By Misty J. Cygan, Attorney at Law

George Bellas Small Business Attorney

Aileron is a trained emotional support dog.

Business owners and their customers are perfectly used to service dogs who assist people with disabilities in getting around and performing daily tasks.

George-Bellas-Business-Attorney-300x195The growth of online paid subscription services that start with either a free trial that converts to automatic payments, or an upfront payment that automatically renews, have led to lawsuits challenging the clarity of such services’ terms of agreement.

A recent settlement that could total close to $2.3 million between several California jurisdictions and eHarmony, Inc., underscores the fact that small businesses offering automatic renewal subscription plans must present clear terms to customers prior to signup, and then obtain clear consent and an opt-in from customers to incur these fees.

The district attorneys of four California counties and the City of Santa Monica collectively filed the suit against eHarmony for allegedly violating state consumer protection laws—the California Business and Professions Code, and the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act. The Superior Court for the State of California for the County of Santa Cruz entered final judgment on Jan. 8.

buscemiA proposed federal rule change that would allow owners of restaurants, bars and other businesses whose employees receive tips to distribute those gratuities as they see fit would add flexibility for employers—but might raise questions in the minds of customers.

Those who agree with the Mr. Pink character from “Reservoir Dogs,” who famously refused on principle to tip a diner waitress in the movie’s opening scene, would have a whole new set of arguments to make about which jobs society deems to be tip-worthy.

Currently, a 2011 Obama-era Department of Labor rule mandates that tipped workers get to keep the 15 percent or 20 percent that’s added to the credit card receipt or stacked under the salt shaker. The rule change would allow management to pool these tips and spread the wealth more evenly, including traditionally non-tipped staffers like dishwashers and cooks.

data-protection-represents-forbidden-secured-and-wordcloud-266x300Have you thought about or bolstered your cybersecurity lately?

Because while government agencies, corporations and banks might be the top targets of would-be cyber attackers, small businesses need to make sure they’re protected, too, lest hackers succeed in their attempts to intrude and, in some form or fashion, monetize their information and data.

Such efforts start with educating yourself and your employees about malware and phishing attempts, ensuring that everyone knows not to open an attachment or click on a link—whether on their computer, phone or another device—if they don’t recognize the source.  You must regularly remind your employees and family never to open questionable emails or emails from an unknown source.   In particular, never open any attachments from people you don’t know or recognize.

identity-fingerprint-represents-log-ins-and-brand-300x225The Biometric Information Privacy Act, which the Illinois legislature passed in 2008, has led to a barrage of class action lawsuits in the past six months. Thought to be the nation’s most stringent law protecting biometric identifiers—which include fingerprints, iris or face scans, and voice identification—BIPA has spurred about 30 such suits in Cook County alone.

Filed against employers such as gas stations, restaurants, and retail outlets, mostly stemming from employer time clocks that use fingerprint identification, the cases allege that businesses did not obtain proper informed consent from their employees, or did not maintain or inform employees about the company’s use, storage and destruction of biometric data, as required by the law. Some of the cases also claim the employer improperly shared with time clock vendors the biometric data, and some go so far as name these third parties as defendants.

These local cases follow on the heels of five class-action lawsuits that were filed in 2015, four against Facebook and one against Shutterfly, which allege that these social media companies used facial recognition software without asking for consent or following under procedural requirements under BIPA, which allows an “aggrieved” person to recover $1,000 for each negligent violation and $5,000 for each intentional or reckless violation.

data-protection-represents-forbidden-secured-and-wordcloud-266x300Small business owners with customers based in the European Union will want to circle May 25 on their calendars. That’s the date that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect, significantly impacting enterprise cybersecurity and data governance policies and practices among organizations that handle data on EU citizens and residents.

In the U.S., businesses do not face an overarching data protection law—measures related to data protection are contained in various statutes and regulations, many of them at the state level, with California and Massachusetts, home to major tech companies, having probably the strictest requirements.

Stateside small businesses will need to continue to keep track of the patchwork quilt of U.S. laws and regulations while gearing up to become 100 percent compliant with GDPR, which means they need to begin implementing the necessary technologies yesterday.

George Bellas business lawyerThe growth of e-commerce and the resulting physical distance between parties in various transactions, along with advances in technology more broadly, have helped lead to the rise of online dispute resolution, a digital offshoot of traditional alternative dispute resolution that provides greater efficiency and convenience to the parties involved.

While online dispute resolution does not necessarily arise from online transactions—and can be used in marital separations, property tax appeals, no-fault insurance claims and other types of cases—many believe it applies especially well to e-commerce given that it resides in the same jurisdiction, so to speak, of cyberspace.

A third-party mediator or arbitrator is still often involved in resolving such disputes, however, the process also includes a “fourth party” automated tool that can, for example, schedule meetings, organize information germane to the case, and tone down inflammatory language found in communications by blocking certain verbiage.

George Bellas Business LawyerThe burgeoning science of biometrics both excites and unnerves people, the subject of both a razzle-dazzle upgrade in the new iPhone X and a growing body of privacy-related litigation in Illinois stemming from the 2008 passage of the Biometric Information Privacy Act.

That law requires companies using biometric data—which includes facial scans, fingerprints, iris scans and any other identification data except for a person’s name and demographics—to obtain a consumer’s consent to use the data, explain how it will be used, and tell them how long it will be retained. The consumer must sign a written release acknowledging this.

Companies and other organizations that violate the terms of that release can be and have been sued under the law, which is designed to protect individuals against the risk of identity theft in financial transactions and security screenings. Biometrics are considered a better security risk than even a Social Security number, since that can be changed; but they’re also a greater risk for individuals since they’re biologically unique and once compromised leave a person permanently vulnerable.

Bellas-Business-Lawyer-300x194Should your small business be dealing in the online currencies (“cryptocurrencies”) like Bitcoin? What are they, anyway, and what are the risks and benefits?

Bitcoin is what’s known as a “cryptocurrency,” a digital coin that buyers and sellers of goods and services can use to undertake transactions over the Internet such as restaurant bills and tuition fees. Bitcoin is not the only such cryptocurrency—Ethereum is another example—but it’s probably the best known.

One acquire Bitcoins in one of several ways: as payment for goods or services, by purchasing them at a Bitcoin exchange, by exchanging them with a willing partner, and through what’s called competitive mining, which involves using special software to solve math problems. They are stored in one’s encrypted online “wallet” and transmitted via a “blockchain” when a transaction is consummated, assuming the price of the good or service does not exceed the buyer’s available balance. One can convert Bitcoins to cash if another party agrees to buy them.

George Bellas Business LawyerIt’s the holiday season: time for small businesses to plan their annual parties and give employees a chance to celebrate, unwind and get to know one another better, right?

The correct answer is yes, but. But you need to make sure that employees understand they are still at a work-related function and certain behavior remains out of bounds. But if you are planning to serve alcohol, employees need to comprehend that’s no excuse for being sloppy drunk and obnoxious.

But if they are over-served, employees need to know that’s no excuse for sexual harassment–nor, in the age of #metoo, is anything else. It’s not only morally and ethically wrong but can result in a legally problematic morning after for not only the perpetrator but also your business.