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Category: Consumer Protection Law

2

The Free Credit Reports That Aren’t Free

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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 FreeCreditReport.com. 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 AnnualCreditReport.com. I previously blogged about my experiences using AnnualCreditReport.com. One of the problems is that if you don’t know that the correct website is AnnualCreditReport.com, then it is very easy to go to the FreeCreditReport.com 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.

ConsumerInfo.com and Freecreditreport.com 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 www.annualcreditreport.com.

FreeCreditReport.com is run by Experian, one of the credit reporting agencies. Experian also has another website offering free credit reports: ConsumerInfo.com. Recently, the FTC settled a case against ConsumerInfo.com website. According to an FTC news release:

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15

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 TripAdvisor.com. 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.

1

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. Giveupblog.com 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.

4

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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9

What Exactly Is a “Spammer”?

email2a.jpgI’m coming a little late to the party, but the case of Omega World Travel, Inc. v. Mummagraphics, Inc., (4th Cir. Nov. 17, 2006) raises some interesting issues about the Controlling the Assault of Non Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (“CAN SPAM Act”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 7701 et seq.

Omega World Travel sent 11 emails to an email address owned by Mummagraphics, a web host company. The emails each advertised a travel “E deal.” Mark Mumma, head of Mummagraphics, called John Lawless, the general counsel of Omega and instructed him to stop sending email. Lawless said the emails would stop. They didn’t. Mumma then sent a letter threatening Omega with a suit under CAN SPAM and state anti-spam laws. The emails finally stopped.

Mumma demanded payment from Omega, which refused, so Mumma posted photos of Omega’s founders and accused them of being spammers. Omega and its founders sued for defamation and a variety of other claims. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims but the defamation claim, which is proceeding to trial.

Mummagraphics raised a few counterclaims, including a violation of the CAN SPAM Act. The district court granted summary judgment against the counterclaims.

The 4th Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Wilkinson, affirmed, holding that there was no CAN SPAM Act violation. Why? Because the CAN SPAM Act really doesn’t stop spam. It stops only certain kinds of fraudulent spam. The Act basically allows for the sending of unsolicited commercial email so long as people are provided with a way to opt out. For this to work, the sender must provide valid contact information. Specifically, the Act provides: “It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission, to a protected computer, of a commercial electronic mail message … that contains, or is accompanied by, header information that is materially false or materially misleading.” 15 U.S.C. § 7704(a)(1).

According to the court, the emails sent by Omega had the following inaccuracies:

First, each message stated that the recipient had signed up for the Cruise.com mailing list, but Mummagraphics alleges that it had not asked that inbox@webguy.net receive the company’s offers. Second, while each message listed Cruise.com as the sending organization, each also included the address “FL Broadcast.net” in its header information, even though Mummagraphics alleges that “FL Broadcast.net” is not an Internet domain name linked to Cruise.com or the other appellees. In addition, the messages contained the “from” address cruisedeals @cruise.com, even though Cruise.com had apparently stopped using that address.

Nevertheless, the court concluded:

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20

Shylock and Article 9 of the U.C.C. (with some thoughts on bankruptcy)

shylock.gifShakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice (1598) is often misidentified as an anti-Semitic play about a contract. This is not technically correct, as the transaction at the heart of the drama seems to be a secured loan. (Albeit an anti-Semitic one.) Furthermore, contrary to Shakespeare’s conclusion, I believe that the security agreement is most likely enforceable, at least under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, a point that I hope to make to my secured transactions class. Here is Shylock’s description of the loan agreement between himself and Antonio, a Venetian merchant:

SHYLOCK: This kindness will I show; go with me to a notary; seal me there your single bond, and – in merry sport – if you repay me not on such a day, in such a place, such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition, let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken In what part of your body pleaseth me. (I.3.141-149)

It seems fairly clear from the passage that there is a debt. Antonio promises to pay “such sum or sums as are expressed in the condition.” However, without a valid security interest Shylock has only a personal right of action against Antonio. Indeed, even if Antonio promises the pound of flesh, all that Shylock gets in the event of a failure to deliver the bloody bond is a right to money damages. Section 9-109, however, teaches us that Article 9 governs “a transaction, regardless of form, that creates a security interest in personal property . . . by contract.” Such seems to be the case here. Indeed, Shylock casts the transaction in the form of a bond, ie a promise to deliver the pound of flesh, with a condition, ie payment of the debt, that defeats the bond, a classic pre-Code security arrangement, and the “pound of . . . fair flesh” falls under 9-102(a)(44)’s definition of “goods” (“all things that are moveable when a security interest attaches”), bringing it within the personal property requirement of 9-109.

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12

IP and Development

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Greetings from Namibia! (Do I win the contest for posting from the most far flung place?) I am in Namibia (of Brad & Angelina fame) for a conference organized by IIPI on “IP Used in Support of Culture Based Industries.” The main question being addressed is whether IP (especially copyright & trademark) can help improve the markets for African art. The problem is that although the US is the major market for African art, US consumers are not willing to pay enough for the art in order to support the communities that create it. Beautiful, hand-crafted pieces made of indigenous materials using ancient techniques are sold at bargain prices that reflect tiny sums paid to the artisans that created them. We buy these pieces at places like World Market because they look nice, but we learn nothing about their origin and significance. If that’s all we value why not buy even cheaper versions made in China? These artisans are hopeful that they can stop that type of competition by asserting IP rights in the art. Many obstacles exist of course, including the current absence of appropriate legal mechanisms and the fact that much art is already in the public domain. namibian art.pngBut the audience and participants at this conference were optimistic and very creative. One idea: could certification marks be used to prevent others from appropriating the terms used to describe the places and techniques used to create the art? Of course that won’t prevent others from copying the works; it just prevents them from using the terminology. It’s a start, but it will only be effective where it is accompanied by an education campaign about the art. The hope is that consumers will come to value the authentic, once they know what it is.

6

Legal Scholarship and the Nixon Effect

nixon.jpgLegal thinking often seems to be cyclical. Constitutional law scholarship provides (to my ignorant outsiders perspective) a clear example of this. In the 1960s and 1970s the law reviews were filled with articles exalting the role of the courts as guardians of liberty and searching for various jurisprudential philosophers’ stones that would allow the courts to bestow items from the liberal wish list upon the nation e.g. constitutionally mandated rights to welfare payments, etc. The country, however, had the bad manners to proceed along its own political path without reference to the concerns of the legal academy and five GOP presidents to two Democratic presidents later, the federal judiciary is filled with conservatives. Academic panegyrics to judicial modesty and minimalism according sprout like mushrooms. There is, of course, the temptation to see such a cycle in crassly political terms, and perhaps have the bad manners to suggest that left-of-center constitutional law professors are simply modifying their jurisprudential theories in the face of right-of-center election results.

Private law scholarship is also prone to its own intellectual cycles. In the 1970s, Grant Gilmore was confidently predicting the Death of Contract and Farnsworth and his associates were putting the finishing touches on the second Restatement, which confidently set out to deliver us from the horrid formalism of Williston’s work. The gentle establishment liberal sanity of the Legal Process movement seemed to reign supreme, troubled only by the pesky legal economists, whose influence Morton Horton Horwitz assured us peaked in about 1980. Fast forward twenty-five years, and one can read defenses in the Yale Law Journal of formalistic contract interpretation that Williston never imagined of in his headiest pre-Realist dreams. Of course here too, there are crassly political explanations. Flinty-hearted Chicago-school economists are no doubt more attracted to private law subjects like contracts or corporations rather than the intricacies of substantive due process. Furthermore, more than one aspiring conservative legal academic has been advised to go into business law by Federalist Society elders on the grounds that it constitutes a kind of safe preserve for right wingers. Finally, the results at the elections have given ambitious projects for say consumer protection the same surreal feel as articles arguing that the courts should announce a constitutional right to welfare payments. It ain’t going to happen, so why bother?

For all of the fun involved in spinning out political stories to account for the cycles of legal thought, however, there is a simpler academic imperative at work. There is a sense in which young scholars have no choice but to slay their elders. Writing an article saying “amen” to the reigning theoretical consensus is probably not the route to tenure and academic fame. Hence, the discredited ideas of one generation are going to inevitably find their champions in the next generation for the simple reason that no scholar wants to write articles saying “Me too.”

Think of it as the Nixon effect. When he left office the intellectual consensus on Nixon was overwhelmingly negative. Not surprisingly, Nixon’s reputation has risen with time for the simple reason that no one is interested in a new book suggesting that Nixon is a crook, but a book suggesting that Nixon wasn’t so bad after all will get some attention. Not to worry. In the fullness of time, a consensus in favor of a more positive view of Nixon will develop, and some young Turk historian will make his reputation by pointing out that at the end of the day Nixon was a lying, paranoid, un-indicted co-conspirator.

2

Immunizing Apple Against (Viral) Damages

Today, Apple announced on its tech page that it shipped some iPODs with an unwelcome pest nesting inside.

Apple said [that] . . . less than 1 percent of Video iPods — pocket-sized devices that can play music files and video clips — left its contract manufacturer carrying the virus RavMonE.exe, which affects computers running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.

‘So far we have seen less than 25 reports concerning this problem. The iPod nano, iPod shuffle and Mac OS X are not affected, and all Video iPods now shipping are virus free,’ the company said on the site.

A few thoughts.

First, it’s always fun to see Apple take a shot against the guys at Redmond. Said Apple:

As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses, and even more upset with ourselves for not catching it.

In standard L&E talk, the question here is who is the cheaper risk avoider of viral infection through portable music devices. There is at least one book on the law and economics of computer security, but I’m not sure how the analysis would play here. Putting liability on Microsoft for viral problems would produce broader social benefits, but might produce solutions that are inelegant. Apple, by contrast, can solve this problem with better monitoring. Which leads me to…

Second, the reference to a “contract manufacturer” suggests that Apple outsourced its software package integration outside of the States. I wonder what kind of policies (failed to) exist to deal with quality control at the contract plant? This issue reminds me of the agency cost problem with outsourcing that concerns George Geis.

Third, in case you were worried, Jobs’ lawyers have tried to immunize the company against this very scenario. According to the contract that Apple sent me with my (now defunct) mini, using iPOD software, my only remedy for software defects is a “refund of the purchase price”. Apple sternly warns that:

“TO THE EXTENT NOT PROHIBITED BY LAW, IN NO EVENT SHALL APPLE BE LIABLE FOR PERSONAL INJURY, OR ANY INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, INDIRECT OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES WHATSOEVER . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO YOUR USE OR INABILITY TO USE THE APPLE SOFTWARE . . . [More confusingly] In no event shall Apple’s total liability to you for all damages . . . exceed the amount of fifty dollars ($50.00). The foregoing limitations will apply even if the above stated remedy fails of its essential purpose.”

I think it’s fair to say that clauses like these are likely to be enforced by a small number of judges, but that it seems unlikely that were a virus to do real damage to a user’s computer, Apple woudl easily escape with a refund + $50.00 remedy. Unlike, say, the purchase of ordinary software, end users buying iPODs don’t reasonably expect the product to cause infection – they believe (rightly or wrongly) that the major component they are buying is the hardware. To protect itself from damages, Apple should try to push viral protection to its Microsoft users through iTunes, if that is a technically feasible solution, rather than relying on users to remedy the problem themselves through self-purchased (and additional) software.

[Regular readers will know that I’m mildly obsessed with the economics of iPOD’s disfunctionality. I should disclose that I’ve had my nano for four or so weeks now, and it is working well. I suppose. The last week I haven’t been able to use it because the iMAC died for lack of power. Luckily, I’d bought the extended warranty. That will show you, Mr. Jobs.]

13

Tin Men

As a follow-up to my post about an apparently sleazy car sales tactic a few days ago, I thought I’d point you to a fascinating undercover look at the world of car sales from Edmunds.com. The reporter spent 3 months as a new car salesman, part of it at a high-pressure showroom dedicated to a Japanese brand, and the other at a “no-haggle” dealership for an American brand. In general, the article reminds me of the movie Boiler Room, as well as my own brief career in high-pressure sales (don’t ask). The traditional car lot is a shark pit of deceptive maneuvers aimed at separating marks from their money. The “no-haggle” lot seems much better, but it also seems like it’s not doing a lot of business.

There’s evidence the Internet is changing the whole business:

I was already beginning to see the impact of the Internet because of something that happened during my first few days there. [The reporter talked to a man waiting in the maintenance area, who tells him he got an "awesome deal" on one of the dealership's new SUVs -- $300 below invoice.] I asked how he did it. He said he checked prices on the Internet. He then called the fleet manager and made the deal over the phone.

I had a schizophrenic reaction to this. Part of me admired the fact that he had outfoxed the dealer. But the car salesman side of me was angry that I never “got a shot at him.” It seemed like just a matter of time before people who, in the past, walked onto our car lot, would be on the Internet making deals.

The salesmen are only vaguely aware of this developing trend. I was standing on the curb next to George and we saw one of these high-demand SUVs ready for delivery.

“Another damn Internet sale,” George said. “Why don’t they turn that car over to us? We’d get a grand over sticker. Instead they’re selling it at invoice. Does that make sense?” As the days passed I noticed more and more cars marked “carsdirect.com.” And as I approached people on the car lot they often informed me that they were here to see the fleet manager. More Internet customers.

This indicates that wealthier, computer-savvy customers may be circumventing the sleazy sales tactics, leaving the sharks to prey only on poorer, less-informed customers. It could develop into yet another element of the “poor tax.”

HT: Consumerist