The Federal Trade Commission has recent begun cracking down on on-line businesses for consumer fraud and unfair business practice. The FTC is suing businesses for using pre-populated ordering forms in which a consumer will order one thing and might not be aware that he or she is also ordering something else in a pre-checked box on the bottom of the order form - and out of sight on the web page.
The FTC is also also suing to stop false advertising of websites. Often an advertisement, such as a banner ad on a web page, will seem to advertise one thing but, when the consumer clicks the ad, the consumer is directed to a web page selling something else.
I am frequently asked by clients to give an opinion or advice as to whether or not a particular procedure or advertisement is unlawful.
Due to increased enforcement in these areas of ecommerce, I have formulated three principles which will keep most ecommerce business owners out of trouble.
When advertising or doing business on-line, a business owner should consider the viewpoint of the consumer (since this is the standard that will be used by the FTC and other regulatory agencies) and consider the following:
1. Landing Page Expectations. If a consumer clicks on an advertisement, will the consumer land on a page which the consumer would reasonably expect to land on? If the consumer is misled, even a little bit, then the advertisement will be considered false advertising. False pricing information an advertisement is a classic example. If an ad shows picture of a bottle of shampoo and $7.99, but on the landing page for the ad, the consumer discovers that the bottle of that brand of shampoo is actually $13.99, then the advertiser is guilty of false advertising.
2. Purchase Expectations. Is the consumer only buying what the consumer would reasonably believe to be buying? For instance, a company might advertise the sale of a product with a free 60 day subscription to a magazine. But, buried in terms and conditions is a clause that states that after 60 days, the consumer's credit charge will be charged for the subscription unless the consumer cancels first. The FTC, and the courts, have determined that this is an unfair business practice. Everything that the consumer is buying or might buy must be obvious on the online order form. Nothing buried, no pre-populated forms, no email notifications after the fact.
3. Knowledge of Wrongdoing. If you know that someone is doing something illegal or legally shady on-line, do not do business with them in any way. No even passively. For instance, if a website is running an illegal lottery, or some other illegal activity, do not provide links to the site. You can be held to be an aider and abettor of the illegal activity. Also, do not provide links on your website to an unknown business, and periodically check the links that you do provide on your website.