by Alex Parker
Lose Weight Fast? As diet gurus will tell you, there’s no quick fix. And that pretty reporter and her stories on the health benefits of the acai berry are part of a wide-ranging scam that's been bilking consumers for years, according to the federal government.
The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on those ubiquitous advertisements featuring an attractive reporter (often the borrowed image of French TV anchor Melissa Theuriau) expounding on the alleged the health benefits of acai berries.
Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan also filed a suit against a Sauk Village man accused of running fake news sites promoting the acai berry’s weight-loss properties.
The sites offer users free trial products, and Madigan alleges they automatically and unknowingly enroll fleeced consumers into purchasing subscriptions to additional products, unless the consumer cancels within a 14-day period. She said consumers are not made aware that they must cancel the subscription.
She’s asking for restitution to consumers who complained about the sites, and civil penalties of up $50,000 for each violation, as well as $10,000 per violation against people 65 or older.
The lawsuit, filed with the Cook County Circuit Court, alleges Lopez has been peddling products, including the acai berry, teeth whiteners, and male enhancement and bodybuilding products since 2006. The suit says at least 10,000 people clicked on links leading to Lopez’s dietary supplement products. It also says Lopez was paid a commission each time a consumer clicked on a link.
Lopez’s sites, according to Madigan, include thecnnews.org, cnnewsat6.com, and newsline07.com. The first site appears to be down, but the others feature “news stories” about the supposedly miraculous acai berry and a stay-at-home mom who is making big bucks. They include a slew of positive comments, include such laudatory praise as, “I wish I’d known about these products before I had gastric bypass surgery! I would have saved a heck of a lot of money!”
The fruit was given primo play by Oprah Winfrey, appearing on her website with the description “No. 1 Superfood” in 2005. The article remains on her site, but in 2009 her company, Harpo Inc., filed suit against purveyors of acai berry supplements that used her image as an endorsement.
For years, consumer advocates and legitimate media reports have been telling consumers to beware. The Better Business Bureau warned consumers to “read the fine print” when it comes to too-good-to-be true deals.
The FTC alleges that the site operators have paid more than $10 million to advertise the fake news sites — the ads can be found virtually anywhere — and “have likely received well in excess of that amount in ill-gotten gains.” The agency was tipped off by frustrated consumers who said they paid between $70 and $100 for the weight-loss products.
The misleading sites play into a larger trend of deceptive advertising, aimed at consumers looking for fast results, ranging from weight loss to education grants. The investigative news organization ProPublica last year exposed deceptive marketing practices by for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix, which used marketing companies to promote federal grants to moms returning to school.
The FTC even made a video warning consumers about free trial scams: