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Deceptive Trade Practices

Deceptive trade practices, including deceptive marketing and false earnings claims.

Stolen Valor Marketing: Targeting Military Veterans

By Internet Lawyer
audio murphy and stolen valor marketing

Public domain photo of World War II Veteran Audie Murphy used to market moving company services to veterans

There’s a company called “Moving Masters” that appears to be promoting itself online by stolen valor marketing, that is, hijacking the heroism of America’s war heroes to sell relocation services to veterans and senior citizens.

The company website claims that it is “an American owned and operated moving company whose immediate and extended family members were active World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans.”

Audie Murphy and Stolen Valor Marketing

The moving company uses in social media a public domain photo of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy as well as a bio for the deceased World War II hero that the company claims comes from the 59 Veterans Project.*

moving masters tweet

Tweet by Moving Masters promoting services using Audie Murphy

moving masters facebook post

Facebook post by moving company using Audie Murphy in its marketing

moving masters google plus

Google+ post that also promotes the moving company using Audie Murphy

Online research reveals no connection whatsoever between Audie Murphy and the company. There is no evidence to show either Murphy’s estate or family endorsed the use of his military accomplishments to sell moving services by this company.

So why is the company using Murphy to sell its services? Because Murphy’s heroism appeals to veterans and senior citizens.

Stolen Valor Marketing Using the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

vietnam veterans memorial wall

Should war memorials be used in marketing products and services?

Appealing to the same demographics, the company website’s Seniors & Veterans page shows an uncaptioned photo of what appears to be a veteran touching a name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There is no indication this man has endorsed the moving services or why a memorial for American military killed in action during the Vietnam War would be relevant to this moving company.

Veterans Marketing Offer

On multiple social media sites (Google+, Facebook, etc.), the company claims “But we have to admit we value our seniors and veterans most of all, perhaps. Just visit our Seniors & Veterans page on our website and you’ll see what we mean.” [emphasis added]

Perhaps?

The moving company’s website contains the following offer to veterans.

veterans marketing offer

Is offering the same deal to veterans as to others “special?”

This is the exact same rebate offered to “seniors relocating out of New York” and “local entire house relocations.” According to the site, the offers cannot be combined.

In short, veterans might save “up to 10%” after being inspired to purchase by photos of Audie Murphy and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Is Stolen Valor Marketing Legal?

When a person engages in stolen valor by lying about personal military service or wearing unearned medals, the courts have generally upheld the “right” to do so as protected free speech under the First Amendment. You can learn more about this problem at StolenValor.com.

What about stolen valor marketing? Is it legal?

That depends. Commercial speech doesn’t enjoy the same legal protections as pretending you’re a retired Navy SEAL at the local VFW.**

If investigated by the government (e.g. the Federal Trade Commission or a state Attorney General’s consumer protection division), the key issue would be whether the marketing was fraudulent or deceptive.

Even if stolen valor marketing is legal (like flag burning), just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.

* This article does not analyze the 59 Veterans Project, its legitimacy, or any affiliation between the project and the moving company.

59-veterans-project

Tweet by moving company promoting 59 Veterans Project

** Even if legal to do so, pretending to be a former Navy SEAL is a good way to get your ass kicked.

*** No opinion is provided as to the quality or pricing of the moving company’s services. The purpose of this article is solely to discuss stolen valor marketing practices. Perform due diligence before purchasing from any vendor of products or services.

Internet Law News: Kickstarter Crowdfunding Campaign Nailed by FTC

By Internet Lawyer
kickstarter crowdfunding

FTC cracks down on dishonest Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission just cracked down on alleged deceptive trade practices in a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

According to the FTC, funds were raised for a project to produce a board game. However, the fundraiser never delivered the rewards he promised to his financial backers and he didn’t offer refunds either. Instead, he spent the money on personal expenses and other items unrelated to the board game.

It’s important to note that there was no allegation of wrongdoing by Kickstarter. The FTC went after the fundraiser.

Under the settlement reached with the FTC, the fundraiser “is prohibited from making misrepresentations about any crowdfunding campaign and from failing to honor stated refund policies. He is also barred from disclosing or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information, and failing to dispose of such information properly. The order imposes a $111,793.71 judgment that will be suspended due to [his] inability to pay. The full amount will become due immediately if he is found to have misrepresented his financial condition.”

Lesson to learn? If you’re going to crowdfund to raise money, be sure to honor your commitments. Taking the money and spending it on yourself is a bad idea from both a legal and ethical standpoint.

Related reading: Crowdfunding Project Creator Settles FTC Charges of Deception

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Fake Customer Reviews and Internet Law

By Internet Lawyer

Professor Eric Goldman has an excellent post about Internet fake client reviews: What Are Appropriate Compensatory Damages for 3 Fake Competitor Reviews? The Surprising Answer–Fireworks Restoration v. Hosto.

Nominal actual damages were awarded but $150,000 in punitive damages were slapped against the guy writing negative fake client reviews against his former business partner.

As I’ve explained to my Internet law clients, there are plenty of ways to compete fairly online without resorting to “black hat” marketing tactics that end up costing your business far more than you’ll ever make by using them.

Given the importance of online client reviews to many companies, both Internet-based and brick-and-mortar establishments, this issue will continue to wind its way through the courts because the temptation to post fake negative reviews is simply too great for some to pass up. You see it all the time in reviews on Google, Amazon, etc. Someone with an axe to grind decides to smear the reputation of a company by posting a false client review.

No one says you have to promote your competitor’s business online. But it’s good practice to treat your competitor’s reputation the same way you’d like your competitor to treat yours when engaging in Internet marketing strategies and tactics.

Does Google have the right to slap your website?

By Internet Lawyer
Internet lawyer Google Slap

Has your website suffered a Google slap?

As an Internet lawyer, I’m hearing the uproar out there because Google has changed its search engine algorithms to penalize websites that deliver “low-value” content.

Some website owners claim that a Google slap is illegal because it hurts their businesses. Can Google legally knock your site down in the search engine rankings?

Absolutely.

Google is a publicly-traded company (not owned by the government) that crawls the web and ranks content as it sees fit. Those who use Google Search are wanting relevant results, not low-value content.

And Google gets to decide the value it places on the content of each website. You don’t…and neither do I.

EXAMPLE: I’d love for Google to place Website Legal Forms Generator software ( http://LegalFormsGenerator.com ) as the #1 result for privacy policies every other search anyone does about protecting their online businesses from lawsuits, government investigations and other legal dangers.

But you can’t force Google to do something like that, just like Google can’t demand you install a Google Search box at the top of every page on your website.

Like Google, you can expect Bing and the lesser search engines to constantly improve their algorithms in order to produce what they believe are relevant search results. That may seem unfair if you’ve been slapped…but it’s their ballparks so they get to make the rules.

Can the owner of a search engine be held liable for results? Sure. If the search engine results are rigged to intentionally slap you because you’re a competitor, there might be a deceptive trade practice occurring.

Similarly, if the search engine results are “fixed” by intentionally reporting falsely that your website infects visitors with viruses or spyware, there might be liability. If that happens, you’ll want to huddle with your Internet lawyer to map out a game plan.

But modifying algorithms and applying them across the board is a business decision, not violating the law. If Google screws up doing this, it will have to backtrack or a competitor like Bing will grab market share by providing more relevant results.

To your online success!

-Mike the Internet lawyer

Should you 4G your website?

By Internet Lawyer

As your Internet attorney can explain to you in detail, when you’re marketing products and services online, there’s a fine line between creating a unique niche for yourself that distinguishes you from your competitors and making dishonest misrepresentations.
Beyond the Internet, this happens in other ecommerce too. For example, there’s been a rush by cell phone companies to advertise new 4G networks.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard definition for exactly what 4G is that you can rely upon when choosing your carrier based upon speed. It seems that anything faster than 3G is now being called 4G.
Seriously.
AT&T’s marketing department magically waved a wand and pronounced my existing 3G had been transformed to 4G without doing anything more than renaming their existing technology. No speed change. Just a repositioning to stay in the game so they don’t lose clients to competitors claiming to have 4G networks.
This “magic” rebranding includes slapping 4G labels on new phones.
Should you imitate this 4G tactic in your business? Talk with your Internet attorney before doing so.
From a legal standpoint, it’s treading in a gray area. It remains to be seen whether the FCC or FTC will step in and say something about deceptive trade practices. From an ethical standpoint, it crosses the line.
Feel free to create your own online niches, define them, and dominate them. Just don’t take the 4G low road and deceive your clients with misrepresentations. Their trust in you and your self-respect is worth far more than what can be gained by a few extra sales gained by trickery.
To your online success!
-Mike the Internet Attorney