The Federal Trade Commission is proposing a rule to protect consumers from bogus business opportunities and further enhance law enforcement efforts in this area. The rule would cover business opportunities commonly touted by fraudsters, while minimizing compliance costs for legitimate businesses. Currently, the FTC brings law enforcement actions against fraudulent business opportunities under two laws, the Franchise Rule and the FTC Act. Neither is specifically designed for the unique scams that occur frequently with business opportunities.
The FTC has brought more than 200 enforcement actions against business opportunities using the Franchise Rule since it took effect in the 1970s, and numerous cases against work-at-home and multilevel marketing companies under Section 5 of the FTC Act. Since 1995, the Commission has conducted 12 sweeps on business opportunities.
The proposed rule would eliminate the $500 minimum investment requirement from the Franchise Rule, meaning it would apply to all business opportunities, even if they have a smaller start-up cost. The proposed rule also would eliminate many of the 20 disclosures that are required for franchises (trademarks, for example), but do not apply to business opportunities. Instead, the proposed rule would require a one-page disclosure addressing five items: whether or not sellers make earnings claims; a list of any criminal or civil legal actions against the seller or its representatives that involve fraud, misrepresentations, securities, or deceptive or unfair trade practices; whether the seller has cancellation or refund policies and such policies’ terms; the total number of purchasers in the past two years and the number of those purchasers seeking a refund or to cancel in that time period; and a list of references.
The proposed rule would not require any business opportunity seller to make an earnings claim. However, if they did make an earnings claim, they would be required to provide additional substantiation in the form of an “Earnings Claims Statement.”
The proposed rule also would prohibit unfair or deceptive practices that are common among fraudulent business opportunity sellers, including:
- misrepresentations about the material terms of the business relationship;
- the use of shills;
- misrepresentations of endorsements or testimonials;
- failure to honor territorial protection guarantees; and
- failure to honor refunds.
The proposed rule takes into consideration the comments from the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the Commission in 1997. The Commission is seeking comment on the proposed rule for 60 days after the Notice of Public Rulemaking is published in the Federal Register, followed by a 20-day period for rebuttals. The comment period will close on June 16, 2006, and the period for rebuttal comments on July 7, 2006. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, Room H-135, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC is requesting that any comment filed in paper form be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible, because U.S. postal mail in the Washington area and at the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security precautions.
The Commission vote to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking was 5-0.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
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