California-based CRI Genetics, LLC (CRI) will pay a $700,000 civil penalty and will be barred from a wide range of deceptive practices to settle charges from the Federal Trade Commission and the California Attorney General that the company deceived users about the accuracy of its DNA reports.
In a joint complaint filed in federal district, the agencies say that in marketing its DNA-based ancestry and information reports, CRI deceived consumers about the accuracy of its test reports compared with those of other DNA testing companies, falsely claimed to have patented an algorithm for its genetic matching process and used fake reviews and testimonials on its websites. CRI also used “dark patterns” in its online billing process to trick consumers into paying for products they did not want and did not agree to buy, according to the complaint.
“Today’s action continues the FTC’s crackdown on deceptive reviews, dark patterns, and baseless claims around algorithmic solutions,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We are proud to partner with California on this important matter and will continue to carefully scrutinize claims around biometric information technologies.”
This action follows the Commission’s Biometric Policy Statement, which states that unsubstantiated marketing claims relating to the validity, reliability, accuracy, performance, fairness, or efficacy of technologies using biometric information violate the FTC Act.
CRI, also doing business as OmniPGX, advertises, markets, distributes, and sells DNA test kits and ancestry and health and wellness reports to consumer nationwide. Since at least 2017, CRI has marketed and sold DNA saliva swab test kits on its website, along with reports generated from the kits processed by a third-party laboratory. The reports provide consumers with information about their genetic ancestry, potential health and wellness traits and conditions, and paternity.
The complaint charges that CRI violated the FTC Act, California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business and Professions Code, and the state’s False Advertising Law, Business and Professions code in several ways. First, CRI allegedly made false claims on its websites and social media that its ancestry reports were more accurate and detailed than other major DNA testing companies, such as Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.
The agencies say that CRI also misrepresented that its ancestry testing reports would show consumers exactly where their relatives are from and when they were there dating back 50 plus generations, with an accuracy rate of more than 90 percent. The company ran ads featuring a prominent genetic scientist who developed CRI’s algorithm for matching DNA, which it falsely claimed was patented, according to the complaint.
Further, CRI posted fake reviews from supposedly “satisfied customers” on its websites and falsely claimed they only had a limited supply of the tests to entice consumers to buy them quickly. The company also published star rating reviews comparing CRI’s reports to other companies on the market on what appeared to be independent and unbiased websites, without disclosing that CRI owned the websites, which also provided links to purchase the company’s test kits.
The complaint states CRI forced consumers to click through a maze of pop-up pages on its websites, falsely promising “special rewards” and then trapped consumers by saying their order “was not complete.” CRI also deceptively told consumers that they would have a chance to review their orders before being charged for them, but instead immediately charged them, forcing consumers to return the unwanted products.
In addition to paying a $700,000 civil penalty to California, the order will prohibit CRI from making the misrepresentations alleged by the agencies and bars it from misrepresentations made in connection with the advertising, offering for sale, or sale of any DNA information testing product or service. Next, it prohibits CRI from misrepresentations related to endorsements, reviews, and ratings and requires the company to disclose any material connection with social media or other endorsers.
The order also will prohibit CRI from misrepresenting when product orders are final or complete, when charges will take place, and whether consumers can change the services they choose before being charged. CRI must also disclose the total cost of all products or services to consumers, when they will be charged, and whether they can confirm, edit, or delete products before they are charged.
In addition, the order will require CRI to obtain consumers’ consent and to describe to consumers how it may share their DNA information. The company will also be required to delete the genetic and other information of those consumers who previously received refunds and requested that their data and other personal information be deleted.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and stipulated final order was 3-0. The FTC filed the complaint and proposed final order in the U.S. District Court for the District of Central District of California.
The lead staff attorney on this matter was Nadine Samter of the FTC’s Northwest Region.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the named defendants are violating or are about to violate the law and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. Stipulated final injunctions/orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.