Seals on Websites
In keeping with our new focus on security, ransomware, and consumer protection news, the following release by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is relevant to any website owner who uses one or more seals on their sites. There are all kinds of seals available, some free others for pay, that are meant to instill trust in possible leads/customers.
Also, another common online marketing tactic is to create lifestyle blogs that seem to be impartial, but are meant to support sales of certain products. These blogs may contain supposed reviews, opinions, and unbiased advice and information. All of these tactics are included in a complaint now before the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York.
We advise our clients that trust is essential for long-term customer relationships. These types of tactics may taint the impression that current and prospective buyers have of you, your products and services.
Operators of Phony Doctor Certification Program and Misleading Health and Lifestyle Websites Settle FTC Charges
SmartClick Media LLC, also doing business as Doctor Trusted, and its owner Robert Vozdecky, also known as Bill Anderson, have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that their “Doctor Trusted” certification program misled consumers with bogus claims that the products sold on websites with its seal were evaluated by doctors using their medical expertise.
The defendants also have agreed to settle charges that several of their websites, such as betterlivingjournal.org, were deceptively formatted to appear to be independent lifestyle blogs or health-product review sites.
“Consumers should be able to rely on seals and certificates for accurate information on how products are tested and evaluated,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Unfortunately, in this case, they were completely misled by the sellers of the ‘Doctor Trusted’ program.”
According to the FTC’s complaint, between June 2013 and October 2015 the defendants marketed and sold the “Doctor Trusted” seal and certification program to websites that primarily offered health-related products and services, such as dietary supplements.
When consumers clicked on the seal, they were shown a pop-up box that displayed the “Doctor Trusted” certificate, which stated that the products on the site were “carefully evaluated by an independent medical doctor who reviewed its medical information, claims, products, terms of service, and policies,” and who deemed them “trustworthy and safe for purchase.”
The FTC charged that, in reality, the seals and certificates were meaningless. The defendants hired two freelance doctors who superficially reviewed the products on the websites. However, the doctors did not actually evaluate the products, or determine whether the advertising claims for the products were supported, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges the defendants marketed their “Doctor Trusted” program to online sellers nationwide with claims that it was “one of the most effective ways to increase sales with the least amount of effort,” and that the seal program would “give visitors a new level of confidence to purchase your product.” The defendants sold “Doctor Trusted” seals and certificates to 800 websites, including those operated by several defendants in other FTC actions including GetAwayGrey and HealthyLife Sciences.
In addition, the FTC alleges that the defendants operated lifestyle blog and review websites that supposedly offered unbiased advice and information about various medical products, programs, health issues, and scientific breakthroughs. In reality, these sites were advertising vehicles, and the defendants received a commission whenever a consumer clicked on them or bought an advertised product.
The proposed stipulated final order prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting the extent to which medical or other expertise is used to evaluate a product; that defendants are a consumer protection or non-profit organization; and the frequency with which defendants evaluate, certify or review a product or service; and that any website or other publication is an independent resource for products or services.
The defendants also must disclose when the content of any website or other publication is not written by an objective source but is instead an ad or paid placement, as well as any material connection between themselves and any product or service being discussed, reviewed, or evaluated on a website or other publication. Finally, the order imposes a judgment of $603,588, which will be partially suspended upon the defendants’ payment of $35,000.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and proposed stipulated final order was 3-0. The complaint and proposed order are pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
NOTE: Stipulated final orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.