Those "free" 14-day trial offers for "super food" diet supplements carrying celebrity endorsements may be too good to be true, according to the Better Business Bureau.
The bureau released a statement today warning consumers to be wary of online sales offers for acai berry-related weight loss products, saying the marketing of these products is often misleading. The bureau said it has received "thousands" of complaints from consumers about online sales of acai berry products.
In a scheme called "negative option" advertising, dozens of companies nationwide offer "free" trials of acai diet products, claiming endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, Rachael Ray and others, but then charge month after month unless the consumer cancels the order, according to the bureau.
"BBB [the Better Business Bureau] can't speak to the restorative or weight loss properties of acai-based products, but we are taking companies to task for their misleading sales and marketing practices," bureau spokesman Steve Cox said in a statement.
"Many businesses across the country are using the same selling model for their acai products: They lure customers in with celebrity endorsements and free trial offers, and then lock them in by making it extremely difficult to cancel the automatic delivery of more acai products every month," he said in the release.
The endorsements are also misleading, according to the bureau, and some celebrity lawyers have already gone after these online companies.
"Consumers should be aware that Oprah Winfrey is not associated with nor does she endorse any acai berry product or online solicitation of such products. Attorneys for Harpo are pursuing any companies that claim such an affiliation," said Don Halcombe, spokesman for Harpo Productions, Winfrey's production company.
Consumers can check www.bbb.org to get a "reliability report" on particular companies before purchasing an online product.
"These companies are simply abusing general acai berry endorsements from well-known, trusted celebrities by using it as a tacit endorsement of their company and products specifically," added the bureau's Cox.
"Consumers trust Oprah and unfortunately, if they are tricked into believing that she is putting her stamp of approval on a product then they are definitely more likely to purchase it," he said.
Two of the companies named by the Better Business Bureau are Central Coast Nutraceuticals and FX Supplements. FX Supplements offers a risk-free trial of products such as Acai Berry Maxx, for the cost of shipping and handling. However, if consumers do not cancel within the trial period they are sent additional bottles every month and are billed $85.90, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Complaints to the bureau in Fort Worth, Texas, showed consumers had a difficult time canceling subscriptions from FX Supplement via the e-mail provided by the company. In some cases the e-mail address did not work. Several consumers were forced to close their bank accounts or cancel credit cards.
ABCNews.com called FX Supplements at a number provided on the company Web site and received an automated message that said, "This number has been disabled."
Similarly, the bureau serving Central, Northern and Western Arizona has received more than 1,400 complaints for Central Coast Nutraceuticals. The company sells acai, hoodie and male enhancement products, some with ads claiming endorsements from Winfrey.