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Understanding FTC Investigative Authority and Enforcement Powers


Understanding FTC Investigative Authority and Enforcement Powers

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the government agency tasked with protecting consumers and promoting competition. The FTC enforces various consumer protection and antitrust laws that prohibit unfair, deceptive, or anti-competitive business practices. When companies violate these laws, the FTC has broad authority to investigate and bring enforcement actions.

This article provides an overview of the FTC’s investigative and enforcement powers. We’ll cover the key laws that empower the FTC, the types of investigations it conducts, the enforcement actions available, and the process for resolving FTC charges. While we get into some legal details, we try to explain things in simple terms anyone can understand.

FTC’s Legal Authority

Several laws form the backbone of the FTC’s authority:

  • Federal Trade Commission Act – Prohibits unfair methods of competition and unfair/deceptive acts or practices. This is the primary statute enforced by the FTC.
  • Clayton Act – Prohibits anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions.
  • Other laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Telemarketing Sales Rule, and more.

Under these laws, the FTC has the power to:

  • Conduct investigations into potential violations
  • Issue subpoenas to obtain testimony and evidence
  • Initiate enforcement actions through administrative litigation or federal court
  • Seek injunctive relief, consumer redress, disgorgement of profits
  • Impose civil penalties for certain violations

This combination of broad investigative powers and robust enforcement tools makes the FTC a formidable regulator.

FTC Investigations

The FTC conducts both public and non-public investigations. Public investigations are made known through resolutions or press releases. Non-public investigations are kept confidential to protect companies and individuals involved.

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Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
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Keisha Parris
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Taïko Beauty
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Anthony Williams
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Loveth Okpedo
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Investigations typically begin when the FTC obtains information suggesting there may be a violation. This can come from:

  • Consumer or business complaints
  • Congressional inquiries
  • News articles
  • Referrals from other agencies
  • Pre-merger notification filings
  • FTC monitoring and other sources

Once the FTC opens an investigation, it has broad authority to compel cooperation. This includes the power to:

  • Issue subpoenas demanding documents, testimony, or other information
  • Conduct interviews or depositions of company officials
  • Inspect company records, manufacturing facilities, or other physical property

Companies under FTC investigation are required to fully comply. If they refuse, the FTC can seek a court order to enforce the subpoena or information request. Obstructing an FTC investigation can lead to further legal action.

FTC Enforcement Actions

If an FTC investigation uncovers evidence of legal violations, the agency may pursue enforcement actions to hold companies accountable. The FTC has several options available:

Administrative Litigation

The FTC can initiate a formal administrative proceeding by filing a complaint against the company. This is much like a trial, with pre-trial discovery, motions, witness testimony, and document submissions. At the conclusion, an administrative law judge issues an initial decision. This can be appealed to the full Federal Trade Commission for a final ruling.

Federal Court Litigation

For certain violations, the FTC has the authority to file a complaint directly in federal court rather than pursuing administrative litigation. Reasons for going to federal court include:

  • Seeking a preliminary injunction to quickly halt illegal conduct while the case proceeds
  • Pursuing disgorgement of ill-gotten gains or civil penalties, which are not available administratively
  • Avoiding duplication of DOJ efforts in antitrust cases


The vast majority of FTC enforcement actions result in negotiated settlements to resolve the charges. Typical settlement components include:

  • Agreement to stop the problematic practices
  • Consumer redress or refund program
  • Disgorgement of ill-gotten profits
  • Civil penalties
  • Compliance monitoring and reporting

Settlements avoid prolonged litigation and provide more timely relief for consumers. The FTC inserts sunset provisions so the order automatically terminates after 20 years unless there are violations.

Practical Tips

Here are some practical tips for anyone who finds themselves or their company subject to an FTC investigation:

  • Take it seriously from the outset – FTC inquiries often lead to enforcement actions
  • Consult an attorney experienced with FTC matters
  • Cooperate fully with all information requests
  • Preserve all potentially relevant documents, communications, data
  • Consider negotiating a settlement to mitigate risk
  • Develop a communications plan to manage public relations
  • Tighten compliance practices going forward

Dealing with the FTC can be daunting given its broad powers and aggressive enforcement reputation. Understanding the agency’s authority, investigation tactics, and enforcement options allows companies to respond effectively.


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