Feb. 16, 2007— -- I have compulsively agonized and have been aggressively criticized about my weight for as long as I can remember. So when I was assigned to go undercover into one of the nation's largest weight loss centers, I was understandably eager to start my assignment.
Despite my struggle with weight, my real interest was to see how the program would be introduced from an emotional and nutritional perspective. Sent by "20/20" to three different centers in three different cities, geared with hidden cameras and an alleged "goal" of losing 10 pounds, I was surprised by what I found.
With flashy commercials, the promise of affordable and easy weight loss and over 800 corporate and franchise-operated centers nationwide, LA Weight Loss Centers say it is "the fastest growing company in the $43 billion weight loss industry."
While this weight-loss giant may be rapidly growing, it has also speedily become a target of scrutiny by former clients, ex-employees and even law enforcement officials for allegedly engaging in a "classic bait and switch scam," deceptively advertising low-priced diets and prying on the emotions of clients to sell extras such as bars, shakes and juices.
With all this in mind, I walked into the first center I joined in New Jersey, playing a woman drawn in by catchy commercials, encouraging weight-loss testimonials, and the low advertised program cost of $6 a week. I guarded my self-esteem closely.
I was asked to fill out a comprehensive and somewhat emotionally revealing questionnaire, complete with personal questions about how my weight affects my relationships, family, social life and a medical history. I was introduced to a diet that was simple to follow, logical and seemingly balanced -- smaller portions, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, limited fats and oils.
The first counselor instructed me to keep a food dairy and encouraged me to commit to weekly motivational visits at the Center. On the surface, the staff was friendly, upbeat and encouraging. My first counselor even described the program as a partnership, which seemed encouraging.
However, before I left the first visit, I would learn that the partnership between LA Weight Loss and myself would cost me nearly $400 up front for my 10 pound, $6 dollar a week diet.
Initially, I took the $400 in stride. After all, this was a commitment to health and fitness, right?
A couple of days later, I came back to the same center for a second visit, and then a third. Just like former clients and ex-employees told me to expect, the hard sell began.
The process was uniform in all three centers in all three cities. Biscotti, shakes, cereal bars, vitamins, popcorn and pasta were only a handful of the products I was aggressively offered to aid my diet quest.
What happened when I resisted?
My answers to the personal questions on the questionnaire I filled out days before were boldly reiterated to convince me that I needed to lose weight. While not required, I was told LA Weight Loss exclusive products would make my weight loss easier.
In Kentucky, I mentioned that my boyfriend had made a comment about my weight. Notes were taken. On the following visit, amidst an attempt to sell me snack bars, a different counselor brought up that comment.
Before starting this investigation, I was told that in order for counselors to meet their sales goals and cash-in on commissions, I would be given the hard sell. I expected to be emotionally manipulated, and was warned that anything I told my weight loss "partners" would be used to get me to buy into their products.
Most of their clients -- who do not have the same information that I had prior to signing up -- do not expect that manipulation. In fact, what hundreds of other clients say they didn't know before starting the diet is precisely what Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna found in two separate investigations.
In his state, McKenna said that LA Weight Loss Centers "were engaged in a classic bait and switch scam," and that they deceptively advertised a low-priced diet only to pad the price by selling clients hundreds, even thousands of dollars in bars, supplements and shakes.
Furthermore, he says counselors in Washington State made phony claims to push their products, going as far as to say that "it was like liposuction in a bottle." LA Weight Loss Centers admitted no wrong-doing, but agreed to pay a settlement close to one million dollars.
"20/20" interviewed close to 20 former employees of the company, who say they are not surprised. In fact, some say this is normal practice.
In order to meet sales goals and sell more products, the former counselors say they were trained to prey on the emotions of clients. These counselors, many from different centers, say that the mantra that was instilled in them during training sessions was "If they cry, they will buy."
In a statement issued to "20/20," LA Weight Loss Centers claim that the phrase "'If they cry, they will buy,' is disgusting and offensive" and that to their knowledge, "it has never been used at any time in any training or training manual," but ex-employees insist that the company's statement is simply untrue. Ex-employees say that they were trained to use personal issues revealed during "counseling" to help sell exclusive products.
LA Weight Loss claims that professional counselors who provide knowledge and guidance are the most important part of its program, but none of the five counselors "20/20" brought to New York for an interview were dieticians or nutritionists.
Of the eight counselors I met and questioned, only one implied a medical background -- and she was still in school, training to become a registered nurse.
In a letter written in response to inquiries by ABC News, LA Weight Loss Centers say many of its counselors have "college backgrounds" but also acknowledge that some have not even completed high school. In essence, other than the company's limited training program, there is no educational requirement for counselors.
L.A. Weight Loss Centers told us that they are honest and fair and that they have hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers. But my experience was enough for me. I didn't follow the diet, and I dumped the program before trying to lose a pound.