The Federal Trade Commission is 100 years old.
In September 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the federal agency that is charged with protecting consumers and promoting competition. Other news of the year included the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, the opening of the Panama Canal and the women’s suffrage movement.
The FTC evolved from the Bureau of Corporations, which was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The new agency was given broad civil jurisdiction over consumer fraud and now enforces more than 60 laws that affect consumers. Cases that involve potential criminal conduct are referred to the agency’s special Criminal Liaison Unit.
The FTC protects consumers by stopping unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices in the marketplace. The agency conducts investigations and brings lawsuits against companies and individuals accused of violating consumer laws. In fiscal 2013, the FTC returned more than $36 million to consumers and sent almost $153 million in fines and fees to the U.S. Treasury, according to the commission.
The FTC also promotes competition by enforcing antitrust laws. It challenges anticompetitive mergers and business practices that could harm consumers by resulting in higher prices, lower quality, fewer choices or reduced rates of innovation.
The Criminal Liaison Unit works with state and federal law enforcement agencies in consumer fraud prosecutions, including those related to mortgage relief, telemarketing, bogus health products and sweepstakes.
Since its launch in 2003, unit prosecutors and their law enforcement partners have indicted more than 550 defendants and their associates, including 65 convictions or guilty pleas in fiscal year 2013, the FTC reports.
Among its recent enforcement actions, the FTC filed a “mobile cramming” complaint against AT&T Mobility alleging that the telecommunications company overbilled its customers. AT&T agreed to pay $80 million in customer refunds as part of a settlement announced by the FTC in October 2014.
The agency alleged that AT&T billed its customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in charges originated by other companies for ringtones and text messages containing fun facts, horoscopes and love tips. According to the commission, AT&T kept at least 35% of the charges it imposed on customers, who typically were billed at $9.99 per month.
“This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections … are fully applicable in the mobile environment,” commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement.
Although it was the FTC’s seventh mobile cramming case since 2013, telephone and mobile services complaints only ranked fifth among the commission’s top consumer complaints during that fiscal year.
Cases involving identity theft topped the list, followed by debt collection, bankers and lenders, and imposter scams.