FTC Proposes $7.8m Fine for BetterHelp

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The FTC has proposed a multimillion-dollar fine for an online counseling firm which broke its promise to customers by sharing their sensitive health information for advertising.

As well as the $7.8m fine, BetterHelp will be banned from sharing any more consumer health data, including information on mental health issues, for the purposes of advertising, according to the terms of the order.

The California-headquartered firm offers online counseling services under various brands, including Faithful Counseling for Christians, Pride Counseling for the LGBTQ community, and Teen Counseling for younger customers.

Prior to being matched with a counselor, customers must fill out a questionnaire that asks for sensitive mental health information – such as whether they have experienced depression or suicidal thoughts and are on any medications, according to the FTC. It also includes personally identifiable information like names, email addresses and birth dates.

Although BetterHelp promised not to use or disclose this info except for limited purposes, such as to provide counseling, it in fact shared customer email addresses, IP addresses and health questionnaire information with Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest, the regulator claimed.

“When a person struggling with mental health issues reaches out for help, they do so in a moment of vulnerability and with an expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit. Let this proposed order be a stout reminder that the FTC will prioritize defending Americans’ sensitive data from illegal exploitation.”

The FTC claimed that BetterHelp manage to make millions in revenue and bring in tens of thousands of new customers after Facebook used this data to identify similar consumers and target them with ads for the company’s counseling service.

BetterHelp also misled users and the public in 2020 by falsely denying news reports that it revealed consumers’ personal information, the FTC complaint alleged.

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