant’s or employee’s right to obtain a free disclosure of his or her report from the consumer reporting agency if the individual requests the disclosure within 60 days; and
In a case involving Domino’s Pizza employees, the company settled a class action that included allegations that it took adverse employment actions against certain individuals based on information contained in consumer reports without providing those individuals the required notice and a copy of such reports in advance. K-Mart settled a class action suit based upon allegations that the statement of consumer rights provided to individuals after a background check contained outdated disclosures, among other alleged FCRA failures.
Liability and Enforcement
Plaintiffs can pursue a private right of action against employers for negligently or willfully violating the FCRA. Claims regarding negligent violations allow actual damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. Willful violations can result in actual damages or statutory damages ranging between $100 and $1,000, plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has also brought actions against employers for FCRA violations.
10 Steps to Avoid Becoming a FCRA Defendant When Using Employment Background Checks
1. Review your current background check practices for prospective and current employees, including any online application materials.
2. Review disclosure/consent forms for compliance. Ensure you are presenting applicants or current employees with a simple, one page disclosure form. The form should inform individuals that you intend to obtain a consumer report for employment purposes.
3. You must obtain consent from the prospective employee/employee. You may include a line on the disclosure form for the individual to acknowledge and grant consent. Do not include other material, such as liability waivers, confirmation of at-will employment, or seek other consents.
4. If your application process is online, ensure the disclosure/consent is displayed separately, on one screen, without other content.
5. If you intend to conduct background checks periodically during an individual’s employment, state that in the disclosure and consent form.
6. Do not seek consent verbally. FCRA requires “written” consent (though FTC has stated it may be electronic).
7. Maintain backup of the disclosure and consent forms for at least 5 years from the date they were provided. (Lawsuits must be brought by the earlier of two years after the date of the plaintiff’s discovery of the violation, or five years after the date on which the violation occurred).
8. If you intend to take adverse action based on information in the consumer report, you should be providing the individual with a pre-adverse action notice, a copy of the consumer report, and the “Summary of Rights.” Ensure you are using the most updated “Summary of Rights.”
9. You should wait a reasonable amount of time (at least 5 days) before issuing an adverse action notice. Your company’s adverse action notice must contain the information required under the FCRA (see bulleted information, above).
10. Check state law regarding background checks for the states in which you operate/solicit employees. Some states have similar requirements to FCRA; others may further restrict the types of information you can request.
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The FTC/EEOC have issued a joint statement on background checks. While many employers need to conduct background checks to avoid liability and risks to their businesses, employers also need to follow the FCRA’s mandates to avoid the deep end of litigation “pool.”
It’s International Data Privacy Day! Every year on January 28, the United States, Canada and 27 countries of the European Union celebrate Data Privacy Day. This day is designed to raise awareness of and generate discussion about data privacy rights and practices. Indeed, each day new reports surface about serious data breaches, data practice concerns, and calls for legislation. How can businesses manage data privacy expectations and risk amid this swirl of activity?
Here, we share some tips from our firm’s practice and some recent FTC guidance. We don’t have a cake to celebrate International Data Privacy Day but we do have our “Top 10 Data Privacy Tips”:
3. Ensure Your U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Is Up-to-Date. Last year, the FTC took action against several companies, including the Atlanta Falcons and Level 3 Communications, for stating in their privacy policies that they were U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce when, in fact, the companies had failed to keep their certification current by reaffirming their compliance annually. While your organization is not required to participate in Safe Harbor, don’t say you are Safe Harbor Certified if you haven’t filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce. And, remember that your company needs to reaffirm compliance annually, including payment of a fee. You can check your company’s status here.
4. Understand Your Internal Risks. We’ve said this before – while malicious breaches are certainly out there, a significant percentage of breaches (around 30 percent, according to one recent study) occurs due to accidents or malicious acts by employees. These acts include lack of firewalls, lack of encryption on devices (such as laptops and flash drives), and failing to change authentications when employees leave or are terminated. Many data breaches are While you are at it, review who has access to confidential information and whether proper restrictions are in place.
5. Educate Your Workforce. While today is International Data Privacy Day, your organization should educate your workforce on privacy issues throughout the year. Depending on the size of the company and the type of information handled (for instance, highly sensitive health information versus standard personal contact details), education efforts may vary. You should review practices like the confidentiality of passwords, creating a secure password and changing it frequently, and avoiding downloading personal or company sensitive information in unsecured forms. Just last week, a security firm reported that the most popular passwords for 2014 were “123456” and “password.” At a minimum, these easily guessed passwords should not be allowed in your system.
6. Understand Specific Requirements of Your Industry/Customers/ Jurisdiction. Do you have information on Massachusetts residents? Massachusetts requires that your company have a Written Information Security Program. Does your company collect personal information from kids under 13? The organization must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the FTC’s rules. The FTC has taken many actions against companies deemed to be collecting children’s information without properly seeking prior express parental consent.
7. Maintain a Data Breach Response Plan. If there were a potential data breach, who would get called? Legal? IT? Human Resources? Public relations? Yes, likely all of these. The best defense is a good offense – plan ahead. Representatives from in-house and outside counsel, IT/IS, human resources, and your communications department should be part of this plan. State data breach notification laws require prompt reporting. Some companies have faced lawsuits for alleged “slow” response times. If there is potential breach, your company needs to gather resources, investigate, and if required, disclose the breach to governmental authorities, affected individuals, credit reporting agencies, etc.
8. Consider Contractual Obligations. Before your company commits to data security obligations in contracts, ensure that a knowledgeable party, such as in-house or outside counsel, reviews these commitments. If there is a breach of a contracting party’s information, assess the contractual requirements in addition to those under data breach notification laws. The laws generally require notice to be given promptly when a company’s data is compromised while under the “care” of another company. On the flip side, consider the service providers your company uses and what type of access the providers have to sensitive data. You should require service providers to adhere to reasonable security standards, with more stringent requirements if they handle sensitive data.
9. Review Insurance Coverage. While smaller businesses may think “we’re not Target” and don’t need cyber insurance, that’s a false assumption. In fact, smaller businesses usually have less sophisticated protections and can be more vulnerable to hackers and employee negligence. Data breaches – requiring investigations, hiring of outside experts such as forensics, paying for credit monitoring, and potential loss of goodwill – can be expensive. Carriers are offering policies that do not break the bank. Cyber insurance is definitely worth exploring. If you believe you have coverage for a data incident, your company should promptly notify the carrier. Notice should be part of the data breach response plan.
10. Remember the Basics! Many organizations have faced the wrath of the FTC, state attorneys general or private litigants because the companies or its employees failed to follow basic data security procedures. The FTC has settled 53 data security law enforcement actions. Many involve the failure to take common sense steps with data, such as transmitting sensitive data without encryption, or leaving documents with personal information in a dumpster. Every company must have plans to secure physical and electronic information. The FTC looks at whether a company’s practices are “reasonable and appropriate in light of the sensitivity and amount of consumer information you have, the size and complexity of your business, and the availability and cost of tools to improve security and reduce vulnerabilities.” If the FTC calls, you want to have a solid explanation of what you did right, not be searching for answers, or offering excuses. Additional information on the FTC’s guidance can be found here.
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Remember, while it may be International Data Privacy Day, data privacy isn’t a one day event. Privacy practices must be reviewed and updated regularly to protect data as well as enable your company to act swiftly and responsively in the event of a data breach incident.