California-based lead generator Response Tree LLC and its president, Derek Thomas Doherty, will be banned from making or assisting anyone else in making robocalls or calls to phone numbers on the FTC’s Do Not Call (DNC) Registry under a proposed order settling Federal Trade Commission charges that they operated more than 50 websites designed to trick consumers into providing their personal information for supposed mortgage refinancing loans and other services.
The defendants allegedly sold the personal information of hundreds of thousands of consumers as leads to telemarketers who used them to make millions of illegal telemarketing calls, including robocalls, to consumers nationwide.
Telemarketing campaigns allegedly assisted and facilitated by the defendants’ illegal lead generation operations were used to sell a multitude of products and services, including solar panels, hearing aids, and extended auto warranties. These campaigns, which made robocalls and calls to numbers on the DNC Registry, were illegal, as the telemarketers did not have consumers’ consent to be called, according to a complaint filed by the Department of Justice on referral from the FTC.
“Response Tree fueled millions of illegal telemarketing calls by tricking consumers into turning over their personal information and selling that information to telemarketers,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue to target every corner of the illegal telemarketing ecosystem to protect consumers and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
The complaint alleges that the defendants’ websites—including PatriotRefi.com, AbodeDefense.com, and TheRetailRewards.com—were actually “consent farms” that used deceptive and manipulative “dark patterns” to induce consumers to provide their personal information, obscuring hard-to-find and inadequate disclosures about how the information would be used. The defendants claimed that, in providing this information, the consumers consented to receive telemarketing calls. Third parties then bought the defendants’ leads and used the personal information to conduct illegal telemarketing campaigns, according to the complaint.
Through their PatriotRefi.com website, for example, the defendants allegedly duped consumers into providing their personal information under the guise of requesting a quote for a home mortgage refinance loan. After consumers input their personal information and clicked a button labeled “GET YOUR FAST FREE QUOTE,” the defendants captured the information and stored it in a database to sell to telemarketers and others.
Many or all consumers who provided their personal information to PatriotRefi.com never received home refinance quotes, according to the complaint. Instead, PatriotRefi.com was designed to compile lead lists by harvesting and selling consumers’ personal information without consumers’ informed consent. The complaint further alleges the defendants sold the leads they obtained, knowing that they did not obtain the requisite consent to receive telemarketing calls, including robocalls.
According to the complaint, at their peak, the defendants’ consent farm operations offered an average of 10,000 “real-time” leads for sale every day, and on some days had up to 50,000 illegally farmed leads for sale. In all, between 2019 and 2022, Response Tree and Doherty sold millions of deceptively collected leads.
The proposed order settling the complaint, which must be approved by the court before it can go into effect, bans the defendants from initiating or helping anyone else initiate telemarketing robocalls. It also bans them from calling, or assisting anyone else in calling, phone numbers on the DNC Registry and from selling, transferring, or disclosing consumer information in connection with lead generation activities.
The order also imposes a $7 million judgment against the defendants, which will be suspended based on their inability to pay. If they are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition, however, the full amount will immediately become due.
The Commission vote approving the complaint and stipulated final order and referring it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for filing was 3-0. The DOJ filed the complaint and proposed final order in the U.S. District Court for the District of Central District of California.
The staff attorneys on this matter are Karina A. Layugan, Matthew H. Fine, and Jeffrey Tang of the FTC’s Western Region Los Angeles office.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the named defendants are violating or are about to violate the law and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. Stipulated final orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.
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