The Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint against FleetCor and its CEO, Ronald Clarke, alleging that the company charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars of "mystery fees" associated with FleetCor-issued fuel cards. 

FleetCor markets payment cards to companies that operate vehicle fleets, in order to allow vehicle drivers to purchase fuel and other transportation-related products and services.  The FTC charged FleetCor with promoting the cars by making three main claims, all of which are false or unsubstantiated -- that consumers will save money, that the cars provide fraud controls that protect customers from unauthorized transactions, and that the cards have no set-up, transaction, or membership fees.  The FTC said that, notwithstanding these claims, the company charged customers hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected fees. 

Specifically, the FTC alleged that FleetCor falsely advertised that consumers will achieve specific per-gallon savings -- such as, "earn 5 cents cash back per gallon" -- by using the company's fuel cards. The FTC said that consumers do not experience any savings, however, due to the unexpected fees that FleetCor charges that exceeds any savings consumers might experience.  The FTC said that, in addition, customers do not typically achieve the promised per-gallon savings, since they are not available at a large number of retailers that are used by drivers.  

The FTC also alleged that FleetCor falsely claimed that it had "No set-up, transaction or annual fees."  The FTC charged that, in fact, the company did charge those fees.  For example, the FTC said that many customers were charged "convenience" transaction fees of $2.00 or more per transactions when buying fuel.  

In addition, the FTC alleged that FleetCor charged customers substantial unexpected fees, including Account Administration Fees, Program Fees, Late Fees, Interest and Finance Charges, High Credit Risk Account Fees, and others. The FTC charged that, "Even if customers read FleetCor's small-print, multi-page Ts&Cs, they have not been able to determine from one billing cycle to the next which fees FleetCor will assess, how those fees could be avoided, or how much those fees will cost." 

The complaint also includes allegations that FleetCor charged customers, without authorization, for a number of programs that the company enrolled them in without their consent.  The FTC said that FleetCor either did not disclose that there were fees associated with the program or included information about "costs and what the customer must do to avoid automatically incurring the charge in very small type at the bottom of the page or the in the middle of the mailer." 

Significantly, this is not the first time that the FTC has sued FleetCor.  In 2019, the FTC sued FleetCor in federal court, based on similar allegations.  However, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision limiting the FTC's ability to get restitution by going directly to court, the FTC is now changing strategy.  By pursuing the administrative route, the FTC can seek the financial remedies that are not currently available to it by going directly to federal court.  

Samuel Levine, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, explained, "FleetCor fleeced its customers out of hundreds of millions of dollars through its dishonest practices.  The FTC will do everything it can to get money back to FleetCor’s business customers and unsuspecting fuel card users by refiling this complaint administratively. We will also continue to work with Congress on a broader legislative solution following the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG, which has hindered our ability to recover redress for families and honest businesses.” 

What are some important takeaways here?  First, this case shows that the FTC is not going to idly sit by and wait for Congress to restore the authority that the Supreme Court recently took away.  The FTC is saying loud and clear here that financial penalties are still one of the tools in its toolbox and it will continue to try to obtain them, where appropriate.  Second, one of the quickest ways to get the FTC's attention is to offer a product for one price and then to charge all sorts of hidden fees.  There's no substitute for being crystal clear about what the actual price is that consumers will have to pay.  And, if there are additional charges, or other material terms or limitations, you're never going to convince the FTC that hard-to-read, fine print disclaimers that disclose them was the way to go.  And, finally, if you do plan on signing consumers up for additional (paid) programs, make sure that you've gotten their clear, affirmative consent to do so.