FTC Gets Meaner; In Other News, Spammers Continue to be Dumb

GavelHats off to the US Federal Trade Commission. The agency, which has been going medieval on spammers for some time now, has effectively declared war on anyone who has the audacity to think that an email address or cell phone number is an invitation to knock on your door. In March, the FTC filed eight separate complaints against 29 companies and individuals, and with the salvo fired in those cases, the federal watchdog bared its snarling teeth. Those cases involved more than 180 million spam messages, and that cost people money, because 12 percent of the targeted users weren’t subscribed to a text messaging plan.

What makes these messaging campaigns so evil and dastardly is that, unlike some marketing spam campaigns, which are legit, albeit annoying, these individuals and companies weren’t selling anything; rather they were offering free prizes if users jumped through a series of hoops that required providing their personal information. In some cases, the victims had to sign up for as many as 13 offers before the journey was complete. Yes, oozing sleaziness isn’t the only thing these guys are good at. They’re also good at collecting and selling information, and the FTC awarded their proficiency with a big ol’ lawsuit, and this past Tuesday, the FTC announced that it had reached an agreement with one Florida company and its two top executives, according to The New York Times.

The company in the case is known as Rentbro, and its two principles, Daniel Pessin and Jacob Engel, both of Fort Lauderdale, are the players in this tragic comedy. According to the NYT, “Messages sent by the company had promised free gift cards worth up to $1,000, the commission said, but when consumers tried to visit a Web site to collect the prize, they were instead connected to a site that asked for personal information, like Social Security numbers and credit card numbers. It also required them to pay for additional services to receive a gift card.” The Times reports that the company and owners were ordered to turn over all of their remaining assets and in a partially suspended order, repay up to $377,321, the amount that the company had bilked out of its unsuspecting targets.

The FTC’s own website discusses the legal action, explaining that the Rentbro case “is part of the FTC’s continuing crackdown on spam text messages and the settlement prohibits the defendants from sending unwanted texts to consumers, and from misleading consumers about whether they have won gifts or prizes and whether a product is “free” or without cost or obligation. Amen, FTC. Amen. You just made it on our Christmas card list.

The message was your standard ‘I’m going to give you something, really, all you need to do is click,’ sort of spam. According to the FTC, “a typical message stated, ‘Your entry in our drawing WON you a FREE $1,000 Target Giftcard!  Enter ‘312’ at www.target.com.tgrz.biz to claim it and we can ship it to you immediately!’ The hyperlink included in the text message brought consumers to a website the defendants created to reinforce the deceptive gift card message and then to a variety of third-party websites where consumers were asked to submit personal information under the guise of claiming their gift cards.  After collecting consumers’ personal information, consumers were told they had to sign up for more than a dozen risky trial offers, none of which was free, to qualify for the promised ‘free’ gift card.”

The Rentbro/Pessing/Engel case is the second settlement in the ongoing crackdown by the FTC. This is a huge win for those of us who need the madness to end. People are getting robbed, infected, and generally bothered by these crooks and scam artists, and the ongoing debate over what’s legitimate spam and what’s not just gets muddier when you have companies acting as if they’re not doing anything wrong, and all the while they’re skimming profits off others through questionable techniques. Spam, whether it’s sent by email, SMS, social media, or some other delivery mechanism, is still spam.

And while countries like Canada suffer from the chronic inaction of its government worthy of a website à la Dog Shaming, the US is moving forward in the war, sending the message to spammers that their activities will not be profitable. Charles A. Harwood, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said it best when the agency filed its charges back in March. “Today’s announcement says ‘game over’ to the major league scam artists behind millions of spam texts.” Noble? Yes. Awesome? Hell, yes.

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