Consumers have become accustomed to seeing different icons and seals on company websites.  One of the most reassuring for years has been the TRUSTe seal.  Why?  Because companies displaying that seal did so after having their privacy practices verified according to the TRUSTe requirements about transparency and other requirements.  The latter include the company’s assertions about the options consumers will have about how their personal information will be collected and used.

Now consumers are learning that TRUSTe’s assertions about its own practices have been lacking for years.  TRUSTe has just entered into a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC had filed a complaint against TRUSTe because of two of its practices that were alleged to be false, misleading and, therefore, deceptive to consumers.

What were these practices? As Lesley Fair wrote in an FTC blog, TRUSTe claimed that companies wanting to display its “Certified Privacy Seal” underwent recertification reviews to reconfirm their privacy practices.  Plus, TRUSTe claimed that it was an independent non-profit, thus making its certifications even more objective (www.business.ftc.gov; “The FTCs TRUSTe case: when seals help seal the deal”; November 17th).

Neither was true.  As Ms. Fair writes, the FTC found that TRUSTe hadn’t done recertifications of over 1,000 incidences between 2006 and 2013.  Moreover, TRUSTe became a for profit company in 2008 yet continued carrying the misrepresentation that it was a non-profit entity on recertified websites.

This is sobering news for consumers who often don’t have the time and/or means to undertake their own verifications of a website’s privacy practices.  So can consumers continue trusting the TRUSTe seal and/or other similar seals?  Maybe, but with much more caution and with less absolute trust.