Posts tagged with "Federal Trade Commission"

The FTC is readying a crackdown on online therapy provider BetterHelp

March 28, 2023

The Federal Trade Commission is making moves to bar the controversial online therapy company, BetterHelp, from sharing private mental health information with advertisers, reports Futurism.

In a new filing, the FTC has announced that it is moving to ban BetterHelp, a subsidiary of the telehealth company Teladoc, from sharing consumers’ mental health information with Big Tech companies like Facebook and Snapchat “after promising to keep such data private.”

“The proposed order also requires the company to pay $7.8 million to consumers to settle charges that it revealed consumers’ sensitive data with third parties,” the filing reads.

In a tweet thread explaining the move, FTC Chair Lina Khan said that the settlement “will be returned to the victims of BetterHelp’s deceptive practices”—a bold statement regarding the use of information by the company that made a cool billion dollars last year for its online therapy app.

“When a person struggling with mental health issues reaches out for help, they do so in a moment of vulnerability and with an expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” Samuel Levine, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in the agency’s statement about the order. “Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit.”

In recent years, BetterHelp and competitors like Talkspace have come under scrutiny from the psychiatric community due to their opaque professionalism standards, which make it hard to tell whether the mental health professionals that people are connected to through the service are actually qualified.

Last year, a jarring example of this concern came to light when a gay BetterHelp patient said that he was linked with a homophobic Christian therapist who told him his sexuality was wrong—a debacle that, unsurprisingly, left the man traumatized.

With this new FTC bombshell, companies like BetterHelp now have even more to answer for and, as Levine said in the statement, the order will, if approved, “be a stout reminder that the FTC will prioritize defending Americans’ sensitive data from illegal exploitation.”

Research contact: @futurism

TurboTax to pay $141M for allegedly deceiving users into paying for tax prep that actually was free

May 6, 2022

Tax software giant TurboTax has reached a multi-state settlement to pay back $141 million to low-income customers who were allegedly deceived into paying for tax services they should have gotten for free, according to the New York State Attorney General’s office.

TurboTax, which is owned by Intuit,  was accused of aggressively advertising free tax preparation services for years—but then steering customers who were eligible for it into paying for premium services, reports MarketWatch.

From 2016 through 2018, the company was accused of charging 4.4 million customers in all 50 states such fees, the authorities said. The agreement remains subject to court approval.

“Intuit cheated millions of low-income Americans out of free tax filing services they were entitled to,” said New York Attorney General Leticia James. “For years, Intuit misled the most vulnerable among us to make a profit.”

A message sent to representatives for Intuit wasn’t immediately returned.

In March, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against the company alleging deceptive advertising. In response to the suit, Intuit insisted that it was up front with its customers about the fees for its services.

James’ office said Intuit offered two free versions of TurboTax. One was through an agreement with the IRS that allowed taxpayers earning less than $34,000 or who were in the military to  file their taxes for free. As part of the agreement, the IRS agreed not to create its own competing service.

The other was a commercial product called “TurboTax Free Edition,” which authorities said was only free to those with what Intuit determined had “simple returns.”

As part of its advertising campaigns, TurboTax would claim sometimes dozens of times in a 30-second commercial that these services were free, authorities said.

But TurboTax was accused of using deceptive practices to push many of its clients who were eligible for the IRS program into using TurboTax’s program. The company’s product was only free for approximately one-third of U.S. taxpayers, whereas the IRS Free File product was free for 70% of taxpayers.

Among the steps THAT Intuit allegedly took were to block search engines from surfacing their page for the IRS program and failing to list the service on its rate card page.

Those who ended up using the TurboTax program often ultimately had to pay a fee of $30 or more, authorities said.

Customers who were deceived between 2016 and 2018 will receive reimbursements of $30 for each year they filed using the pay service under the settlement.

Intuit also agreed to cease its allegedly deceptive advertising, to better disclose the eligibility criteria of its free services; and to stop forcing customers to restart their tax filing, if they switch from a pay to a free service midway, the government said.

Intuit withdrew from its filing partnership with the IRS in 2021.

Research contact: @MarketWatch

Biden to target consolidation and aggressive pricing in rail and maritime industries with executive order

July 9, 2021

The Biden Administration will push regulators to confront consolidation and perceived anticompetitive pricing in the ocean shipping and railroad industries as part of a broad effort to blunt the power of big business to dominate industries, according to a person familiar with the situation, The Wall Street Journal reports.

As part of a sweeping executive order expected this week, the Administration will ask the Federal Maritime Commission and the Surface Transportation Board to combat what it calls a pattern of consolidation and aggressive pricing that has made it onerously expensive for American companies to transport goods to market.

The Administration says the relatively small number of major players in the ocean shipping trade and in the U.S. freight rail business has enabled companies to charge unreasonable fees.

In the case of the seven Class 1 freight railroads, consolidation has given rail carriers monopoly power over sections of the country where theirs are the only freight tracks, the person said.

According to the Journal, the executive order will encourage the STB to take up a longstanding proposed rule on so-called reciprocal or competitive switching—the practice whereby shippers served by a single railroad can request bids from a nearby competing railroad if service is available.

The competitor railroad would pay access fees to the monopoly railroad, but could win the shipper’s business by offering a lower price, using the rival railroad’s tracks and property.

The STB proposed a competitive switching rule in 2016, but hasn’t yet acted on it.

“The consolidation brought about much-needed rationalization in the system 25 years ago, but the net result is a lot of shippers who are subject to a market-dominant railroad,” said a government official briefed on the White House’s proposal for the STB.

But a move to mandate switching would guarantee a battle with the freights and the railroad trade association, the Association of American Railroads, which has long opposed the policy.

“Competition remains fierce across freight providers, and any proposal mandating forced switching would put railroads—an environmentally friendly option that invests $25 billion annually in infrastructure—at an untold disadvantage,” Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the railroad association, said Thursday. “Such a rule would roll back the foundational market-driven principle that keeps the industry viable, reduce network fluidity, and ultimately undermine railroads’ ability to serve customers at a time when freight demands have dramatically increased.”

The call to crack down on ocean carriers and freights is one facet in a multipronged executive order that will be one of President Biden’s most sweeping unilateral moves on economic policy to date, the Journal says.

The Democratic president is trying to blunt big business while introducing more competition in areas across the economy. The result, the administration contends, will be more leverage for smaller companies and individual workers, and less ability for a few huge companies to dictate terms for the economy at large.

Among other things, the executive order will call on the Federal Trade Commission to adopt rules that curtail noncompete agreements. The White House said roughly half of U.S. private-sector businesses use noncompete agreements, affecting an estimated 30 million people.

“He believes that if someone offers you a better job, you should be able to take it,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

The executive order will also call on the FTC to ban unnecessary occupational licensing requirements.

“While occupational licensing can serve important health and safety concerns, unnecessary or overly burdensome licensing can lock people out of jobs,” Psaki said, adding that the White House estimates about 30% of jobs in the U.S. require a license.

What’s more, in its actions targeting the transportation sector, the administration is highlighting what it calls the dangers of consolidation. Three alliances control 80% of the shipping market, the person familiar with the executive order said.

The White House says that dominance has come at a cost for American exporters, allowing the companies to extract higher rates. For U.S. importers, the consolidation has given carriers leverage to raise fees like those for demurrage, essentially late fees on shipments that aren’t picked up from freight terminals on time.

The order will ask the maritime commission to crack down on such fees, and to take all other steps to protect American exporters from high fees. The order also asks the commission to work with the Justice Department to enforce its actions. The commission and the Justice Department are expected to sign a new memorandum of understanding to improve their cooperation on such investigations soon, the person said.

Maritime Commission Chairman Dan Maffei said recently that the commission’s ability to address issues such as container shortages and surging rates may be limited if the cause is the surge in demand as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic. The commission is limited in its options unless it finds evidence of intentional manipulation of prices, he has said.

Research contact: @WSJ

Don’t fall for that risk-free trial offer: The average victim loses $186

December 19, 2018

There’s one of us born every minute. We hate to admit that we are suckers, but most of us have—at least once in our lives—been bamboozled into sending for a sample of a miracle product (acne cure, wrinkle eraser, hair remover) in the belief that we are paying only for shipping costs.

In many cases, says a December 18 story from NBC News, these ads (which are all over the Internet, as well as our TV screens) offer a “risk-free” trial that works something like this: Try a free bottle of our revolutionary supplement. All you pay is $4.95 for shipping and handling on your credit card. If you are not completely satisfied, just cancel and there’s nothing more to pay.

“Many of these risk-free trial offers are not free,” the Better Business Bureau warns in a just-released report. In many cases, there are strings attached, so you could wind up being charged for products you don’t want and didn’t order—or joining a “club” that bills you every month.

Indeed, the Better Business Bureau’s in-depth investigative study found that, if you were to locate and read the fine print on the order page, or the terms and conditions buried by a link, you would discover that you may have only 14 days to receive, evaluate, and return the product to avoid being charged $100 or more.

In addition, the same hidden information may state that, by accepting the offer, you’ve also signed up for monthly shipments of the products that will be charged to your credit card and become subscription traps. Many people find it difficult to contact the seller to stop recurring charges, halt shipments, and get a refund.

What’s more, the study found that many of the celebrity endorsements are fake. Dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without their knowledge or permission—among them, Oprah Winfrey, Chrissy Teigen, and Ellen Degeneres. Sometimes the fine print even admits these endorsements are not real.

That’s why the Bureau urges consumers to use “extreme caution” before agreeing to a risk-free trial that requires you to provide the company with a credit or debit card number to pay for shipping/handling charges. (Warning: Consumer experts advise against using a debit card to pay for online or phone purchases with unknown companies. If there is a problem, credit cards provide much greater fraud protection.)

The BBB investigation into fake free trial offers highlights a serious and growing problem. Among the key findings:

  • The BBB received nearly 37,000 complaints about free trial offers during the last three years.
  • Not every complaint involved a monetary loss, but for those that did, the average loss was $186.
  • Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about these offers more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. Victims involved in 14 free trial offer cases resolved by the FTC during the last 10 years lost more than $1.3 billion.

“Fraudsters have created a global multi-billion-dollar industry that has ripped off millions of people based on false and deceptive advertising related to fake risk-free trial offers,” BBB International Investigations Specialist Steve Baker, who prepared the report, told NBC News.

The best advice: Before you sign up for a little sample of an unknown product that promises “miraculous results” from a company you’ve never heard of before, ask yourself: Do I really want to give them my credit or debit card number? Is it really worth the potential hassle, if this is a fake offer? You already know the answer.

Research contact:@TheConsumerman