While the country was busy celebrating Star Wars Day and Cinco de Mayo, the FTC took a number of actions in the consumer protection realm. The agency reported success stories in relation to a credit repair scam, a multi-level marketing scheme, and even deceptively-advertised Internet speeds. In addition, the Commission initiated its second action using the new Made in USA rule, shortly after the first one—this time against an apparel company. The agency also ordered divestment of a subsidiary in a medical device company’s acquisition in the sinus field and sought public comments on the updates to the Energy Labeling Rule. Further, the Senate may begin working to restore the FTC’s power to obtain equitable monetary relief for consumers in federal court. These stories and more after the jump.
Monday, January 31, 2022
Consumer Protection: Privacy & Facial Recognition
- FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson issued a series of letters to Senators Ron Wyden, Maria Cantwell, and Roger Wicker as well as House of Representatives members Jan Schakowsky, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Gus Bilirakis to request review of a proposed contract between the IRS and ID.me, an identity verification software company. Ms. Wilson’s letters highlight a recent Washington Post article predicting that taxpayers may have to scan their faces in order to access their IRS tax accounts. She also expresses concerns that ID.me’s software would not adequately protect the privacy of taxpayer records and could cause other harms, referencing a 2019 hack of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol database, which exposed thousands of photos of Americans. Commissioner Wilson notes that the recipients of her letters are leaders on privacy issues in the House and Senate, and she offered the FTC’s assistance with this request.
Monday, January 10, 2022
Consumer Protection: Cryptocurrency Payment Scams
- The FTC issued a warning alerting consumers to a new cryptocurrency scam. Scammers begin by impersonating government, law enforcement, or local utility companies. They message or call the victim to the tell them that they have won the lottery or a prize. Eventually, the scammer requests money from the victim and instructs the person to withdraw cryptocurrency from a cryptocurrency ATM. The scammer provides a QR code so the victim can transfer the cryptocurrency to themselves. Tracking the cryptocurrency is extremely difficult to do, which means most victims are not able to retrieve their funds. The FTC issued the warning due to the increased number of reported scams.
Monday, December 6, 2021
Consumer Protection: FTC’s Franchise Rule
- The FTC filed an amicus brief in pending litigation to advise the Supreme Court that the FTC’s Franchise Rule cannot be used to determine whether a franchisee is an employee or an independent contractor. The Franchise Rule, codified as 16 C.F.R. §§ 436–437, requires franchisors to provide certain material disclosures to all potential franchisees. In its brief, the agency explained that it enacted this Rule in 1978 in response to widespread deception in the sale of franchises, and that it should preempt state laws only if they offer less protection to prospective franchisees.
Monday, November 15, 2021
Financial Management Office: FTC Operations
- The FTC issued its Fiscal Year 2021 Agency Financial Report outlining financial and high-level performance results and highlighting recent agency accomplishments. The 98-page report also contains an overview of the agency’s mission and organization, an independent auditor’s report of the FTC’s 2020 and 2021 financial statements, and the Office of the Inspector General’s assessment of the FTC’s top management and performance challenges.
Monday, November 8, 2021
Antitrust: Hart-Scott-Rodino Act
- The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division released the agencies’ 43rd Annual Hart-Scott-Rodino Report. The report provides HSR Premerger Notification data for fiscal year 2020, and its release coincides with an unprecedented surge in pre-merger filings during the current fiscal year.
Monday, October 25, 2021
Bureau of Competition and FTC Operations
- The FTC issued a policy statement restoring its pre-1995 practice of requiring parties under a merger consent decree to obtain the Commission’s permission before pursuing additional acquisitions in that market. This “Prior Approval” policy is designed to protect consumers and deter “clearly anticompetitive” deals, per Holly Vedova, the Director of the Bureau of Competition. The FTC will consider a number of factors when deciding whether to permit a deal, including (1) the nature of the transaction, (2) the level of market concentration and the degree to which the transaction increases market concentration, (3) the degree of pre-merger market power, (4) the parties’ history of acquisitiveness, and (5) evidence of anticompetitive market dynamics. The Commission approved the statement by a vote of 3-2; the Commissioners voting against the policy subsequently issued a dissenting statement.
Tuesday, October 5, 2021
Advertising and Marketing & Privacy and Security
- The FTC approved a settlement with the operators of MoviePass over allegations that they took steps to block subscribers from using the service as advertised, while also failing to secure subscribers’ personal data. The FTC alleged that MoviePass Inc.—along with CEO Mitchell Lowe, and MoviePass’ parent company and its CEO, deceptively marketed its “one movie per day” service, then deployed deceptive tactics aimed at preventing subscribers from using the service as advertised —actions the FTC alleged violated both the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. The FTC also alleged MoviePass’s operators left a database containing large amounts of subscribers’ personal information unencrypted and exposed, leading to unauthorized access.
Last week the Supreme Court unanimously held that §13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act does not give the Federal Trade Commission the power to seek equitable monetary relief such as disgorgement or restitution. The Court’s opinion in AMG Capital Management LLC v. Federal Trade Commission removes a powerful tool that the FTC has long relied on to pursue monetary relief for consumers in both consumer protection and competition matters.
By way of background, the FTC has authority to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practice (“UDAP”) and unfair methods of competition (“UMC”) with an overlapping but distinct set of tools it can use to pursue its dual consumer protection and competition missions:
- Administrative Proceeding: The FTC can initiate an administrative proceeding to seek a cease and desist order for either a UDAP or UMC violation from an administrative law judge. If necessary, the FTC can later bring a contempt proceeding in federal court seeking to enforce the terms of an administrative order. A defendant may respond by arguing that it has “substantially complied” with the terms of the order. If the FTC prevails in such a case, it can seek civil penalties and other equitable relief necessary to enforce the order (however monetary relief only applies to UDAP violations).
- Rulemaking: The FTC has authority to promulgate rules that define UDAP with specificity. Generally, this requires a lengthy, formal rulemaking process that allows for public comment, and a final rule can be challenged in federal court. If a defendant later violates a duly enacted UDAP rule, the FTC can seek civil penalties for a knowing violation. The FTC can also file suit in federal court and obtain monetary relief “to redress consumer injury,” including an order compelling “refund of money or return of property,” but only if “a reasonable man would have known under the circumstances [that the challenged conduct] was dishonest or fraudulent.”
- Federal Court: The FTC can sue in federal court under §13(b) of the FTC Act to enjoin a defendant when the defendant “is violating, or is about to violate” a law that the FTC enforces and such an injunction is in the public’s interest. While courts have historically read §13(b) as giving the FTC an implied right to recover equitable monetary relief in addition to injunctive relief, the Supreme Court’s ruling now limits the FTC to seeking injunctive relief only.
On April 15, 2021, the FTC filed its first complaint under the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act (the CCP Act). The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, alleges that an in-state chiropractor and his company violated both the CCP Act and the FTC Act by deceptively marketing Vitamin…