The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) posted several media releases in December 2019, which shed considerable light on phony websites and deceptive online advertising. Reading these can give you a flavor of how online chiselers work, and serve as a vivid warning on what to avoid when online shopping. I’ll summarize some of the schemes the FTC investigated and on which they took enforcement action.
• The FTC penalized a company organized by Steve and Kevin Shayan, which ran several rental housing or apartment leasing websites $6 million. One of the websites shut down was WeTakeSection8.com, which promoted itself as “the nation’s largest listing site for Section 8”. Section 8 is the federal housing program for low-income, disabled, and senior citizens. The WeTakeSection8 website targeted their ads to the poor, disabled, and senior citizens. They offered a subscription service, which promised paying customers real-time listings or leads on open housing. In fact, most of their listings were well out of date, or never accepted Section 8. Their subscribers paid for worthless information.
• In 2014, the FTC and the state of Connecticut settled a lawsuit with Leanspa LLC, who operated fake websites to promote and sell “colon cleanse” and acai berry weight-loss therapies. Leanspa advertised free trials if the consumer paid a shipping and handling charge, but instead made recurring $80 monthly charges against the bank accounts of those who signed up for the “free” trial. In 2015, refunds went out to 21,000 Leanspa customers. In 2018, the FTC identified almost 2000 more customers and sent out more refunds, averaging $165 apiece.
• In another “free trial” case, the FTC commenced mailing out refunds to 2200 customers who signed up for free snack box samples from Urth Box, Inc. The customers thought they only needed to pay shipping and handling, but Urth Box charged their bank accounts full price for six months’ worth of snack boxes, plus shipping and handling, if the consumer did not opt out within the first month. But, turns out this option to cancel “was not adequately disclosed,” according to the complaint. Meaning it was buried in fine print and written in doublespeak. FTC sued and won this judgment in April 2019. Further, the company paid reviewers to post favorable reviews with the Better Business Bureau and other rating websites.
• A Utah-based company named Elite IT Partners used internet ads to target consumers for its tech support scam. Their ads solicited folks who needed help recovering passwords. If you answered one of these ads, Elite claimed an affiliation with Microsoft (not true), ran bogus “diagnostic checks” on your computer, which tests found serious software problems with all the computers, needing expensive fixes. None of this was true. The FTC sued in April 2019 and won a $13.5 million judgment this month against Elite.
What do these enforcement actions tell us? Maybe we need to be more than a little wary of “free trial” offers. And just because a company put up a website, that doesn’t make it legitimate. We also need to understand, people are often paid to write fake, favorable reviews. Lastly, don’t trust anyone you contact through the internet to give access to your computer. It’s a big risk.
Robocall enforcement update
In my last column, I urged readers to contact our US Senators about the TRACED Act, legislation taking aim at robocallers. If you did contact the senators, you did a good job, because the legislation passed the Senate on December 20, and now awaits the signature of the president before becoming law. From my reading, the most effective part of the bill is, it requires telecom providers of all types to adopt call authentication technology, and offer it for free to subscribers. This should make it very difficult for crooks to fake or spoof phone numbers.
Contact ‘Seniors vs. Crime’
Let me know about scams, fraud, or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, (563) 242-9211 extension 4433, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.