A multistate investigation of Instagram led by a bipartisan group of 8 attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont was announced. The attorneys general are investigating Meta Platforms, Inc., formerly known as Facebook, for providing and promoting Instagram to children and young adults despite allegedly knowing that such use is associated with mental health harms. The investigation targets, among other things, Meta’s allegedly manipulative techniques to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users and the resulting harms caused by such extended engagement. In May, a bipartisan coalition of 44 attorneys general urged Facebook to abandon its plans to launch a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13.
Individual Attorney General Actions
Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor announced an unlicensed contractor was ordered to pay $75,000 in civil penalties and $13,000 in restitution. Juan Carlos “Caesar” Reed allegedly committed consumer protection violations that included misrepresenting that he was an experienced and licensed contractor and demanding up-front payment for shoddy work, most of which he allegedly never completed.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced a $14.5 million settlement with e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, Inc. (JUUL) that will also require the company to make significant changes to its corporate practices to ensure JUUL products are not marketed or sold to youth in Arizona. Under the terms of the proposed consent judgment, $12.5 million will be used for programs to stop youth vaping.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced Colorado-based SEMA Construction will update its data security practices and pay more than $63,000 after it allegedly failed to protect the personal information of nearly 2,000 Colorado employees and residents. SEMA allegedly violated Colorado data security laws when it failed to maintain reasonable security practices and notify Colorado residents of a 2018 data breach in a timely manner.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody announced the recovery of more than $7 million in consumer refunds from BookIt Operating, LLC, a Florida-based online travel company. The company allegedly failed to disclose to consumers that it did not have funds for current bookings in the absence of new incoming bookings, and thousands of consumers in Florida and nationwide were left with no trip and initially no money back.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul settled with online payday lending lead generators MoneyMutual LLC, PartnerWeekly LLC, and Selling Source LLC. The settlement resolves allegations that the companies violated Illinois’ lending laws by generating payday loan leads without being licensed and arranging high-cost payday loans for out-of-state payday lenders, many of which were also unlicensed. The settlement requires the companies to immediately stop offering loans to Illinois borrowers without being licensed.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt obtained nearly $500,000 in fines from three national companies for dumping documents in public trash receptacles without shredding or removing personal information. The companies, Corporation Company, Inc. & C T Corporation System, ST2 d/b/a SearchTec, Inc., and Farven Inc., were also ordered to make changes in their business practices, including proper disposal of documents, and employee training.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey obtained $625,000 from a Florida-based insurance agency, Health Plan Intermediaries Holdings, LLC (HPIH) d/b/a Health Insurance Innovations. According to the complaint, the agency sold health insurance plans from Unified Life Insurance Company that were not authorized for sale and engaged in other deceptive practices, such as claiming that the insurance covered services that it in fact excluded and describing limited health insurance as comprehensive.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison prevailed at trial against a Minneapolis landlord, Steven Meldahl, for knowing and bad faith violations of tenants’ rights. Following an eight-day trial, the court imposed an injunction, $133,500 in civil penalties, and ordered payment of the state’s attorneys’ fees and costs. Meldahl was found to have falsely represented to 267 renting families that he could prevent them from having their homes inspected by the City of Minneapolis and that he could charge them late fees greater than 8 percent which are prohibited under Minnesota law.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a $5.1 million judgment secured against a stem cell clinic on charges that it scammed patients out of thousands of dollars through falsely advertising the benefits of stem cell therapy. Park Avenue Stem Cell and its managing doctor, Dr. Joel B. Singer, M.D., allegedly made false claims about the efficacy of treatment for a wide variety of chronic diseases, charging consumers nearly $4,000 per procedure and some more than $20,000.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced several actions against the e-cigarette industry related to ongoing concerns about kid-friendly flavors, youth marketing, and poor age verification. Stein sued Juul founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen, announced a statewide investigation into Puff Bar and other e-cigarette manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, and wrote FDA Commissioner Nominee Robert Califf urging the agency to protect kids from flavored e-cigarettes.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem obtained a judgment against an elevator service company. The state sued Dave Hansen, doing business as Hansen Elevator Service, for allegedly failing to provide work or materials after receiving up-front payments and contracting to perform elevator maintenance services for four North Dakota businesses. The court also concluded that Hansen misrepresented that his business was registered in North Dakota and that he held insurance.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced a settlement with Marriott International, Inc. (“Marriott”) regarding “resort fees.” The investigation focused on the practice commonly referred to as “drip pricing.” With the drip pricing method, hotels and resorts advertise a low price, only disclosing all applicable fees to consumers as they go through the booking process or when they check in at the hotel. Under the settlement, Marriott is required to be upfront and transparent in the disclosure of mandatory fees, including resort fees, as part of the total price of a hotel stay. Attorney General Shapiro also obtained a judgment against car title lenders Dominion Management of Delaware, Inc., and Dominion Management Services, Inc., which did business as CashPoint, and their owner and Vice President Kevin Williams, to pay more than $8.5 million for charging illegally high interest rates on car title loans.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced settlements with eight different online sellers of electronic cigarettes for alleged violations of Vermont’s Delivery Sales Ban and Vermont’s Consumer Protection Act. In total, the companies will pay $145,750 in civil penalties to the State of Vermont. As of July 1, 2019, it has been illegal to sell electronic cigarettes and related “vaping” products over the internet to individual Vermont consumers.
Other Items of Interest
In time for Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) and the holiday season, New York Attorney General Letitia James released her annual “Pennies for Charity: Fundraising by Professional Fundraisers” report, which found that charities that retained professional fundraisers received about two-thirds of every dollar donated in 2020. Professional fundraisers retained the remainder — earning more than $380 million. Analyzing 718 campaigns conducted by professional fundraisers in 2020, the report concludes that charities earned 73 percent of donations from those campaigns, a small increase from the previous year and in line with the last four years’ results. Attorney General James also announced the guilty pleas of nonprofit Millennium Care, Inc. and its executive director Ethel Denise Perry for tax evasion and theft of millions of dollars. Perry evaded taxes for years and stole more than $2 million from Millennium Care that was meant for the operation of a homeless shelter located in the Bronx.
Veterans and Military
Attorneys general across the U.S. provided consumer protection tips to veterans and military servicemembers and expressed their appreciation for military servicemembers’ national service as part of their offices’ Veterans Day celebrations. Among those offering tips and thanks were California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced a free clinic for veterans and service members with legal needs. The clinic was sponsored by the attorney general’s V.A.L.O.R. Program. V.A.L.O.R. stands for Veteran and Armed Forces Legal OutReach. At the clinic, veterans, members of the Reserves, and active-duty military are able to obtain legal documents such as basic wills, living wills, and powers of attorney.
Other articles in this edition include:
- Consumer Chief of the Month
- The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and the Limited Waiver Opportunity
- Federal Consumer Protection News: November 2021