Created in 1914 to bust the trusts – monolithic corporations that frequently engaged in unfair trading practices and stifled competition – the FTC has evolved from that singular purpose to become a far-reaching federal oversight agency.
Beyond promoting fair marketplace competition, today’s FTC also strives to keep businesses honest by enforcing prohibitions against illegal or unfair practices and by protecting consumers.
The FTC's many duties are handled by different bureaus, which are in turn subdivided into divisions charged with specific tasks.
The Bureau of Consumer Protection safeguards consumers against unfair, deceptive or fraudulent business practices and is further divided into the following agencies:
- The Division of Advertising Practices, which regulates print, broadcast and online media. This includes marketing aimed at children; tobacco and alcohol advertising; health claims made by manufacturers of drugs, dietary supplements and foods; and performance claims by computer manufacturers, Internet service providers and other high-tech products and services.
- The Division of Consumer and Business Education, which plans, develops and implements campaigns to educate and empower consumers to make smart, informed choices when buying goods or utilizing services. To that end, the division also maintains Web sites including Consumer.gov and Firstgov.gov.
- The Division of Enforcement, which ensures compliance with federal court orders entered in consumer protection cases; conducts investigations and prosecutes civil actions to stop fraudulent, unfair or deceptive practices; and enforces consumer protection laws and guidelines.
- The Division of Financial Practices, which regulates financial institutions, lenders, credit agencies and debt collectors.
- The Division of Marketing Practices, which investigates and regulates marketers and soliciting activities, including telemarketers, Internet spammers, direct mail and pyramid schemes.
- The Division of Planning and Information, which gathers and analyzes consumer information for use by law enforcement and education programs as well as responds to consumer complaints.
- The Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, which helps consumers protect their credit, their banking and financial information and their personal information from identity theft.
- The Bureau of Competition is the FTC's antitrust arm and ensures that mergers and corporate acquisitions don't interfere with the competition that keeps commerce healthy. It reviews potential mergers and/or acquisitions to see what effect they might have on their industry or the economy at large and works to ensure that consumers have a choice of providers for a particular product or service.
- The Bureau of Economics evaluates the impact of the agency's actions, regulations and guidelines, both on industry and on the public. It provides economic guidelines for the enforcement of those regulations and analyzes how various markets and industries work as well as the dynamics that keep them going.
Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer and a former copy editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer.