Category: Consumer Protection Law


Consumer Time Travel

romecampodefiori.jpg(This is another in my series of dispatches from Rome. If you are getting tired of the concept, don’t worry: I’m coming home in a week.)

Two aspects of life here offer a nice comparative story about the way life in the United States used to be, and might become.

The first is the specialization of food shopping in Rome. Small shops for seemingly every type of food – cheese, meat, fruit, wine, cereals – line the streets in Rome’s old city center. In each shop, one (or two) employees dispenses food from behind a counter – it is not a self-service experience. It seems like these tiny shops, rather than the occasional small supermarket – are the primary way that citizens get their food. In a way, shopping here is like stepping back in time in the states to around 1940 or so. And there is something charming about the experience: the interactions (me in pantomime) are personal; the food is fresh and delicious; and you are less likely to slip and fall on a banana peel left on the ground. But the food is expensive, especially fruit, and if I were a busy citizen instead of a less-busy tourist, I’d find going to five different stores to complete my shopping to be a daily irritant.

Why does this specialization persist? I know less than I should about the risk of supermarkets in the United States, but I’ve a few preliminary thoughts. The first explanation denies that Italians shop at small stores outside of the cramped confines of City Centers. That is, just in the States, it is difficult for supermarkets to obtain purchase and economies of size in expensive urban cores. So, maybe, most Italian citizens do go to supermarkets, just not in places that tourists spend their time.

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Black Boxes Bite Back

blackbox.jpgAs interest rates jump, piggybacking has become all the rage in “credit repair” circles. For a fee, groups like Instant Credit Builders will let you “borrow” (part of) another person’s credit score by becoming an “authorized borrower” on his cards. Here is ICB’s overheated defense of the practice:

ICB has developed a system to counter the harmful societal impacts of an emerging market called “subprime lending”. Mob-like blood suckers under the umbrella of legitimate lending institutions are targeting those who have poor credit scores but fall short of being beyond credit risk acceptance.

To explain why subprime lenders are in such an opportunistic industry, take this example: The commission payable to a financial adviser or mortgage broker from an actual prime lender on a $100,000 deal yields a broker about $250. Yet the same $100,000 deal using a subprime lender yields them $2,000 to $2,500. This niche market banking industry is getting paid well to enslave most minorities, low-income borrowers, even victims of identity theft with interest rates that can be up to 3.5% higher than average.

Needless to say, mortgage lenders are hoppin’ mad. The godfather of credit scores, FICO, has claimed that “piggy-backing will soon come to an end on its watch.” One irony here is that, as lenders crack down, “they may actually increase demand for some of the services that these Web sites offer.”

A lot of the commentary on these sites has been harsh, but let me offer something like an “unclean hands” defense. Credit scores have long come under attack for having a “a disparate impact on poor and minority populations.” Moreover, the scoring is opaque; scorers claim that transparency would undermine their “trade secrets.” So consumers are navigating a world where they can have only a vague idea of the rules. Lenders shouldn’t be surprised when entrepreneurs reverse-engineer the ratings system and the technology bites back.

Moreover, these rules themselves may be self-fulfilling prophecies: if you decree that one missed $10 payment for a family of 4 earning $30,000 per year lowers their credit score by 200 points, they probably are going to end up being more likely to default because they are going to be paying much more in interest for any financing they get. Again, because the scores are black boxes, we have no assurance that the companies that offer them try to eliminate such endogenicity or whether they actually try to profit from such self-fulfilling prophecies.

As long as credit ratings are so shrouded in secrecy, the lenders who rely on them should expect gaming of the system. Watch for a debate over “black hat” vs. “white hat” credit repair builders as controversial (and interminable) as that now occurring in the world of search engine optimization.


Why Watters Matters: An Early Lesson from the First Circuit

Even in a quieter Term, the Supreme Court’s 5-3 decision in Watters v. Wachovia Bank, N.A. would hardly go down as one of the more significant, noteworthy, or even interesting rulings handed down, and that will certainly prove to be the case as the present Term races toward its (increasingly controversial) end. That’s not to say, though, that Watters won’t turn out to have a substantial impact on federal and state commercial regulation in a large class of cases, and we have a First Circuit decision from yesterday as proof of that. [Hat tip to How Appealing.]

First, Watters. I’ve blogged extensively about the issue and the decision before (see, e.g., here, here, and here), but the short of it is that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is entitled to preempt state consumer regulation of “national banking activities” even when those activities are conducted by entities other than “national” banks. In Watters itself, the issue was whether the OCC could preempt state regulation of national banks’ operating subsidiaries, and the Court affirmed decisions of the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits, all answering that question in the affirmative (although, as I noted at the time, the Court adopted the Ninth Circuit’s Chevron-free analysis, rather than the Chevron-laden views of the other three circuits).

The problem is that by focusing on the activity rather than the actor, the Court endorsed a broad understanding of the OCC’s preemptive authority, and one that could possibly extend to oust state regulation of all kinds of commercial actors, none of whom are actually “national banks,” and none of whom are therefore expressly protected by federal statute. Justice Stevens, in his eloquent dissent, raised the specter of such a possibility, and the First Circuit, yesterday, proved Justice Stevens prophetic. More about the decision below the fold…

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Politics, Private Space, and Total Persuasion


A lunch today with a colleague at another school, coupled with an article in the Wall Street Journal, has brought me to back to a topic I blogged about back in January: Total Persuasion. As I suggested, there are analogies to be drawn between the government’s defunct secret possibly ongoing program to gather reams of information about its citizens and corporations’ desire to grab consumer mind-share by every persuasive avenue possible. Indeed, we’re rapidly approaching a time when it will be exceedingly difficult for the law to draw lines between advertising and not-advertising; between fraud and persuasion; and between censorship and consumer protection.

These claims are easy to overdraw, so let me give you an example and a theory to help set the stage for the discussion. In today’s Journal, John McKinnon has a interesting article about Sara Taylor’s decision to leave her job as the White House’s political director to join the private sector. Taylor is an expert in microtargeting, a marketing technique developed by corporations to segment their consumer markets by mining data to learn more about the structure of consumer’s preferences. According to McKinnon, microtargeting was “honed” by political operations to “more effectively zero in on voters’ emotion triggers,” and uncover groups of voters that are susceptible to future efforts. Taylor sees a “big future” for taking such political lessons back to the corporate world by “helping corporations focus on potential customers’ . . . feelings about buying a product or service.”

There are some roadblocks in this prosperous path, as the article points out. Most salient, businesses are “more constrained in the claims they can make” than politicians, presumably by the law of fraud (in its various guises). But there is a solution to this problem: encourage consumers to make their own persuasive advertising by creating “social networks around products and brands . . .” In the future, we should anticipate that such social persuasion will become an increasingly prevalent aspect of corporate marketing efforts, just as politicians have worked to co-opt social networking sites for their own ends.

Why? Because consumers have fewer defenses to social persuasion, and aren’t cynical about it yet. Moreover, social persuasion is probably less subject to legal sanction in the general case (indeed, it may be immune under circumstances where the same language if spoken by the corporation would be actionable). It is also, obviously, cheaper to produce. The downside (loss of control over message) is probably something that corporations will learn to live with. (I thank my lunch companion for pointing this problem out to me!)

What’s wrong with a society in which most speech that you hear is designed to persuade you to consume? When framed that way, some might immediately respond: nothing! After all, no one is being compelled to any particular purchase. If the consumer market is efficient, and consumers had a taste not to consume, wouldn’t savvy marketers satisfy the taste with a unpersuasive campaign? (The idea is silly on its face, but isn’t it sort of what Saturn and Berkshire Hathaway were/are up to?) Even assuming that the consumer product market is somehow irrational, marketers would presumably compete to satisfy whatever inefficient desires are extant.

But I doubt that market rhetoric is going to provide satisfying answers to whether the law should work to hinder a total persuasion society. I haven’t fully thought this issue through, but my starting point is an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Imperial Bedroom, in his book How to Be Alone. Franzen attacks privacy advocates for focusing on privacy as just problem of being from free from others’ (corporations, the government, space aliens, the U.N., etc.) prying eyes and grasping hands.

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Milking The Secret

It looks like pressure from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (via the Federal Trade Commission) has gotten the Dairy Industry to stop touting milk as a diet food. They need to provide more substantiation of the link between “dairy consumption and weight loss.”

So what about The Secret? For those unfamiliar with this self-help phenomenon, here’s a nice summary from Emily Yoffe:

There are now 5.3 million copies of the book in print in the United States. . . .[i]t is a No. 1 best seller in Australia, England, and Ireland, and it is scheduled to be translated into 30 languages. . . There’s no secret to The Secret. The book and movie simply state that your thoughts control the universe. Through this “law of attraction” you “manifest” your desires. “It is exactly like placing an order from a catalogue. . . . You must know that what you want is yours the moment you ask.” “See yourself living in abundance and you will attract it. It works every time, with every person.”

Even Oprah is buying it . . . despite the fact the book contains such extraordinarily irresponsible claims as “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought.”

Could the FTC do anything to stop the marketing of The Secret? At first this case reminded me of the not-so-clairvoyant Miss Cleo, but it turns out her transgressions were mainly of rules regarding 1-900 numbers. A quick perusal of Rebecca Tushnet’s fantastic blog led me to this post about a big fine against makers of the Q-Ray bracelet for “infomercials . . . falsely representing that (1) the bracelet provides immediate, significant or complete pain relief and (2) scientific tests prove the pain-relief claims.”

Perhaps The Secret lacks the “immediacy” prong of that accusation. But it does rely pretty heavily on both scientific and religious rhetoric. Consider this little tidbit from Yoffe, describing its author:

She asserts that “the discoveries of quantum physics … are in total harmony with the teachings of The Secret.” To prove this, she explains, “I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them.”

And I want to devise a perpetual motion machine! I’ll just envision it working and it’ll come true, right?

A few more thoughts beneath the fold….

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Fiduciary Duty and Financial Aid


The financial aid scandal, sparked by NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation (and possibly a shut-out competitor) has already led to some settlements with lenders and universities. The basic thrust of Cuomo’s investigation is that if lenders pay administrators referral fees (whether direct or indirect) to steer students to take certain loans, that conduct is a deceptive trade practice, “in violation of New York Executive Law ‘ 63(12) and General Business Law 349 and 350 and other relevant state law.”

Universities are falling over themselves to settle with NY, as is the lending industry, in light of some bad facts: the companies have sought to influence financial aid administrators with stock, Broadway tickets, and other goodies. So this question is, literally, academic: is the alleged conduct by the university employees a violation of a fiduciary duty (loyalty) owed to students?

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The Free Credit Reports That Aren’t Free


You’ve probably seen the commericals, which run incessantly on CNN and other cable channels. A happy young man says: “I’m thinking of a number . . . ” That number is a credit score, which you can obtain at a website called You probably have heard that under a new federal law, credit reporting agencies are required to provide each person with a free credit report once a year. That website, however, has the much more obscure name I previously blogged about my experiences using One of the problems is that if you don’t know that the correct website is, then it is very easy to go to the website. After all, it is featured quite prominently in a Google search for “free credit report.”

But there’s one catch — it ain’t free. Far from it. From the fine print:

When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple AdvantageSM Credit Monitoring. If you don’t cancel your membership within the 30-day trial period, you will be billed $12.95 for each month that you continue your membership. and are not affiliated with the annual free credit report program. Under a new Federal law, you have the right to receive a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies. To request your free annual report under that law, you must go to is run by Experian, one of the credit reporting agencies. Experian also has another website offering free credit reports: Recently, the FTC settled a case against website. According to an FTC news release:

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The Rise of Customer Blacklists

hotel1a.jpgBlacklists appear to be the rage these days. With the ease of storing and sharing personal information — coupled with lax privacy law restrictions on such activities — companies can increasingly create blacklists of bad customers. In this article from the Ottawa Citizen, hotels in Australia and Canada (and soon the United States) are signing up for a service that compiles a blacklist against “bad” hotel guests:

Blacklisting everyone from the whisky-swilling scoundrels whose partying sabotaged your last vacation to the louts who channel Pink Floyd by dismantling their rooms, the new Australian database — which is expected to expand to Canada and the U.S. by year’s end — helps prevent unsavoury individuals from obtaining short-term accommodations.

“People are becoming less considerate of the space they’re staying in,” says Josh Ginty, project manager of the Guests Behaving Badly registry.

“What we hope to do is proactively advertise to those people … that their details will be recorded if they breach house rules. That in itself is often a strong enough deterrent.”

Accessible only to operators of hotels, motels and vacation homes, the membership-based registry tracks five levels of guest misconduct. These range from “lower-level blatant disregard” for regulations, such as smoking in non-smoking rooms or swimming in the pool after hours (several staff warnings must be ignored before the activity is reported on the registry) to higher-level infractions such as non-payment of the hotel bill, assault or vandalism.

“If you steal a couple of towels, we’re interested in tracking that,” says Mr. Ginty. “But it doesn’t compare to someone who has verbally or physically abused the night manager.”

More than 1,000 properties have signed up for the service since it launched in December 2006. Expansion to other continents is planned to begin in six months, depending on how easily the database can be adapted to each country’s privacy laws.

Customers have the ability to rate hotels with websites such as So why shouldn’t hotels be able to rate customers?

I don’t view the situations as symmetrical. Customers have long been spreading their opinions about hotels and other businesses — this is how the market produces good products and services. Word about bad hotels gets out and it leads to less business, thus creating an incentive for hotels to improve their service. But what happens when a similar process works against customers? True, some hotel guests are obnoxious and destructive, but do we really want to live in a country where people find themselves routinely blacklisted from various hotels and other businesses (stores, etc.)? In a Seinfeld episode, Elaine once found herself on a blacklist by doctors for being a bad patient. Perhaps this is the trend of the future. I sure hope not.


A Guide to Lobbyist Arguments on Consumer Protection

deck-cards.jpgChris Hoofnagle (Berkeley’s Samuelson Clinic) has posted on SSRN his paper, The Denialists’ Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts. From the abstract:

The Denalists’ Deck of Cards is a humorous illustration of how libertarian policy groups use denialism. In this context, denialism is the use of rhetorical techniques and predictable tactics to erect barriers to debate and consideration of any type of reform, regardless of the facts. has identified five general tactics used by denialists: conspiracy, selectivity, the fake expert, impossible expectations, and metaphor.

The Denialists’ Deck of Cards builds upon this description by providing specific examples of advocacy techniques. The point of listing denialists’ arguments in this fashion is to show the rhetorical progression of groups that are not seeking a dialogue but rather an outcome. As such, this taxonomy is extremely cynical, but it is a reflection of and reaction to how poor the public policy debates in Washington have become.

The Deck is drawn upon my experience as a lawyer working on consumer protection in Washington, DC. Where possible, I have provided specific examples of denialism, but in many cases, these arguments are used only in closed negotiations. Some who read them find the examples humorous, while others find it troubling. But all who read the Washington Post will recognize these tactics; they are ubiquitous and quite effective.

This taxonomy provides a roadmap for consumer advocates to understand the resistance they will face with almost any form of consumer reform. I hope to expand it to include retorts to each argument in the future.

The paper is quite humorous and well-done — essential reading for any policy wonk.


Best and Worst Internet Laws

[Preface: I’ve already overstayed my guest visit, but before I go, I want to say thanks to the Concurring Opinions team for the opportunity to blog here, and thanks to all of you for the great comments and stimulating dialogue. A complete index of my guest blog posts. Meanwhile, I’ll keep blogging on technology and marketing law at my main blog and on all other topics at my personal blog. Hope to see you there!]

Over the past dozen years, the lure of regulating the Internet has proven irresistible to legislators. For example, in the 109th Congress, almost 1,100 introduced bills referenced the word “Internet.” This legislative activity doesn’t always come to fruition. Still, in total, hundreds of Internet laws have been passed by Congress and the states. This body of work is now large enough that we can identify some winners and losers. So in the spirit of good fun, I offer an opinionated list of my personal votes for the best and worst Internet statutes in the United States.

[Keep reading for the list]

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