Experts Warn: Lose Weight, Not Cash

If taking diet pills for payment sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

May 15, 2008 — -- Every year, about 50 million Americans go on some kind of diet, according to researchers at Colorado State University.

But let's face it: We love shortcuts. And that helps to make us vulnerable to people who are only too happy to shrink our wallets instead of our waistlines.

One recent example is an Internet pitch with a scientific twist -- a drug study being promoted on Web sites around the country.

"I had thought it's a great way to lose a little extra baby weight I had still floating around and make a little spending cash in the process," said Nicole Pech, a busy mom who takes care of her daughter, Jayna.

Partly to help her husband, Kevin, with the finances, Pech signed up for this weight loss drug study she saw online. Participants could make more than $300 a month for two years by testing drug capsules.

"It looked legitimate to me," she said. "It's a very well-written Web site."

The researchers sponsoring the study used some highfalutin language, she said, promising they were going to examine the "pharmacokinetics/dynamics" of the DBL-824 weight loss pill using "a retrospective cohort statistical analysis."

All Pech and the other applicants had to do was fill out a medical history form and send a refundable $144 deposit to a Denver P.O. box address.

"This one was a little too good to be true," said Susan Liehe, vice president of public affairs for the Denver Better Business Bureau.

"Here's the pill. You'll pay for it, you'll take it. Thanks. Talk to you in a month," she said.

"I thought, 'What do I have to lose?'" Pech said.

That $144 deposit, that's what.

Sure enough, complaints from across the country rolled in to the Denver Better Business Bureau. People said they sent in the deposit and only got one month's supply of pills and a diary -- but no monthly check for $300 and no straight answers when they e-mailed or called.

"In my line of work, I think I'd call this a scam," Liehe said.

"I was definitely had," Pech said.

The story came as no surprise to David Kroll, a Duke University drug trial expert. He said that while the Web site looked good to the untrained eye, it was actually loaded with red flags, including the lack of specific contacts and the issue of the deposit.

"It's unethical," Kroll said. "There should be no requirement for any up-front payment."

Colorado state records show the weight loss drug study is based in a Denver apartment in the name of John Mullikin, the same man the Better Business Bureau said is the so-called "researcher" behind the DBL-824 "study."

Mullikin has at least four convictions for theft, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

"He's out there somewhere," Liehe said. "He just doesn't want to hear from us."

Mullikin may be at it again. There's a new study for a weight loss drug called Evaril II. It also uses a Denver P.O. box, asks for a $150 deposit and promises $1,000 for participants.

And the study is based in that same apartment.

"This Web site is certainly deserving of investigation by either the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration or both," Kroll said.

But Pech said she won't ever again be a victim. She learned her lesson when it comes to weight loss.

"I'm going the little bit harder route … diet and exercise this time," she said.

Mullikin did not respond to "Good Morning America's" requests for comment.

His drug studies use some names very similar to those of real companies with absolutely no connection to his operations.

No one seems to know what was inside the pills sent to people who enrolled in the program. But "GMA" has not heard of any health complaints from anyone who participated in the weight loss study.

In response to our inquiries, the FDA said it is looking into the supposed diet studies.

The Denver Better Business Bureau said when you cut away all the fancy Web stuff, this is just like a work-at-home scam. If you're asked to pay money to make money, watch out, the organization said.