With the recent Facebook fiasco, consumer protection and the safety of our personal information is yet again in the public spotlight.
Facebook is not the only big name brand out there who has dropped the ball on consumer’s safety in recent years.
Many brands we know, and trust, have made costly mistakes in regards to keeping their consumers safe. It just does not always hit your newsfeed.
The other problem is, most people are not even sure about what consumer protection means.
It can be fuzzy for most people at times.
That is why: When trying to explain the scope of consumer protection laws to clients (and family members), I always find it best to use everyday examples.In this post, I will show you 11 times when brand names we all know (and trust), violated the Consumer Protection Act.
What is consumer protection?
Consumer protection relates to a specific area of law that ensures the ethical and fair treatment of consumers of products and services in the US and promotes a competitive marketplace for the benefit of the consumer.In the US, modern consumer protection law started as early as the 19th century, when public crises forced the government to respond by creating a body with jurisdiction to oversee products and services offered to the public.
Consumer protection laws have evolved to cover topics like ethical marketing and advertising, identity and privacy protection, financial services regulation, deceitful business activities, anti-trust laws and more.
All of this falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission or FTC.
What is the FTC?
Founded by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, the FTC, or Federal Trade Commission, is a government body created to protect consumers in the US from unethical or unfair treatment and deceptive business practices.
On their website, FTC.gov, the Federal Trade Commission says that it has three goals:
- To protect consumers by preventing fraud, deception and unfair business practices in the marketplace,
- To maintain competition by preventing anti-competitive business practices, and lastly;
- To advance individual and collective organizational performance.
To achieve its goals:
The Federal Trade Commission works closely with people from all sectors, from policy and lawmakers to businesses owners and the public and focuses on three main areas of activities:
The FTC provides research and advice to key national and international governmental agencies to help guide and shape rules that help to maintain a safe and fair marketplace
2 Law Enforcement
The FTC acts as both an investigator and an enforcer. It collects complaints from the public, conducts follow-up investigations and, if necessary, files a lawsuit against the offending entity.
(examples coming up soon)
The FTC provides educational workshops and materials for both the general public and business communities to promote a fair and ethical free Global market while educating people on current scams and fraudulent activities of which to remain aware.
11 Times Big Household Brands Violated Consumer Protection Laws
Every year the FTC can process well over a hundred Consumer Protection Act violation lawsuits.
(You can keep an eye on all of them on the FTC’s website.)
If you were to look though, you probably wouldn’t know most of the companies, so it would be harder to relate to for your daily life.
So, to make things easier:
I grabbed 11 consumer protection cases where big brands you know (and trust), violated the consumer protection act.
Let’s take a look…
AT & T’s Misleading Marketing
Ever wonder how “unlimited” phone plans mean that after watching a certain number of videos on YouTube that your internet would still slow down?
So did the FTC in 2014…
That is when:
They brought a formal complaint against AT & T for misleading customers by marketing “Unlimited” plans that…tended to have too many limitations.
(For the FTC, This falls under what is called the Marketing Practices Division)
The FTC’s complaint was that, while AT&T was promoting “Unlimited” plans…
Once consumers passed a certain level of data usage, their service would slow down – by up to 90%.
If that does not sound unlimited to you, it didn’t to the FTC either, who considered it deceitful advertising, and in direct violation of the Consumer’s Protection Act.
Although this case is still in the courts at the date of writing, AT&T is doing their best to try and dismiss this case. However, no luck so far.
Reference: AT & T’s Case
Lenovo Risking All With a 3rd Party Install
All computers come with “bloatware.”
Bloatware is a nickname used to describe pre-installed applications and programs on new computers. Probably named so because of their tendency to fill up (and slow down) what should be an empty machine. Maybe because of the discomfort they cause too.
Most bloatware is harmless…
…but, that was not the case with one such program, which Lenovo pre-installed on their computers.
VisualDiscovery, a popup ad delivery program, came as part of the package when buying a Lenovo computer.
Unbeknownst to Lenovo, this made them an accomplice in violating the Consumer Protection Act, but not because of the popup ad functionality. Although annoying, it is not technically in breach of consumer protection law (yet).
The issue was:
This 3rd party program could access whatever sensitive information it wanted on the user’s system. This included their online logins, banking details, and in some cases, their social security number.
All in all, a serious breach of the Consumer Protection Act.
(This is an example of a case which would be handled by the Privacy and Identity Protection Division of the FTC)
To remedy the situation, the courts ordered Lenovo to conduct comprehensive software security audits on any pre-installed software to ensure consumers safety.
Plus, they had to get consumers express permission before activating any such software on their new computer.
Reference: Lenovo’s Case
Dish Network Keeps Calling
Telemarketing calls can be annoying.
When you have already put your name on the national Do Not Call registry and STILL get telemarketing calls, it can be infuriating.
That is what many people felt when Dish Network – in connection with their telemarketing partners – made millions, yes, millions, of robocalls to customers on the “Do Not Call” list.
(what are “robocalls”? We talk more about that in this article)
However, regardless of whether someone is on the registry, it is still in breach of the Consumer Protection Act when you use automatic dialing systems to call people with pre-recorded messages without their express written consent.
This rule is the basis of the Telephone Consumers Protection Act (TCPA), an area of Consumer Protection law.
In the end, a class action suit has held against Dish Network, who were forced to pay 341 million dollars for their violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Reference: Dish Network’s Case
Here’s another example of promising something to consumers that you cannot deliver.
For years, the popular university advertised promises around the idea that their students would find jobs within six months of graduating and would make better money than their peers.
DeVry claimed that as much as 90% of students would have a job within six months of graduating, and would earn up to 15% more than their peers.
A formal investigation from the FTC proved otherwise.
Although it was found to be true that most students did have a job after graduating, many of the jobs were not in the alumni’s field of study.
They found business graduates working as servers in restaurants, and others working in car sales. DeVry also failed to acknowledge that a number of the students who had jobs six months after graduating already had those jobs before graduating.
DeVry’s promise was misleading.
It led consumers to believe that they had a high certainty of obtaining a job within their chosen field after studying with DeVry.
The court agreed that DeVry’s advertising was in direct violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
DeVry ended up paying a $100 Million settlement and had to refrain from such promises in any and all future public communications.
Reference: DeVry’s Case
Amazon’s Child’s play
Back in the 90s and early 00’s (known as the naughty’s), every parent’s biggest fear was getting a surprise momentous phone bill because of their kid’s shenanigans.
It is still a parent’s fear. The only difference is that now it is the App and Play Stores that makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand on their ends.
The good thing is that thanks to the FTC’s hard work, it is not as easy as it used to be for kids to buy 10,000 tokens on Candy Crush or Plants vs. Zombies.
Up until recently…
Companies like Amazon had little in place to protect parents from paying for in-app purchases made by their, less financially astute, children.
This ended up costing parents millions of dollars in app purchases they did not approve.
To remedy the situation:
The FTC stepped in, stating that Amazon must change its in-app purchase processes to protect account holders from paying for purchases they did not willingly make.
Amazon has since instated a refund policy for these occurrences and put new security measures in place to stop children from making large purchases on their parents’ accounts.
As a side note, Apple went through this exact same issue in 2014 for in-app purchases made without a parent’s consent.
Reference: Amazon’s Case
Volkswagen’s Cheated Tests
You probably heard about this example in the news.
In their monumental lawsuit, Volkswagen had to pay more than 14 Billion dollars to fix problems they had caused by deceiving consumers.
What did they do?
Volkswagen cheated emissions tests, reporting that their cars were up to the standards they should have been…
…and they deceived customers about how “eco-friendly” their vehicles were in marketing communications.
These actions put them in violation of both the Environmental Protection Act and the Consumer protection act.
As Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates succinctly described it:
“By duping the regulators, Volkswagen turned nearly half a million American drivers into unwitting accomplices in an unprecedented assault on our atmosphere,”
This is a perfect example of:
How consumer protection violations not only end in costly lawsuits and damages. They also have a ripple effect that changes the market’s view of a company for years to come.
Just like a personal relationship, a consumer’s trust is hard to win back once broken.
Reference: Volkswagen’s Case
Western Union Supports Scammers
If you have ever been scammed online…
…chanced are the transaction took place through a Western Union.
In fact, many overseas scammers rely heavily on the access to international transfers that Western Unions provides.
Nigerian 419 scams, otherwise known as “advance fee” scams. These (now famous) scams are when a scammer finds a way to manipulate an individual to send them money.
This type of scam usually uses a story that creates an emotional connection with the person to build trust which then leads to favors or asking for help…
Alternatively it involves promises of large sums of money, in exchange for a small fee.
(How many Nigerian Princes have emailed you in the last 12 months?)
There are other countries from where these types of scams originate, but as over 51% of these types of scams originate from Nigeria, these scams are referred to as Nigerian scams.
The criminal code for this kind of scam is 419, explaining the number.
Because so many of such scams successfully used Western Union’s services to complete their transactions, the FTC filed a suit against Western Union in 2014, issuing a 586 Million dollar fine to the company to reimburse those affected between January 2014 and 2017.
If you were affected by a scam operated through Western Union during that period, you can still (as of the time of this writing) apply for a claim in the case. See the reference below.
Reference: Western Union’s Case
Uber’s Two Strikes
Uber is often criticized for its disruptive business model and actions.
But, they crossed the Consumer Protection line with, not one, but two separate accounts of violating the consumer protection act.
The first time was back in 2017.
This is when Uber was caught making hyperbolic promises about how much new Uber drivers could make, explicitly quoting high earnings for both New York and California drivers.
When the FTC conducted their independent research, they found average yearly earnings up to $30,000 lower than claimed by Uber.
This deceitful advertising cost Uber 20 Million dollars in settlements.
The other instant was more recent when it became known that Uber employees were able to access and misuse personal data obtained from ride-sharing contractors.
Although still under investigation…
…it is apparent that an Uber employee’s access key was used to make over 100,000 Uber driver’s bank account details and social security details public.
The severity of this breach is still yet to be seen because such a thing can have lifelong repercussions for the drivers ( a social security number is with you for life)
The case continues…
7 – Eleven Eats Competition
Consumer protection does not always have to be about deceit or unethical behavior.
It also involves protecting consumers through promoting competition.
When companies have competition, it motivates them to offer the best possible deal to consumers, to “beat” their competitors.
That is why you see many brands trying their hardest to improve quality or lower prices.
In fact, there is a point in Apple’s history where Bill Gates bailed Steve Jobs out of potential bankruptcy precisely for this reason.
Without competition, a business has fewer incentives to lower prices or strive to make better quality products for its customers.
This is why:
When 7 – Eleven announced that it was buying 1,000+ of its competitor’s stores, the FTC took notice.
By doing so, they radically reduced competition within multiple geographical marketplaces, which would lower incentives for them to provide their customers the best prices.
(This falls under the protection subcategory known as anti-trust laws)
In this case, 7-Eleven’s parent company had to agree upon restructuring its deal to maintain a fair level competition in the marketplace.
Reference: 7-Eleven’s Case
Herbalife Pays For the Wrong Reasons
If you have ever been to a seminar hosted by a Multi-level marketing company, you know how many grandiose stories of a person joining and just a few months later being able to quit their job and buy a mansion, you will hear at those events.
The problem is, this is often misleading for new “recruits” who sign up thinking the company will solve all their life’s problems.
When Herbalife, a major international Multi-Level Marketing brand with over 4 Billion dollars in revenues, actively promised new registrants that they would have the opportunity to quit their jobs, make career level incomes and potentially become rich in the process…
A Consumer Protection investigation followed, which proved their claims to be false.
In reality, less than half of all Herbalife salespeople made less than $300 in a single reporting period.
The other problem that surfaced was their benefits structure. As it turned out, Herbalife incentivized the recruiting of new people more than the purchasing of useful goods.
This incentive structure is the basic principle of a pyramid scheme, which is illegal.
All these findings led to a $200 million dollar lawsuit and a court order to restructure their business model and payment structures.
Reference: Herbalife’s Case
Lending Club’s Hidden Fees
Nobody likes hidden fees. Especially the Consumer Protection Act.
The Lending Club is a popular peer-to-peer lending platform that connects those they call investors, interested in lending money at an interest rate, with borrowers.
This peer-to-peer lending platform promoted its services as free of “hidden fees” or surprises, but this was not true.
Investigations found that the Lending Club issued hidden charges that ended up costing their customers hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars more than they thought they would have to pay.
Many potential borrower clients received congratulatory emails insinuating they had passed all criteria to obtain a loan, before Lending Club’s final credit history checks, which could often result in a final rejection for the loan.
In early 2018, Lending Club was sued for deceitful marketing activities and unlawful hidden fees.
Want to know how to avoid hidden fees? Read this post.
What did you think?
In my opinion, these examples are a reminder that we, the consumers, can’t just rely on companies to do the right thing. It’s our duty to stay vigilant and keep our eyes out for unethical behavior in the marketplace. Every one of us can help to keep big corporations honest.
If you have experienced a violation of the Consumers Protection Act, leave a comment below.
Or, better yet; give us a call. 1+ (877) 722-5943