The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is widely known for its focus on consumer welfare; its mission is to “prevent business practices that are anticompetitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers” and to “enhance informed consumer choice and public understanding of the competitive process.” In line with this mission, two goals of the FTC are to (1) protect consumers (preventing fraud, deception, and unfair business practices) and (2) maintain competition. To protect consumers from fraud and advance their interests, this federal agency applies law enforcement practices, shares its expertise with legislatures and other government agencies, develops policy and research tools and creates educational programs.
Amplifying this consumer focus, the FTC provides resources for businesses that wish to treat their customers fairly and ensure the safety of customer data. The FTC Business Center groups its resources into four major categories: advertising and marketing, credit and finance, privacy and security, and selected industries. These categories cover a wide range of business-related guidelines and information intended to make it easier for businesses to ensure they are compliant with regulations and rules.
Advertising and marketing resources include information for advertising basics and guidelines for advertising to children, endorsements, environmental marketing, health claims, “Made in USA” claims, online advertising and marketing and telemarketing. Credit and finance resources comprise the areas of credit and loans, debt, debt collection, mortgages and payments and billing. Children’s privacy, consumer privacy, credit reporting, data security, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the “red flags” rule and the US–EU safe harbor framework make up the resources in the privacy and security category. Finally, the Business Center disseminates information relevant to businesses in selected industries, including alcohol, appliances, automobiles, clothing/textiles, finance, franchises/business opportunities/investments, funerals, human resources, jewelry, nonprofits, real estate and mortgages and tobacco.
Also available from the FTC Business Center are legal resources—in particular, cases, reports, staff opinions and events—that are relevant to agency regulations and rulings. Businesses can stay up to date on new developments and goings on in the FTC and their industry through any of the seven blogs published by the FTC. Most relevant to businesses are the Business Blog and Tech@FTC.
The FTC shares Competition Policy Guidance—resources intended to help businesses comply with antitrust laws, including core competition documents (merger guidelines and antitrust guidelines), additional guidance, educational resources (guide to antitrust laws and competition counts), and guidance for the health care, oil and gas, and technology industries. The Competition Matters blog is the official FTC agency blog and provides news updates about the FTC’s competition work.
In addition to these guidelines, blogs, and educational and legal resources, the FTC offers free data security resources meant to help businesses of all sizes meet their legal obligations to protect consumers’ sensitive data. Business-related videos related to advertising and marketing, credit and finance, privacy and security, protecting your business and selected industries round out the FTC’s offerings.
2015 was a busy year of enforcement and new initiatives for the FTC. In the last quarter of the year alone, a steady stream of announcements have been made regarding everything from the privacy of connected automobiles to telemarketing scams to a new series of events focused on helping businesses protect their costumers’ information. Here are a few highlights of recent work done by the FTC:
Econsumer.gov. In October, together with consumer protection agencies in 33 other countries that are part of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), the FTC unveiled an updated version of ICPEN’s econsumer.gov to help law enforcement authorities gather and share cross border consumer complaints that can be used to investigate and take action against international scams. Econsumer.gov originally was launched in 2001. The new and improved website has a fresh look, is easier to use, and is reader-friendly on tablets and smart phones.
“Start With Security.” In June, a new initiative was announced that includes new guidance for businesses that draws on the lessons learned in the more than 50 data security cases brought by the FTC through the years. “Start With Security” kicked off a series of conferences as part of the initiative in September and the second was held in November and was aimed at start-ups and developers. The November event brought together experts to provide information on security by design, common security vulnerabilities, strategies for secure development, and vulnerability response.
Security in Connected Automobiles. In testimony before Congress 10/21, the Federal Trade Commission provided feedback on proposed legislation to address privacy and security concerns around the growth of so-called “connected cars.” In regards to the proposed legislation, the testimony noted that it “could substantially weaken the security and privacy protections that consumers have today.” A full report on this can be found at: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2015/10/ftc-testifies-proposed-legislation-addressing-privacy-security.
Fraud Affecting Older Americans. Also in October, the FTC highlighted to Congress its multi-faceted approach to protecting older Americans from fraud in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. In the last two years the agency has focused its law enforcement efforts on combatting technical support and health care related scams. Both of these scams injure older Americans, and fraudsters engaged in these schemes typically fabricate an affiliation with well-known businesses or government agencies to gain consumers’ trust.
Mortgage Relief Business, Telemarketing. Due to action taken by the FTC, four mortgage modification scammers have been banned from selling debt relief products and services under settlements resolving charges that they deceived homeowners facing foreclosure. Doing business as HOPE Services and HAMP Services, the scammers promised consumers help getting their mortgages modified, but instead stole their mortgage payments, leading some to foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Wyndham Settles. On December 9 it was announced that Wyndham Hotels and Resorts agreed to settle FTC charges that the company’s security practices unfairly exposed the payment card information of hundreds of thousands of consumers to hackers in three separate data breaches. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will establish a comprehensive information security program designed to protect cardholder data – including payment card numbers, names and expiration dates.
Holiday Shopping Advice for Online Retailers. Just before the start of the holiday shopping season, the Commission posted to their blog Cyber Monday success: Five tips for online retailers. The post “advises merchants to honor their delivery promises, prevent back-order blunders, avoid illegal negative option sales, make return policies clear, and maintain high security standards to prevent fraud and identity theft.” All of the tips are valuable throughout the year.
The FTC one-day conference in Seattle on Feb. 9, 2016, on how companies can build security into their products and services. The event will have a particular focus on guidance for startups and early stage businesses about how to make security considerations a part of a company’s culture from the start.
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