CFPB Issues Policy on Contractual ‘Gag’ Clauses and Fake Review Fraud

reviewImage by Gerd Altmann

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued policy guidance this week regarding potentially illegal practices related to consumer reviews. The CFPB seeks to ensure that customers can write reviews, particularly ones posted online, about financial products and services that accurately reflect their opinions and experiences. The guidance also highlights that practices such as posting fake reviews or inserting clauses that forbid a customer from publishing an honest review may violate the Consumer Financial Protection Act.

“In America, no corporation should be able to silence a customer from posting an honest review online,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “Corporate disinformation campaigns that suppress legitimate reviews or manufacture fake reviews are not only a threat to free speech and fair competition, they are also illegal.”

Many families learn about and shop for credit cards, mortgages, and other financial products online, including through third-party websites that include customer reviews and ratings. Customer reviews are an important way to promote competitive markets. However, if reviews are unreliable, it might reduce the incentive for companies to provide quality service.

The CFPB’s guidance describes certain business practices related to customer reviews that are generally unlawful under the Consumer Financial Protection Act, including:

  • Contractual ‘Gag’ Clauses: Attempting to silence consumers from posting an online review can undermine fair competition. Banks and financial companies that include clauses in form contracts that forbid a consumer from posting an honest review may be engaged in unfair or deceptive practices.
  • Fake Reviews: Markets can be harmed if consumers cannot trust that online reviews are legitimate. Laundering fake reviews in ways that appear completely independent from the company to improve their ratings may constitute a deceptive practice.
  • Review Suppression or Manipulation: Consumers cannot easily shop and compare products and services when firms engage in practices to limit the posting of negative reviews or manipulate reviews to trick or confuse consumers. The guidance explains why these practices may be unlawful.
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This effort is related to the Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to deter fake reviews and related fraud across the digital economy. The FTC recently voted to put hundreds of businesses on notice about fake reviews and misleading endorsements, which may result in significant penalties against marketers that engage in this misconduct.

Banks and financial companies should ensure that their customer review practices comply with all applicable laws, including the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Violations are subject to civil penalties and other legal consequences.

Read: Unfair and Deceptive Acts or Practices That Impede Consumer Reviews

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