Warnings on Acai Berry Online Offers Amplify

A watchdog group says it hasn't seen online supplement rip-offs this bad before.

ByABC News
January 5, 2009, 12:35 PM

March 23, 2009 — -- The ads are everywhere now: acai for weight loss, acai for sexual dysfunction, acai for cancer, acai with a free trial that can cost hundreds of dollars and leave you on hold for hours trying to stop more charges.

The growing problem of questionable acai sales on the Internet has reached proportions never before seen by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the center.

Today, the attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest will issue a warning about credit card schemes peddling supplements made from the acai berry.

"Once we started looking at it we saw it was so widespread, so rampant, that we felt that we had to do something," said Schardt.

Aside from the questionable "free trial offers" targeted by the Better Business Bureau earlier this year, Schardt said he has doubts about even some of the benign nutritional claims for acai.

"It's sometimes touted as the fruit with the most antioxidants, that's probably not true," he said. A full comparison of the acai to other fruits will be discussed in the CSPI's report today.

"In terms of weight loss there's no reason why a fruit like that would have any particular effect," Schardt said.

Schardt said Blumenthal's office quickly took up the offer to do something about the scam complaints. Together with CSPI, Blumenthal will detail more of the most questionable sites at today's press conference and explain how consumers can make safe purchases online.

But even if there are ways to reduce the financial risk of signing up for these "free trial offers," Schardt remains skeptical because there is no evidence to back up the weight-loss and other specific health claims of many of these products.

"There's no evidence that they work and you're just asking for trouble if you're trying to deal with one of these companies," he said.

Those "free" 14-day trial offers for "super food" diet supplements claiming celebrity endorsements may be too good to be true, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The bureau released a statement this January warning consumers to be wary of online sales offering 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 claimed 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 lawyers representing those celebrities 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. Rachael Ray has also complained to companies that falsely claim she has endorsed their products.

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.