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Federal Trade Commission Checks Out Mobile Shopping Apps
September 4, 2014

Federal Trade Commission Checks Out Mobile Shopping Apps

By: Michelle Cohen

 

In August, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) released a staff report concerning mobile shopping applications (“apps”).  FTC staff reviewed some of the most popular apps consumers utilize to comparison shop, collect and redeem deals and discounts, and pay in-store with their mobile devices.  This new report focused on shopping apps offering price comparison, special deals, and mobile payments. The August report is available here.

Popularity of Mobile Shopping Apps/FTC Interest

Shoppers can empower themselves in the retail environment by comparison shopping via their smartphones in real-time.  According to a 2014 Report by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 44% of smartphone owners report using their mobile phones to comparison shop while in retail store, and 68% of those consumers changed where they made a purchase as a result.  Consumers can also get instant coupons and deals to present at checkout.  With a wave of a phone at the checkout counter, consumers can then make purchases.

While the shopping apps have surged in popularity, the FTC staff is concerned about consumer protection, data security and privacy issues associated with the apps. The FTC studied what types of disclosures and practices control in the event of unauthorized transactions, billing errors, or other payment-related disputes.  The agency also examined the disclosures that apps provide to consumers concerning data privacy and security.

 Apps Lack Important Information

FTC staff concluded that many of the apps they reviewed failed to provide consumers with important pre-download information.  In particular, only a few of the in-store purchase apps gave consumers information describing how the app handled payment-related disputes and consumers’ liability for charges (including unauthorized charges).

FTC staff determined that fourteen out of thirty in-store purchase apps did not disclose whether they had any dispute resolution or liability limits policies prior to download.  And, out of sixteen apps that provided pre-download information about dispute resolution procedures or liability limits, only nine of those apps provided written protections for users.  Some apps disclaimed all liability for losses.

Data Security Information Vague

FTC staff focused particular attention on data privacy and security, because more than other technologies, mobile devices are personal to a user, always on, and frequently with the user. These features enable an app to collect a huge amount of information, such as location, interests, and affiliations, which could be shared broadly with third parties.  Staff noted that, “while almost all of the apps stated that they share personal data, 29 percent of price comparison apps, 17 percent of deal apps, and 33 percent of in-store purchase apps reserved the right to share users’ personal data without restriction.”

Staff concluded that while privacy disclosures are improving, they tend to be overly broad and confusing. In addition, app developers may not be considering whether they even have a business need for all the information they are collecting.  As to data security, staff noted it did not test the services to verify the security promises made.  However, FTC staff reminded companies that it has taken enforcement actions against mobile apps it believed to have failed to secure personal data (such as Snapchat and Credit Karma).  The report states, “Staff encourages vendors of shopping apps, and indeed vendors of all apps that collect consumer data, to secure the data they collect.  Further those apps must honor any representations about security that they make to consumers.”

FTC Staff Recommends Better Disclosures and Data Security Practices

The report urges companies to disclose to consumers their rights and liability limits for unauthorized, fraudulent, or erroneous transactions.  Organizations offering these shopping apps should also explain to consumers what protections they have based on their methods of payment and what options are available for resolving payment and billing disputes.  Companies should provide clear, detailed explanations for how they collect, use and share consumer data.  And, apps must put promises into practice by abiding by data security representations.

Consumer Responsibility Plays Role, Too

Importantly, the FTC staff report does not place the entire burden on companies offering the mobile apps. Rather, FTC staff urge consumers to be proactive when using these apps.  The staff report recommends that consumers look for and consider the dispute resolution and liability limits of the apps they download.  Consumers should also analyze what payment method to use when purchasing via these apps. If consumers cannot find sufficient information, they should consider an alternative app, or make only small purchases.

While a great “deal” could be available with a click on a smartphone, the FTC staff urges consumers to review available information on how their personal and financial data may be collected, used and shared while they get that deal.  If consumers are not satisfied with the information provided regarding data privacy and security, then staff recommends that they choose a different app, or limit the financial and personal financial data they provide.  (Though that last piece of advice may not be practical considering most shopping apps require a certain level of personal and financial information simply to complete a transaction).

Deal or No Deal?  FTC Will be Watching New Shopping Apps

               FTC Staff has concerns about mobile payments and will continue to focus on consumer protections.  The agency has taken several enforcement actions against companies for failing to secure personal and payment information and it does not appear to be slowing down.  While the FTC recognizes the benefits of these new shopping and payment technologies, it is also keenly aware of the enormous amount of data obtained by companies when consumers use these services. Thus, companies should anticipate that the FTC will continue to monitor shopping and deal apps with particular attention on disclosures and data practices.