Fake News Internet Sites Make Deceptive Claims About Acai Berry Weight Loss, FTC Alleges

PHOTO: The Federal Trade Commission is requesting federal courts to temporarily halt the allegedly deceptive tactics of 10 operations using fake newsPlayFTC
WATCH Crackdown on Sites Making Deceptive Claims

Sophisticated online advertisements disguised as legitimate news sites deceive consumers into believing they can quickly drop unrealistic amounts of weight with acai berry pills and supplements, say federal regulators who by Wednesday had won federal injunctions against seven of 10 targeted operations.

After fielding complaints from consumers who paid up to $100 for acai diet products and companion products that were said to promote ultra-fast weight loss when taken together, the Federal Trade Commission on April 13 asked judges in six states to stop companies and those behind the fake news sites from making deceptive dieting claims, said Steven Wernikoff, a staff attorney with the FTC's regional office in Chicago. The states were Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Michigan and Georgia. In addition to the federal crackdown, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against a Chicago-area acai berry diet product marketer for allegedly scamming consumers.

With the injunctions, the judges ordered the marketers to stop making the claims "for extravagant weight loss" and stop using fake news sites to do so. The judges also froze the companies' assets, Wernikoff said. However, the judges' rulings didn't prohibit continued sales of the products, Wernikoff said. Asked if the companies had responded to the recent orders, Wernikoff said, "We believe the defendants are complying."

The FTC criticized a marketing tactic that steers a consumer searching the Web for "acai" to ads that include statements such as "Acai Berry EXPOSED: Health Reporter Discovers Shocking Truth." Clicking on the ads brings the consumers to fake news sites featuring photos of fictional reporters and their first-person testimonials about how well the products helped them lose extra pounds. The online accounts are laced with such details as how quickly the products arrived and how often the tester took them, along with week-by-week results. The sites also show additional posts about the products.

The Web page stories are accompanied by sound nutrition and exercise tips that add to their apparent legitimacy. From these pages, consumers are encouraged to "click here to get a free trial" of the merchants products. Some of the offers are advertised as time-limited, with dates that they expire.

FTC Also Creates Video Warning Consumers About Risks of So-Called Free Trials

The FTC also created and posted a video warning consumers about the potential risks of accepting the free trials. Back in 2008, the Better Business Bureau cautioned that 14-day free trials for products containing acai, sometimes called a "super food," also can be misleading, after fielding thousands of complaints about online acai product sales.

"Almost everything about these sites in fake," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The weight-loss results, the so-called investigations, the reporters, the consumer testimonials, and the attempt to portray an objective, journalistic endeavor. Among the legitimate news outlets whose names and logos have been used without their permission are ABC News, NBC, CBS and Fox News, as well as CNN, USA Today, and Consumer Reports, the FTC complaint said.

In recent years, increasing attention has focused on the purplish, grape-sized acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry, which grows on acai palm trees native to Central and South America rain forests, particularly in Brazil, and contains high levels of antioxidants, which also are found in blueberries, grape skins, red wine and pomegranates. Since its introduction to the U.S. market in 2001, acai has become a popular addition to many foods and beverages, including soft drinks, smoothies, frozen treats and yogurt. But those do not claim to produce weight loss.

"I am unaware of any study that's been done anywhere in human beings or even in any other living organisms, that acai promotes weight loss," said Jeffrey B. Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston. "It's a total mystery to me how they even came up with that."

Calling such claims "pure hype," Blumberg said there was no evidence that extensively studied berries with high measured levels of antioxidants called flavonoids, such as blueberries and cranberries, have any effect on weight loss, although he considers them healthful additions to the diet. Although antioxidant-rich foods may help reduce inflammation in the body, there isn't evidence yet that they can prevent cancer, heart disease or make you thinner. "The idea that there's a single one, or a single dose, or huge doses that has been demonstrated to provide these benefits is just not true," he said.

Last year, "a court in Chicago prohibited essentially identical acai berry weight-loss claims," Wernikoff said. That case was FTC vs. Central Coast Nutraceuticals, an Arizona-based company, Wernikoff said, adding that the case remains in litigation, "but we did obtain initial injunctive relief prohibiting continuing from making the dramatic weight-loss claims."

The FTC last summer also won a court order telling companies to stop saying the products had been endorsed by celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray. In one of the newly filed cases, the company operating the allegedly fake news site also "operated a blog that suggested an endorsement from Rachael Ray," he said.

The FTC has ongoing efforts to aggressively challenge false health claims," Wernikoff said.