Attorneys

Michelle Cohen Member

/ P (202) 524-4149

LinkedIn connect on LinkedIn / Twitter @MichelleWCohen

  • Michelle Cohen: Internet Privacy Lawyer on Internet Marketing

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  • Attorney Michelle Cohen: Increased Federal Enforcement of Mobile Commerce in 2013

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  • What to do if you think your company has had a data breach

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Michelle’s unfailing dedication to her clients is evidenced by the fact that her first client, whom she worked with as a first-year associate over 20 years ago, remains an active client. She establishes strong and lasting relationships by committing herself to client service. Michelle understands her clients’ business goals, guides them in their use of new technologies, and communicates with them as their business activities unfold.

Michelle’s practice is focused on helping her clients establish powerful and lasting relationships with their customers and prospects. Regardless of industry – technology, manufacturing or education – companies need to maintain contact with their clients and prospects while ensuring that their communications comply with the laws and regulations regarding marketing and privacy – whether through sweepstakes/contests, telemarketing, email marketing or beyond. Michelle’s communications experience includes licensing, enforcement, contracts, rulemaking and advocacy.

When clients find themselves involved in an enforcement matter with the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission or state agencies, Michelle’s deep knowledge in these areas and her strong footing in the privacy community help her to resolve issues in the most expedient manner possible. Michelle also advises clients as to what policies and procedures can be put in place to show a company’s good faith efforts, should the government come knocking. When companies are involved in potential data or security breaches, Michelle knows which questions to ask to ensure they have a sound legal strategy. She works with the company step-by-step to resolve the situation from both the government’s, and her clients’ as well as their customers’ points of view. Michelle has extensive experience defending individual and class actions in the consumer protection context, including dozens of Telephone Consumer Protection Act cases.

In addition to having received the prestigious Martindale-Hubbell AV rating, Michelle has received certification as a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP-US) from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). The IAPP’s extensive training and continuing education in the area of privacy ensures that Michelle stays abreast of developments in the U.S. and abroad, so that she can provide the up-to-date information her clients need.

Previously, Michelle was a partner at Thompson Hine where she was a member of their telecommunications, corporate transactions & securities and emerging technologies groups. She began her legal career in the litigation department at Paul Hastings, where she spent seven years honing her litigation skills, prior to moving into their corporate practice. Her litigation experience gives her a solid foundation for helping clients avoid litigation as well as in advising them when they are faced with litigation. This litigation experience, coupled with her regulatory and corporate experience, allow Michelle to offer her clients a full complement of services.

Awards + Recognition

  • ALM 2013 Washington DC's Women Leaders in the Law
  • ALM 2012 Top Rated Lawyer - Technology Law
  • Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) certification, International Association of Privacy Professionals
  • Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent Peer Review Rating
  • Editorial Board Member, E-finance & Payments Law & Policy
  • Editorial Board Member, E-Commerce Law & Policy

Professional + Community

  • Women in Cable and Telecommunications Past Board Member Washington, D.C. - Baltimore Chapter
  • Federal Communications Bar Association
  • District of Columbia Bar
  • New York State Bar Association
  • Women's Bar Association of DC
  • Volunteer, Special Olympics
  • Brandeis University Alumni Admissions Council
  • Volunteer, Arlington County Public Schools, Virginia
  • Pro Bono Volunteer through the District of Columbia Bar
Speaker, Michelle Cohen, "Committee on Casinos: Update on Internet Sweepstakes Café Enforcement Issues," National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, 2015 Summer Conference, Atlantic City, NJJune 12, 2015
"Progress Slow For Commercial Use of Drones In The US," E-Commerce Law and PolicyApril 2015
Michelle Cohen, Speaker, "Lotteries and Social Media" National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, 2015 Winter Conference, Las Vegas, NVJanuary 2015
"FTC Staff Recommendations for Mobile Financial Services," E-Finance & Payments Law & PolicyOctober 2014
"The FTC Releases Staff Report on Mobile Shopping Apps," E-Commerce Law & PolicySeptember 2014
"What’s Legal in Text Marketing!," Hybrid Telephony Summit 2014, Chicago, ILSeptember 22, 2014
"Managing Litigation in the Small Law Department Environment," WMACCA Small Law Department Initiative, McLean, VASeptember 11, 2014
"U.S. Banking Regulators to Review Laws," E-Finance & Payments Law & PolicyJune 2014
"The Wild World of Witnesses: When Good Witnesses Go Bad," WMACCA Litigation Forum, McLean, VAJune 26, 2014
"Zealous Counsel or Unethical Social Media Maven – How Far Can a Lawyer Go?," WMACCA E-Newsletter May 9, 2014
"Net Neutrality – Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission," E-Commerce Law ReportsFebruary 18, 2014
"Oral Arguments Heard in the FCC’s ‘Open Internet’ Dispute," E-Commerce Law ReportsDecember 2013
"Data Security: FTC v. Wyndham Corporation," E-Commerce Law ReportsOctober 3, 2013
Michelle Cohen, Speaker, "Don’t Litigate, Mediate: Here’s How," WMACCA Litigation Forum, McLean, VASeptember 11, 2013
"Smart House, Smart Car, Smartphones. The FTC Examines the ‘Internet of Things," E-Commerce Law ReportsJune 2013
"FTC issues privacy focused mobile payments report," E-Finance & Payments Law & PolicyMarch 2013
"FATCA: the end of hiding US accounts in foreign banks?," E-Finance & Payments Law & PolicyMarch 2013
Michelle Cohen, Speaker, "Trash Talk? Viral Leaks? What to do When Employees and the Public Take to the Internet Town Square," WMACCA Technology and IP Forum, McLean, VAFebruary 19, 2013
"Editor’s Insight – Mobile Marketing and Privacy," E-Commerce Law & Policy February 7, 2013
"The FTC reports to the US Congress on Dodd-Frank," E-Finance & Payments Law & PolicyJanuary 2013
"Visa/MasterCard Antitrust Litigation," E-Commerce Law ReportsSeptember 2012
Michelle Cohen, Presenter, "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: The Financial Industry’s New Watchdog," LeadsCon East Conference Presentation, New York City, New YorkJuly 2012
"Best Offense Is a Good Defense," Inside Supply ManagementMarch 2012

Successfully Negotiating the Sale of Assets During a Government Investigation

When a company that is under investigation for money laundering decides to sell its assets, what was once a straightforward sales process becomes a complex negotiation. That is what happened with our client, a provider of diagnostic testing equipment.

Ifrah Law and Michelle Cohen represented the company in its sale of radiology and cardiology diagnostic services equipment, which involved numerous challenges. Understandably, the buyer was concerned about the ongoing criminal investigation, and Michelle worked closely with them to address their concerns about representations and warranties and possible post-sale seizure from the government. Additionally, since there were bank liens on some of the assets, Michelle worked with the bank’s outside counsel to arrange a prompt payoff, obtain a satisfactory pay-off letter and secure a release of the liens in order to close the deal. Michelle also worked with the buyer to create a creditor payment plan that would payoff unsecured creditors and obtain releases from them in order to address the buyer’s concerns about unsecured creditors seeking relief from the buyer. Finally, she created an employee fund (funded by the buyer) to pay for uncompensated leave time.

These complicated issues were resolved in less than two weeks, as a result of Michelle’s skilled negotiations with all parties. The buyer was represented by Delaware’s largest law firm.

 

Successful Resolution of a TCPA Class Action

Michelle Cohen’s client, a publicly-traded enhanced messaging provider, was involved in a large-scale class action alleging violations of the TCPA’s unsolicited facsimile advertising rules. In addition to having provided the client with TCPA advice for over 15 years, Michelle represented them in enforcement matters before the FCC, including obtaining the rescission of an FCC citation, a highly unusual ruling from the FCC, finding that the client had a valid defense to the citation.

This TCPA case involved the alleged sending of 125,000 unsolicited faxes. The class was suing for triple damages of $1500 per violation – up to $180 million. Michelle and her team handled discovery, including depositions and motions. When the other parties decided to enter mediation, Michelle represented her client through the mediation, to the settlement agreement and ultimate dismissal of the case. Given the damages at stake, this case was successfully resolved for Michelle’s client, whose settlement contribution fell below the limits of their insurance policy.

 

Ensuring TCPA Compliance for a Global Provider of Customer Management Services

On behalf of our client, a leading provider of customer management services with call centers around the world, Ifrah Law led a full-scale review of its customer communications to ensure that they comply with federal and state requirements, including those of the TCPA and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). We addressed the many different types of calls that the company undertakes on behalf of its varied customer base – service calls, appointments, live sales calling and pre-recorded calls – to ensure that its call centers are using consistent protocols and controls in the United States, and that these protocols are in compliance with the TCPA and TSR. Our client trusted Ifrah Law with this extensive project due to our long history with managing TCPA matters – we have been involved with the TCPA since its inception in 1991 – and due to our prior work for the client, including successfully representing the client in two FCC inquiries.

We worked with the company’s Director of Privacy to develop a thorough understanding of the types of calls that the company makes for its customers, and the contractual protections that are in place and which could be revised to protect the company further. A critical aspect of this project was to educate leaders within the company that there are different TCPA requirements based on the type of call: technology used, person being called, whether the call is pre-recorded or live; mobile or business. We also wrote the call center guidelines and controls to ensure that all employees – from those being trained to the marketing team – had the same information regarding how to handle different types of customer call projects.

This large-scale process took a year to complete. Once the documentation was finalized, our client was ready to begin a company-wide training program on the guidelines, well in advance of TCPA rule changes.

 

Keeping Your Privacy Promises: Retail Tracking and Opt-Out Choices

No time for talking. Cropped image of beautiful young woman in pink dress holding shopping bags and mobile phone

As children, many of us were taught how important it is to “keep your word.” Similarly, it is black letter privacy law that if a company commits (for instance, in a privacy policy or in website statements) to certain actions or practices, such as maintaining certain security features or implementing consumers’ choices on opt-outs, the organization must abide by those practices. Many companies have faced the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) ire when the agency found the organizations’ practices failed to comport with their privacy promises. Recently, the FTC settled the first action against a retail tracking company, Nomi Technologies, Inc. (“Nomi”). The FTC alleged that Nomi mislead consumers with promises that it would provide an in-store mechanism for consumers to opt-out of tracking and that consumers would be informed when locations were utilizing Nomi’s tracking services. In fact, according to the FTC, Nomi did not provide an in-store opt-out and did not inform consumers of locations where the tracking services were used. This action signals that the FTC will continue to exert its jurisdiction over privacy practices it deems false or deceptive, including those occurring in emerging technologies like retail tracking.

The FTC’s complaint stated that Nomi’s technology (called its “Listen” service) allows retailers to track consumers’ movements through stores. The company places sensors in its clients’ stores, which collect the MAC addresses of consumers’ mobile devices as the devices search for WiFi networks. While Nomi “hashes” the MAC addresses prior to storage in order to hide the specific MAC addresses, the process results in identifiers unique to consumers’ mobile devices which can be tracked over time. Nomi provided its retail clients with aggregated information, such as how long consumers stayed in the store, the types of devices used by consumers, and how many customers had visited a different location in a chain of stores. Between January and September 2013, Nomi collected information on approximately 9 million mobile devices, according to the FTC’s complaint.

What Nomi did wrong, according to the FTC, was fail to honor its privacy policy which “pledged to…always allow consumers to opt out of Nomi’s service on its website as well as at any retailer using Nomi’s technology.” Nomi presented an opt-out on its website, but (per the complaint), no option was available at retailers using Nomi’s service. The FTC also asserted that consumers were not informed of the tracking (contrary to the privacy policy promises). Thus, the FTC alleged that Nomi’s privacy promises were false because no in-store opt-out mechanism was available, nor were consumers informed when the tracking occurred.

Nomi’s settlement does not require any monetary payment but prohibits Nomi from misrepresenting the options through which consumers can exercise control over the collection, use, disclosure or sharing of information collected from or about them or their devices. The settlement also bars Nomi from misrepresenting the extent to which consumers will be provided notice about how data from or about a particular consumer or device is collected, used, disclosed or shared. Nomi is required to maintain certain supporting records for five years. As is typical with FTC consent orders, this agreement remains in force for 20 years.

What can companies learn from Nomi’s settlement, even those not in the retail tracking business?

  • While this is the first FTC action against a retail tracking company, the FTC has repeatedly stated that it will enforce the FTC Act and other laws under its jurisdiction against emerging as well as traditional technologies.
  • Consumers could opt-out on Nomi’s website by providing a MAC address in an online form. The FTC did not seem to have a problem with this part of Nomi’s practices. If Nomi had not promised that consumers could also opt-out at the retail locations, and that they would be notified of tracking, there would not have been an FTC action. In other words, it was Nomi’s words (in its privacy policy) that got it in hot water with the FTC. All companies should review their privacy policies regularly to make sure the language comports with their practices.  If you don’t do it, don’t say it.
  • The FTC noted that Nomi had about 45 clients. Most of those clients did not post a disclosure or notify consumers regarding their use of the Listen service, and Nomi did not mandate such disclosures by its clients. The FTC did not address what, if any, obligation, these businesses may have to make such disclosures. Will it become common/mandated to see a sign in a retail location warning that retail tracking via mobile phones is occurring (similar to signs about video surveillance)? One industry group’s self-regulatory policy requires retail analytics firms to take “reasonable steps to require that companies using their technology display, in a conspicuous location, signage that informs consumers about the collection and use of MLA [mobile location analytics] Data at that location.” This issue will become more prevalent as more retailers and other businesses use tracking technology.
  • Interestingly, the FTC brought this action even though traditional “personal information” was not collected (such as name, address, social security number, etc.). Organizations should not assume that collecting IP addresses, MAC addresses, or other less personalized information presents no issues. The FTC takes privacy statements seriously, whatever the information collected (though certainly there is more sensitivity toward certain categories such as health, financial, and children’s information).

The bottom line is “do what you say” when it comes to privacy practices. All companies should evaluate their privacy policies at least every six months to ensure that they remain accurate and complete, have working links (if any), and reflect a company’s current practices.

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Telemarketing Tips: What We Can Learn From Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Excursion With The FTC

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The FTC’s “Do Not Call” and “robocall” rules do not apply to political survey calls.  So, if Hillary Clinton sought to “voice blast” a survey about international issues, she could do so without violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (“TSR”).  (Though under FCC rules she would have an issue calling wireless numbers).  However, companies may not telemarket under the guise of exempt political calls.  Caribbean Cruise Lines (CCL) and several other companies working with CCL recently learned this lesson the hard way. The FTC and a dozen state attorneys general sued CCL and others for offering cruises and vacation “add ons” following purported political calls.  CCL settled, agreeing to pay $500,000 of a $7.2 million dollar penalty, and to comply with multiple compliance mechanisms.

CCL and the other defendants implemented an extensive calling campaign involving 12 to 15 million calls per day for approximately ten months offering a political survey.  However, the survey calls invited consumers to “press one” to receive a “free” two-day cruise to the Bahamas (port taxes would apply).  A live telemarketer working on behalf of CCL then offered consumers pre-cruise hotels, excursions, and other value packages.

While political calls remain exempt under the TSR’s robocall and Do Not Call provisions, if a caller offers a good, product or service during an otherwise exempt call, an “upsell” has occurred and the call is now telemarketing.  FTC rules prohibit robocalls to telemarket except with prior express consent.  Thus, the FTC asserted that CCL violated the TSR’s robocall provision since the called parties had not consented to the recorded sales calls.  While the calls started as political survey calls, they were actually standard telemarketing, subject to all TSR telemarketing rules.  The FTC also alleged violations of the Do Not Call rules, the caller identification rules, and the “company-specific Do Not Call requirements,” among other violations.

In addition to the reminder about “upsells” or “mixed messages,” this action highlights several important TSR enforcement lessons:

bulletThe FTC and State Attorneys General work closely in telemarketing enforcement – in this action, ten state attorneys general joined the FTC’s action.

bulletMany of the State AGs involved tend to be those most active in telemarketing litigation– Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington State.

bulletThe FTC does not require a company to actually make the prohibited calls. An enforcement action will lie where a company paid or directed others to make calls in violation of the TSR.

bulletThe TSR also bars third parties from providing “substantial assistance” to others who violate the rule. Here, the FTC’s complaint charged a group of five companies and their individual owner with assisting and facilitating the illegal cruise calls, by providing robocallers with telephone numbers to use in the caller ID field, to hide the robocallers’ identities.

bulletAs part of its settlements, the FTC may impose a variety of remedies, including requiring the seller (here, CCL) to monitor its lead generators.

bulletThe FTC may also bar the seller from purchasing leads from a lead generator who is determined by the seller to obtain leads through unlawful TSR calling.

bulletThe FTC will carefully review, and proceed against companies who violate other TSR provisions, including caller ID requirements, scrubbing of the federal Do Not Call database, and the company-specific Do Not Call list.

bulletA settlement often requires ongoing recordkeeping. Here, the FTC required CCL to create records for ten years (and retain each one for 5 years), including records of consumer complaints and documentation of all lead generators.

bulletThe FTC and state AGs may proceed against individuals as well as companies.

bulletMany states have their own “do not call” laws, caller ID requirements and TSR-similar rules which can be used to bolster claims and penalties.

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            While it should not come as a surprise that a “mixed message” call must comply with the TSR, the recent joint case against CCL and others serves as a potent reminder that the FTC and state attorneys general continue to monitor robocalling and other mass telemarketing campaigns. Further, the enforcers will use the full panoply of legal requirements and enforcement mechanisms to address telemarketing violations.  The seller, the telemarketer, the lead generator, the caller ID provider, and any other party providing substantial assistance may find themselves at the receiving end of a call from the FTC if they fail to follow each of the TSR’s obligations or engage in activities that the TSR prohibits.

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Employers Running Background Checks: Top 10 Tips to Avoid Joining the Fair Credit Reporting Act Litigation “Club”

Human resources and CRM

What do Whole Foods, Chuck E. Cheese, Michael’s Stores, Dollar General, Panera, Publix, and K-Mart have in common?  Each of these companies has faced lawsuits (including class actions) under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).  Although Congress passed the FCRA way back in 1970 and litigation has focused on credit reporting agencies’ duties under the law, class action plaintiff firms have recently focused on the FCRA’s employer-related provisions.  Several large settlements (such as Publix’s $6.8 million class action settlement, Dollar General’s $4 million, and K-Mart’s $ 3 million) have spurred further litigation.  While some of the alleged FCRA violations may appear minor or technical in nature, these “technical violations” still result in costly lawsuits.  Employers should re-familiarize themselves with the FCRA to avoid becoming class action defendants.

The FCRA’s Employer-Related Provisions

Many employers understandably want to conduct background checks on prospective employees, or current employees who may be obtaining new responsibilities or accessing sensitive information.  In particular, companies in the retail and restaurant sectors, whose employees have access to cash receipts and credit card account numbers, want to guard against employees whose background checks may reveal issues of concern.  Further, organizations whose employees enter homes and businesses (such as service providers – e.g., carpet cleaners, plumbers, contractors) have additional concerns about potential liability.

The FCRA is usually thought of as a federal law that regulates consumer reporting agencies, like credit bureaus.  However, the FCRA also prescribes certain requirements for employers who use consumer reports.  The FCRA broadly defines the term “consumer reports” as information prepared by a consumer reporting agency “bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer’s eligibility for—credit or insurance to be used primarily for personal, family, or household purposes; employment purposes” or other permitted purposes. This definition draws in more than a traditional credit report. It can include driving records, civil lawsuits, and reference checks, among other information.

Disclosure and Consent

Employers may not obtain a consumer report from a consumer reporting agency unless they first make a “clear and conspicuous” written disclosure to the prospective employee/employee.  The disclosure document must consist “solely” of the disclosure that a consumer report may be obtained.  The job applicant/employee must provide written permission for the employer to obtain a consumer report.  The FTC has indicated the disclosure form may include a signature line for the individual’s consent.  (In 2001, the FTC also issued an opinion letter stating it believes such consent can be obtained electronically, consistent with the federal E-Sign law).  The employer further certifies to the consumer reporting agency that is has a permissible purpose for the report and that it has complied with the FCRA and applicable equal opportunity laws.

These steps sound simple enough, however, litigation has ensued based upon employers’ alleged failures to comply.  For instance, in the Whole Foods case in federal court in California, the plaintiffs claim the online application process included a liability waiver in the disclosure form for the background check, allegedly violating the FCRA requirement that a disclosure form not include other information.  In a separate case in federal court in Florida involving retailer Nine West, the plaintiff alleges he did not receive a separate form, and that the background check authorization was on a web page with various other types of information.

Adverse Action Based on Report

If the employer intends to take “adverse action” against the prospective employee/employee (based even in part on the information in the report), the FCRA requires the employer to follow certain additional steps. The term “adverse action” includes “a denial of employment or any other decision for employment purposes that adversely affects any current or prospective employee.”

Before the employer takes the adverse action, it must provide a “pre-adverse action” notice to the affected person. This notice must include a copy of the consumer report and a statutory “Summary of Rights.” (This is an updated form, required since January 2013 by the new Consumer Financial Protection Board, which now has responsibility for FCRA rulemaking).  The purpose of this notice requirement is to permit the individual to discuss the report with the employer before the employer implements the adverse action.

Next, if the employer intends to take the adverse action, the FCRA requires the employer to provide an adverse action notice to the individual.  This notice must contain certain information, including:this is a test one

 bulletthe name, address, and telephone number of the consumer reporting agency that provided the report;

 bulleta statement that the consumer reporting agency did not make the adverse decision and is not able to explain why the decision was made;

bulleta statement setting forth the applicant’s or employee’s right to obtain a free disclosure of his or her report from the consumer reporting agency if the individual      requests the disclosure within 60 days; and

bulleta statement regarding the individual’s right to dispute directly with the consumer reporting agency the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the       report.

In a case involving Domino’s Pizza employees, the company settled a class action that included allegations that it took adverse employment actions against certain individuals based on information contained in consumer reports without providing those individuals the required notice and a copy of such reports in advance.  K-Mart settled a class action suit based upon allegations that the statement of consumer rights provided to individuals after a background check contained outdated disclosures, among other alleged FCRA failures.

Liability and Enforcement

Plaintiffs can pursue a private right of action against employers for negligently or willfully violating the FCRA.  Claims regarding negligent violations allow actual damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.  Willful violations can result in actual damages or statutory damages ranging between $100 and $1,000, plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.  The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has also brought actions against employers for FCRA violations.

10 Steps to Avoid Becoming a FCRA Defendant When Using Employment Background Checks

1.       Review your current background check practices for prospective and current employees, including any online application materials.

2.      Review disclosure/consent forms for compliance. Ensure you are presenting applicants or current employees with a simple, one page disclosure form. The form should inform individuals that you intend to obtain a consumer report for employment purposes.

3.      You must obtain consent from the prospective employee/employee. You may include a line on the disclosure form for the individual to acknowledge and grant consent.  Do not include other material, such as liability waivers, confirmation of at-will employment, or seek other consents.

4.      If your application process is online, ensure the disclosure/consent is displayed separately, on one screen, without other content.

5.      If you intend to conduct background checks periodically during an individual’s employment, state that in the disclosure and consent form.

6.      Do not seek consent verbally. FCRA requires “written” consent (though FTC has stated it may be electronic).

7.      Maintain backup of the disclosure and consent forms for at least 5 years from the date they were provided. (Lawsuits must be brought by the earlier of two years after the date of the plaintiff’s discovery of the violation, or five years after the date on which the violation occurred).

8.      If you intend to take adverse action based on information in the consumer report, you should be providing the individual with a pre-adverse action notice, a copy of the consumer report, and the “Summary of Rights.” Ensure you are using the most updated “Summary of Rights.”

9.      You should wait a reasonable amount of time (at least 5 days) before issuing an adverse action notice. Your company’s adverse action notice must contain the information required under the FCRA (see bulleted information, above).

10.    Check state law regarding background checks for the states in which you operate/solicit employees. Some states have similar requirements to FCRA; others may further restrict the types of information you can request.

 

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The FTC/EEOC have issued a joint statement on background checks.  While many employers need to conduct background checks to avoid liability and risks to their businesses, employers also need to follow the FCRA’s mandates to avoid the deep end of litigation “pool.”

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International Data Privacy Day: Our Top 10 Data Privacy Tips

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It’s International Data Privacy Day!  Every year on January 28, the United States, Canada and 27 countries of the European Union celebrate Data Privacy Day.  This day is designed to raise awareness of and generate discussion about data privacy rights and practices.  Indeed, each day new reports surface about serious data breaches, data practice concerns, and calls for legislation.  How can businesses manage data privacy expectations and risk amid this swirl of activity?

Here, we share some tips from our firm’s practice and some recent FTC guidance.  We don’t have a cake to celebrate International Data Privacy Day but we do have our “Top 10 Data Privacy Tips”:

1. Review Your Organization’s Privacy Policy. Remember that privacy policy you had counsel prepare a few years ago?  It’s a good time to review it and assess whether it still reflects company practices.  What kind of personal information does your company collect? How does it move through your business?  How is it shared?  Has your organization’s policy on sharing personal information changed?  Does the privacy policy reflect legal changes in the states where you operate?  Privacy policies are not meant to be stagnant documents.  You should review them at least twice a year to ensure they are accurate. Even something as simple as the privacy officer’s contact information may need an update.

2. Do What You Say.  When you post a privacy policy, you are committing to the practices in the policy.  If your policy says “we will never share your information with third party marketers” – then you shouldn’t be sharing with third party marketers.  Common sense?  Yes, but companies have faced enforcement actions and litigation for pledging to “never share” when they did share.  Other companies like Snapchat settled with the FTC over statements in their privacy policies concerning how their apps operate and secure information that the FTC claimed were not true. Privacy policies should carve out disclosures for sharing information where sharing is likely to take place, such as in response to legal process, like a court order.  We also recommend a carve out in the event of a sale or reorganization of the business or of its assets. Other carve-outs may be warranted.

3. Ensure Your U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Is Up-to-Date. Last year, the FTC took action against several companies, including the Atlanta Falcons and Level 3 Communications, for stating in their privacy policies that they were U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor Certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce when, in fact, the companies had failed to keep their certification current by reaffirming their compliance annually. While your organization is not required to participate in Safe Harbor, don’t say you are Safe Harbor Certified if you haven’t filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce. And, remember that your company needs to reaffirm compliance annually, including payment of a fee.  You can check your company’s status here.

4. Understand Your Internal Risks. We’ve said this before – while malicious breaches are certainly out there, a significant percentage of breaches (around 30 percent, according to one recent study) occurs due to accidents or malicious acts by employees.  These acts include lack of firewalls, lack of encryption on devices (such as laptops and flash drives), and failing to change authentications when employees leave or are terminated.  Many data breaches are While you are at it, review who has access to confidential information and whether proper restrictions are in place.

5. Educate Your Workforce. While today is International Data Privacy Day, your organization should educate your workforce on privacy issues throughout the year. Depending on the size of the company and the type of information handled (for instance, highly sensitive health information versus standard personal contact details), education efforts may vary. You should review practices like the confidentiality of passwords, creating a secure password and changing it frequently, and avoiding downloading personal or company sensitive information in unsecured forms.  Just last week, a security firm reported that the most popular passwords for 2014 were “123456” and “password.”  At a minimum, these easily guessed passwords should not be allowed in your system.

6. Understand Specific Requirements of Your Industry/Customers/ Jurisdiction. Do you have information on Massachusetts residents?  Massachusetts requires that your company have a Written Information Security Program.  Does your company collect personal information from kids under 13?  The organization must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the FTC’s rules.  The FTC has taken many actions against companies deemed to be collecting children’s information without properly seeking prior express parental consent.

7. Maintain a Data Breach Response Plan. If there were a potential data breach, who would get called?  Legal?  IT?  Human Resources?  Public relations?  Yes, likely all of these. The best defense is a good offense – plan ahead.  Representatives from in-house and outside counsel, IT/IS, human resources, and your communications department should be part of this plan. State data breach notification laws require prompt reporting. Some companies have faced lawsuits for alleged “slow” response times.  If there is potential breach, your company needs to gather resources, investigate, and if required, disclose the breach to governmental authorities, affected individuals, credit reporting agencies, etc.

8. Consider Contractual Obligations. Before your company commits to data security obligations in contracts, ensure that a knowledgeable party, such as in-house or outside counsel, reviews these commitments.  If there is a breach of a contracting party’s information, assess the contractual requirements in addition to those under data breach notification laws. The laws generally require notice to be given promptly when a company’s data is compromised while under the “care” of another company. On the flip side, consider the service providers your company uses and what type of access the providers have to sensitive data. You should require service providers to adhere to reasonable security standards, with more stringent requirements if they handle sensitive data.

9. Review Insurance Coverage. While smaller businesses may think “we’re not Target” and don’t need cyber insurance, that’s a false assumption. In fact, smaller businesses usually have less sophisticated protections and can be more vulnerable to hackers and employee negligence.  Data breaches – requiring investigations, hiring of outside experts such as forensics, paying for credit monitoring, and potential loss of goodwill – can be expensive. Carriers are offering policies that do not break the bank. Cyber insurance is definitely worth exploring.  If you believe you have coverage for a data incident, your company should promptly notify the carrier. Notice should be part of the data breach response plan.

10. Remember the Basics! Many organizations have faced the wrath of the FTC, state attorneys general or private litigants because the companies or its employees failed to follow basic data security procedures. The FTC has settled 53 data security law enforcement actions. Many involve the failure to take common sense steps with data, such as transmitting sensitive data without encryption, or leaving documents with personal information in a dumpster. Every company must have plans to secure physical and electronic information. The FTC looks at whether a company’s practices are “reasonable and appropriate in light of the sensitivity and amount of consumer information you have, the size and complexity of your business, and the availability and cost of tools to improve security and reduce vulnerabilities.” If the FTC calls, you want to have a solid explanation of what you did right, not be searching for answers, or offering excuses.  Additional information on the FTC’s guidance can be found here.

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 Remember, while it may be International Data Privacy Day, data privacy isn’t a one day event. Privacy practices must be reviewed and updated regularly to protect data as well as enable your company to act swiftly and responsively in the event of a data breach incident.

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Report from an Energized Brand Activation Association Marketing Law Conference

Group Of Multi-Ethnic People Social Networking

Ifrah Law is a proud member the Brand Activation Association (“BAA”). This week, we attended the BAA’s 36th annual BAA Marketing Law Conference in Chicago.  Just as “Mad Men” reflects the 1960’s era advertising business, this year’s BAA conference demonstrated this generation’s marketing dynamic – where mobile is key, privacy concerns abound, and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and other agencies are watching and enforcing. Other key “take aways” from the conference are that sweepstakes, contests, and other promotions remain hugely popular via mobile devices and social networks.

Digital Rules

Advertisers representing top brand names made clear that companies must reach consumers through various digital devices.  Smartphones, tablets, and wearable technologies each represent ways to advertise a product or service.  Today’s consumers, especially younger consumers, rely extensively mobile devices. Many actually welcome behavioral and other advertising.  Consumers in the U.S. and abroad have shown receptiveness to “flash sales,” instant coupons and other deals, including those geared to their geo-location.

Emerging Privacy and Consumer Protection Trends

While advertisers interact with consumers and many consumers welcome offers and information, regulators’ and individuals’ concerns with the privacy of personal information dominate the landscape.  Almost a year after the notorious Target data breach, and with the holiday shopping season approaching, all stakeholders are understandably cautious about how to utilize various methods of marketing while securing consumer information.  Even assuming a network is secure, the FTC, state attorney generals, foreign regulators, consumer advocacy groups and consumers want to know how personal data is being collected, utilized and shared.  In the consumer protection context, the FTC actively enforces the Federal Trade Commission Act’s prohibition on “deceptive acts and practices,” requiring that advertisers have substantiation for product claims.

Two Significant Forces – the FTC and California’s Attorney General

Top representatives from the FTC and the California Attorney General presented at the conference.  Both representatives asserted their agencies remain active in enforcing their consumer protection and privacy laws, especially as to certain areas.  Jessica Rich, Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, discussed the agency’s focus on advertising substantiation, particularly as to claims involving disease prevention and cure, weight loss, and learning enrichment (such as the “Your Baby Can Read “ case).

On the privacy side, Ms. Rich also noted the FTC’s specialized role in enforcing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”).  The FTC’s recent action against Yelp demonstrates that the FTC will not hesitate to enforce COPPA even where a website is not a child-focused website, per se. If a website or online service (such as a mobile app) collects personal information from children under 13, it must comply with COPPA’s notice and consent requirements. The agency is also exploring the privacy and consumer protection concerns associated with interconnected devices, known as “the Internet of Things.”

The representative from the California Attorney General’s office noted that California has a keen interest in mobile apps, as demonstrated by its action against Delta for allegedly failing to have a privacy policy available through its mobile app.  California is also gearing up for its “Eraser Law,” set to go in effect on January 1, 2015. This law provides an opportunity for young people under 18 to “erase” embarrassing or damaging content they posted online, including on social media.

Promotions – Sweepstakes, Contests, Games

While some may think sweepstakes and contests are outdated, the opposite is true. Companies are utilizing mobile and social networks to engage with consumers through promotions.  Facebook and Pinterest-based sweepstakes and contests continue to grow in popularity. Advertisers also increasingly look to “text-based” offerings.

These promotions can generate great marketing visibility and grow consumer relationships. However, advertisers need to be aware of many legal minefields.  First and foremost is the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), which requires prior express “written” consent for advertisements sent to mobile phones via text or calls utilizing an autodialer or prerecorded message.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers continue to file hundreds of TCPA class actions based on texts without consent.  Second, the social networks have their own policies. For instance, Facebook now bars advertisers from requiring consumers to “like” a company Facebook page in order to participate in a promotion.

Take Aways

BAA conference sessions were packed – many standing room only.  The popularity of programs about comparative advertising, native advertising, sweepstakes and contests, and enforcement trends demonstrates that advertisers are finding innovative ways to reach consumers across devices. These marketing initiatives face a host of federal, state, and international laws and regulations, as well as restrictions imposed by social networks and providers.  It’s an exciting and complex juncture in global marketing.

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