WASHINGTON – An online advertising agency on Dec. 5 agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it secretly and illegally gathered data from millions of consumers, “sniffing” out the websites people visited in the past and using the information to send targeted ads.

Among the sites of interest: those dealing with fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief and personal bankruptcy.

The FTC in an administrative complaint charged Epic Marketplace Inc. with violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which bars deceptive acts or practices. The settlement requires the company to cease using the technology, destroy information it gained unlawfully and to make no future misrepresentations. Epic did not admit to wrongdoing in the settlement.

The New York City-based company acts as an intermediary between 45,000 website owners and online advertisers. According to the FTC, Epic collects data on consumers who visit any of these 45,000 websites in its network by placing a cookie in the consumer’s browser.

In its privacy policy, Epic claimed it would collect information only about consumers’ visits to sites in its network. However, according to the FTC, Epic from March 2010 until August 2011 used “history-sniffing” technology to collect data about visits to sites outside its network, including sites dealing with sensitive issues like health conditions and financial problems.

Epic’s history of sniffing was discovered in July 2011 by researchers at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, who posted their findings online.

“History sniffing circumvents the most common and widely known method consumers use to prevent online tracking: deleting cookies,” the FTC complaint states. “History sniffing allowed Epic to determine whether consumers had visited webpages that were outside the Epic Marketplace Network, information it would not otherwise have been able to obtain.”

According to the FTC, Epic assigned consumers an “interest segment” like “Arthritis” or “Memory Improvement,” and used the categories to send targeted ads.

“Consumers searching the Internet shouldn’t have to worry about whether someone is going to go sniffing through the sensitive, personal details of their browsing history without their knowledge,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a news release. “This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers’ confidence, and we won’t tolerate it.”

Epic was represented by Charulata Pagar, a partner at VLP Law Group in Washington, D.C., who referred inquiries to in-house counsel David Graff. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

@|Jenna Greene is a reporter for The National Law Journal. She can be contacted at jgreene@alm.com.