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Retailer Rebuked by FTC for Posting Fake Online Reviews

But two commissioners say the agency is going too easy on the firm.

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Retailers of all types want a flattering online presence, but a new Federal Trade Commission case serves as a warning: Fake reviews don’t pay.

The FTC has halted what it calls the “deceptive online marketing tactics” of a company that allegedly used fake product reviews posted by its employees on a well-known retail website.

Cosmetics firm Sunday Riley Modern Skincare LLC and its CEO, Sunday Riley, have agreed to settle an FTC complaint, according to a press release from the agency. They were alleged to have posted fake reviews to Sephora.

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“Dishonesty in the online marketplace harms shoppers, as well as firms that play fair and square,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “… It undermines the marketplace, and the FTC will not tolerate it.”

Wired.com noted, however, that the settlement “did not require the company to admit fault, notify customers of the fraud, or turn over any ill-gotten gains.”

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As such, Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who along with Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter dissented from the FTC decision, stated: “Dishonest firms may come to conclude that posting fake reviews is a viable strategy, given the proposed outcome here. Honest firms, who are the biggest victims of this fraud, may be wondering if they are losing out by following the law. Consumers may come to lack confidence that reviews are truthful.”

As detailed in the FTC’s complaint, Texas-based Sunday Riley Skincare sells a variety of cosmetic products, including Luna Sleeping Night Oil, Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, Blue Moon Tranquility Cleansing Balm, Start Over Active Eye Gel Cream, Bionic Anti-Aging Cream and C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum. The company sells its cosmetics at Sephora, a multinational chain of personal care and beauty stores, and on the Sephora.com website. The products sell for between $22 and $158 each, according to the FTC.

Sephora allows consumers to leave customer reviews of products sold on its website, providing a forum for sharing authentic feedback about the products it sells, the FTC explained. In its complaint, the agency alleged that between November 2015 and August 2017, Sunday Riley Skincare managers, including Riley herself, posted reviews of their branded products on the Sephora site using fake accounts created to hide their identity, and requested that other Sunday Riley Skincare employees do the same thing.

The FTC alleged that after Sephora removed fake employee-written reviews, Sunday Riley Skincare employees suspected this was because Sephora recognized the reviews as coming from their IP addresses. Sunday Riley Skincare then allegedly obtained, according to one of the company’s managers, “an Express VPN account [to] … allow us to hide our IP address and location when we write reviews.” A VPN (virtual private network) lets users access the internet privately using separate servers to hide their online activity.

The FTC complaint also quoted from a July 2016 email that Riley wrote to her staff directing each of them to “create three accounts on Sephora.com, registered as … different identities.” The email included step-by-step instructions for setting up new personas and using a VPN to hide their identities, and directed employees to focus on certain products, to “[a]lways leave 5 stars” when reviewing Sunday Riley Skincare products, and to “dislike” negative reviews. “If you see a negative review – DISLIKE it,” Riley wrote, adding: “After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates into sales!!”

The FTC’s complaint charged Sunday Riley Skincare and the CEO with two violations of the FTC Act: 1.) making false or misleading claims that the fake reviews reflected the opinions of ordinary users of the products; and 2.) deceptively failing to disclose that the reviews were written by Riley or her employees.

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The proposed administrative order settling the FTC’s allegations against Sunday Riley Skincare and Riley is intended to ensure the respondents do not engage in similar allegedly illegal conduct in the future, according to the release. First, the order “prohibits the respondents, in connection with the sale of any product, from misrepresenting the status of any endorser or person reviewing the product,” according to the agency. This includes misrepresentations that the endorser or reviewer is an independent or ordinary user of the product.

Next, the order “prohibits the respondents from making any representation about any consumer or other product endorser without clearly and conspicuously disclosing any unexpected material connection between the endorser and any respondent or entity affiliated with the product.” Such disclosures must be made in close proximity to the product review or endorsement.

In addition, the order requires the respondents to instruct their employees and agents about their responsibilities to clearly and conspicuously disclose their connections to the respondents’ products in any endorsements.

The Commission vote approving the administrative complaint and proposed consent order in the Sunday Riley matter was 3-2, with Chopra and Slaughter voting no.

The public may submit comments on the proposed consent order through Regulations.gov. The comment period opened on Oct. 25. Comments will be accepted for 30 days from publication in the Federal Register, after which the agency will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Comments received will be posted on Regulations.gov.

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at editor@instoremag.com.

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Jewelers to Pay $16,000 in Restitution for Scheme Targeting Military Families

They were convicted last year.

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SACRAMENTO, CA – A California jeweler must pay restitution in connection with a scheme targeting military families.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered defendants Ramil Abalkhad, owner of Romano’s Jewelers, and Melina Abalkhad, owner of MBNB Financial Inc., to pay the victims $16,440.56 by May 4, 2020.

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“Individuals who participate in despicable crimes by targeting our young men and women in uniform will pay the price,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “We hope today’s announcement brings healing and closure to the victims of this scheme. Our office will continue to protect all Californians from all types of fraud – large or small. The California Department of Justice will always have the backs of our military families.”

Romano’s Jewelers had several retail locations in California, including stores near Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, according to a press release from Becerra’s office. The Abalkhads were alleged to have targeted young Marines and sailors, encouraging the purchase of jewelry using MBNB Financial for credit. According to the criminal complaint, Ramil Abalkhad failed to provide legally required disclosures about monthly payments, interest rates and others terms of financing.

Those customers who fell behind on their payments were allegedly harassed by the defendants’ debt collectors. In addition, the complaint alleged that Romano’s Jewelers used debt collectors who falsely posed as attorneys and illegally threatened servicemembers with court martial and other military disciplinary actions.

The California Department of Justice filed a 14-count felony complaint charging the defendants with conspiracy to violate the Unruh Act, which protects consumers who buy goods or services on credit, and the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which protects Californians against unlawful debt collection practices.

Becerra announced the sentencing of the defendants in December 2018. Ramil Abalkhad was sentenced to three years of felony probation, including a requirement that he serve 90 days in jail.

He will also be required to cancel outstanding MBNB debts owed by the victims identified in the criminal complaint and was also ordered to remove any negative credit reporting by MBNB from the victims’ credit history.

Melina Abalkhad was sentenced to complete a misdemeanor diversion program for her role in operating Romano’s Jewelers affiliate MBNB Financial.

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Jewelry Distributor Arrested With $15M in Counterfeit Goods, Police Say

$15M in counterfeit merchandise was seized.

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The owner of a business in the downtown Los Angeles jewelry district has been arrested for allegedly selling counterfeit jewelry.

Moossa Lari is accused of felony trademark violation, according to a press release from the LA Police Department.

Moossa Lari

Investigators conducted several undercover buys and surveillance operations and determined that he was “a major distributor of counterfeit jewelry nationwide,” the release states.

Search warrants were served at multiple locations in the jewelry district on Nov. 7 by LAPD in collaboration with the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and Custom Border Protection.

Officers seized about $58,000 in cash and over $15 million counterfeit jewelry with Street value of over $1 million, according to the release. Counterfeit jewelry recovered included fake Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Michael Kors, Cartier, Tiffany Co., YSL, Dior, Calvin Klein, Guess, Van Cleef and Bvlgari pieces.

The counterfeit jewelry was tested at the scene and did not meet U.S. safety standards, the release states.

The standard of acceptable lead and cadmium is 90 parts per million. The seized counterfeit jewelry tested as high as 200,000 parts per million.

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Video: It’s Not My Problem When You Buy a $120 Ring and Your Wife Finds Out It’s ‘Fake’

It’s not the jeweler’s fault she got mad.

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LIKE ANY JEWELER, Cullen Wulf sometimes runs into customers who aren’t looking to spend much money.

Unfortunately, sometimes their expectations are way out of line with what they’re willing to pay.

In the video below, Cullen re-enacts a scenario where he encountered just such a customer — a customer whose wife was unhappy with her sterling silver and CZ anniversary gift.

The customer felt that Cullen was to blame, and Cullen set the record straight.

Take a look.

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