Company Took Information from Facebook to Label Millions a “Jerk” or “Not a Jerk”
The Federal Trade Commission charged the operators of the website “Jerk.com” with harvesting personal information from Facebook to create profiles labeling people a “Jerk” or “not a Jerk,” then falsely claiming that consumers could revise their online profiles by paying $30. According to the FTC’s complaint, between 2009 and 2013 the defendants, Jerk, LLC and the operator of the website, John Fanning, created Jerk.com profiles for more than 73 million people, including children.
In its complaint, the FTC charges that the defendants violated the FTC Act by misleading consumers that the content on Jerk.com had been created by other Jerk.com users, when in fact most of it had been harvested from Facebook; and by falsely leading consumers to believe that by paying for a Jerk.com membership, they could access “premium” features that could allow them to change their “Jerk” profile.
The FTC is seeking an order barring the defendants’ deceptive practices, prohibiting them from using the personal information they improperly obtained, and requiring them to delete the information.
“In today’s interconnected world, people are especially concerned about their reputation online, and this deceptive scheme was a brazen attempt to exploit those concerns,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Jerk.com profiles often appeared in search engine results when consumers searched for an individual’s name. Upon viewing their photos on Jerk.com, many believed that someone they knew had created their Jerk.com profile. Jerk reinforced this view by representing that users created all the content on Jerk.
But in reality, the defendants created the vast majority of the profiles by misusing personal information they improperly obtained through Facebook, the FTC alleged. They registered numerous websites with Facebook and then allegedly used Facebook’s application programming interfaces to download the names and photos of millions of Facebook users, which they in turn used to create nearly all the Jerk.com profiles.
In addition to buttons that allowed users to vote on whether a person was a “Jerk” or not, Jerk profiles included fields in which users could enter personal information about the subject or post comments about them. In some cases, the complaint alleges, the profile comment fields subjected people to derisive and abusive comments, such as, “Omg I hate this kid he\’s such a loser,” and, “Nobody in their right mind would love you … not even your parents love [you].”
The profiles also included millions of photos, including photos of children and photos that consumers claim they had designated on Facebook as private, the FTC complaint alleges. Some of them featured intimate family moments, including children bathing and a mother nursing her child.
The defendants also told consumers they could “use Jerk to manage your reputation and resolve disputes with people who you are in conflict with,” according to the FTC’s complaint. They allegedly charged consumers $25 to email Jerk.com’s customer service department, and also falsely told consumers that if they paid $30 for a website subscription, they could access “premium features,” including the ability to dispute information posted on Jerk.com, and receive fast notifications and special updates. But according to the FTC, in many cases, consumers who paid the customer service or subscription fee often got nothing in return.
The Commission vote to issue the administrative complaint was 4-0. The evidentiary hearing is scheduled to begin before an administrative law judge at the FTC on January 27, 2015.
NOTE: The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The issuance of the administrative complaint marks the beginning of a proceeding in which the allegations will be tried in a formal hearing before an administrative law judge.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.
Office of Public Affairs
Sarah Schroeder and Yan Fang
FTC Western Region, San Francisco