In a 25-page complaint (click for PDF) filed last week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the Federal Trade Commission accused 11 companies and two executives allegedly associated with the sites MovieLand, MoviePass.tv, Popcorn and MediaCaster.net of violating federal laws that prohibit unfair and deceptive practices since at least fall 2005.
Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna filed a parallel complaint (click for PDF) on Monday in King County Superior Court in Seattle, accusing MovieLand, MoviePass and Popcorn of violating the state's consumer protection and spyware laws.
"Thousands of consumers nationwide have complained to my office, the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau and others about the defendants' unfair practices," and state investigators have been on the case for seven months, McKenna said in a statement.
Each of the sites named in the complaints offers a piece of Windows-only software designed to act as a "download manager." Variously called MediaPipe, FileGrabber and Media Assistant, the programs claim to allow registered users access to a wide array of content. (The--led by Google, Lenovo, Sun Microsystems, prominent academics and consumer groups--has already relegated MediaPipe, for one, to its list of the Web's "worst offenders" in the spyware and adware arena.)
Consumers have the option of signing up for a three-day trial, after which they begin to encounter pop-up windows that demand payment of a license fee, which ranges from $19.95 for a 30-day stint to $99 for more comprehensive uses, the complaints said. According to the FTC complaint, the pop-ups "significantly disrupt consumers' use of their computers," as they "redisplay again and again with ever-increasing frequency."
The sites warn consumers that they are "legally obligated" to pay the fees being demanded and could find blemishes on their credit status if they fail to do so, the complaints said. Legally speaking, that obligation is an "empty" threat because users weren't adequately notified about the "relentless pop-up demands," McKenna said.
The complaints also allege that the software is unreasonably difficult to remove from a consumer's machine because it makes changes to the Windows system registry upon installation. And people who tried to uninstall the software through the Windows Control Panel were ultimately redirected to the download service's Web site, which again demanded payment of the license fees, the complaint said.
Even those with "advanced computer skills" would need to spend "significant time" to remove all of the components, while less savvy users would likely need the help of a "service technician," the federal regulators wrote.
Customer service representatives also proved elusive, according to the federal complaint, with at least one service accused of providing only a 900 number that cautioned a $34.95 charge would incur if the caller didn't hang up within 3 seconds.
Representatives from the primary companies named in the complaint as responsible for the sites were unreachable or did not respond to requests for comment. A MediaCaster representative reached by phone denied an interview request. In consumer Web forums about the products, company representatives have been quoted as denying that their services dump adware onto users' machines.
The FTC said a federal judge has already denied its request for a temporary restraining order against the companies, and a full trial is set to be scheduled "at a later time." Both complaints seek monetary penalties and court orders barring the allegedly illegal conduct from continuing.