As Americans resolve to lose weight and diet this year, scammers are at the ready to collect what amounts to hundreds of millions each year in products that swear to trim inches and cut pounds, usually without any exercise. The Federal Trade Commission is preparing for the annual spike in weight-loss product fraud that tends to occur this time of year, as consumers search for a “magic bullet,” said Richard Cleland, assistant director for the FTC’s division of advertising practices.
“In terms of advertising issues, weight loss fraud is one of the top priorities for the Federal Trade Commission,” Cleland said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It’s very lucrative for scammers…you’ve got an audience that is susceptible to being scammed and a fairly sophisticated group of marketers that are very adept of taking advantage of them.”
In the FTC’s most recent consumer fraud survey, back in 2011, more consumers fell prey to fraudulent weight-loss products than any other fraud; an estimated 2.15% of consumers, or 5.1 million American adults, bought and used such goods that year. Despite that, companies typically can’t pay the full fines demanded by the FTC as they’ve run out of money at that point. A tally by BuzzFeed News found that those accused of making fraudulent weight-loss claims paid less than $100 million in consumer refunds and penalties this year.
“Even in the best cases, it doesn’t compare to the amount of money that consumers actually lose on the products,” Cleland said. “The companies have generally spent the money either on advertising or laundered the money to their own bank accounts or something, so there’s usually very little money left over for consumers. That suggests that consumer education is probably a more effective tool at protecting consumers than law enforcement.”
Cleland notes that consumers should remember “there is no miracle out there.” Below, nine scams that the FTC ruled on this year.
1. A powder to sprinkle on food that “enhances” its smell and taste, ultimately making consumers eat less and lose weight without dieting
Sensa represents one of the bigger weight-loss product scams in recent history, with U.S. sales of more than $364 million between 2008 and 2012, according to the FTC. Sensa Products LLC allegedly claimed sprinkling Sensa on meals would make “users feel full faster, so they eat less and lose weight without dieting, and without changing their exercise regime.” It promised the loss of 30 pounds.
Sensa Products, parent company Sensa Inc., Sensa Inc.’s former CEO Adam Goldenberg and Sensa creator and endorser Dr. Alan Hirsch were ordered to pay $26.5 million as part of a $46.5 million judgment. Sensa powder, which came in 12 flavors, was sold at chains including Costco and GNC, touted in a promotional book by Hirsch, and was advertised on the Home Shopping Network, on the radio and in magazines, the FTC said.
A one-month supply typically cost $59 plus shipping and handling. Hirsch allegedly gave “expert endorsements that were not supported by scientific evidence” while some consumers were paid $1,000 or $5,000 and given trips to Los Angeles for endorsing Sensa, the FTC said.
2. Homeopathic drops made from HCG, a hormone produced by the human placenta
Marketers who pitched “homeopathic HCG drops as a quick and easy way to lose substantial weight” were ordered to pay $1 million in December, and asked to stop selling HCG Platinum drops, the FTC said on Dec. 11. The products were sold online, at GNC, Rite Aid, and Walgreens and claimed users would likely lose as much as 50 pounds; a 30-day supply typically retailed for anywhere from $60 to $149.
Human chorionic gonadotropin has been fraudulently pitched for decades as a weight loss ingredient, the agency said. The FTC imposed a $3.2 million judgment on a separate group of marketers in January who were selling HCG Diet Direct Drops, though they were unable to pay. In that case, HCG Diet Direct and director Clint Ethington allegedly told customers to place the solution under their tongues before meals and stick to an extremely low-calorie diet to “lose 7 pounds in 7 days.”
3. Caffeine-infused underwear that promises to destroy fat cells
Norm Thompson Outfitters and Wacoal America got in trouble with the FTC earlier this year for claiming their shapewear would help consumers shed cellulite and pounds. Norm Thompson Outfitters, which was ordered to pay $230,000, said their undergarments were “infused with micro-encapsulated caffeine, retinol and other ingredients” that would “slim and reshape the wearer’s body and reduce cellulite.” The garments were made with Lytess fabric, as per the complaint. Lytess bike shorts online claim to contain microcapsules created with a patented caffeine-based formula that will “mobilize fats” and moisturize skin. It promises that upon wearing the $55 shorts: “You will feel better.”
Wacoal, ordered to pay $1.3 million, allegedly made “false and unsubstantiated claims that wearing iPants would: substantially reduce cellulite; cause a substantial reduction in the wearer’s thigh measurements; and destroy fat cells, resulting in substantial slimming,” the FTC said. The garments cost $44 to $85. The Wacoal brand is carried at retailers including Macy’s, Saks, Bloomingale’s and Lord & Taylor.
4. “Lobster-inspired” slimming cream
DERMAdoctor claimed its Shrinking Beauty cream, which cost $58 for a 5.5-ounce tube, would “improve the appearance of cellulite, smooth and tighten skin” and was “clinically proven to reduce measurements up to one inch in two weeks,’” the FTC said in a Dec. 23 release. The formula “simulates a lobster’s ability to shrink its body,” the company said in a June 2013 Health magazine ad.
DERMAdoctor allegedly wrote on its website: “Learn from the lobster. This sea creature knows exactly how to shrink a size effortlessly without going on a diet. Our slimming and toning formula mirrors the ecdysteroid hormone lobsters produce to get skinny and wiggle free of their shells. Shrinking Beauty borrows from exotic botanical sources to mimic this oceanic wonder. A macronutrient complex further provides a proper ratio of protein, carbs and lipids for healthy, cellulite-free skin.”
As of Dec. 29, the cream’s product description noted it’s “not intended for weight loss.”
5. L’Occitane “Almond Beautiful Shape” cream, which promised to trim 1.3 inches from users’ thighs in four weeks
L’Occitane was required to pay $450,000 after suggesting its “Almond Beautiful Shape” cream was scientifically proven to trim 1.3 inches from a user’s thighs in four weeks while significantly reducing cellulite, according to the FTC. The company also indicated that scientific tests proved its “Almond Shaping Delight” cream “significantly slims the body in just four weeks.”
The fee was intended for consumer redress. The company was prohibited from “making future false and deceptive weight-loss claims,” the FTC said.
6. “Double Shot” pills, in which blue capsules burn fat and red ones block calories
While this direct mail advertising campaign took place between 2012 and October 2013, Manon Fernet and her Quebec-based company agreed to pay $500,000 to settle FTC charges this year over their Double Shot pills. The marketers did business as the “Freedom Center Against Obesity,” supposedly in California, though the actual address was their fulfillment house. One supply of pills “to lose up to 30 pounds” cost $79; the bottles “contained blue capsules that supposedly burned fat, and red ones that supposedly blocked calories,” the FTC said. The marketers allegedly “claimed that the effectiveness of Double Shot as a weight-loss treatment had been proven by clinical studies.”
In one ad, the marketers said the pills would enable a user to absorb just 72 calories from a 720-calorie plate of spaghetti. Consumers were tricked into believing Double Shot “would cause rapid, substantial, and permanent weight loss, without diet or exercise,” the FTC said.
7. Green coffee extract that can eliminate 10% of your body weight — a claim that got a boost from The Dr. Oz Show
Applied Food Sciences allegedly used a study “so hopelessly flawed that no reliable conclusions could be drawn from it,” to show that green coffee extract causes “substantial weight and fat loss,” the FTC said in September. AFS claimed Green Coffee Antioxidant “caused consumers to lose 17.7 pounds, 10.5% of body weight, and 16% of body fat with or without diet and exercise, in 22 weeks,” based on the flawed study. The study’s lead investigator allegedly altered weights and other key measurements of subjects, changed the trial length and misstated which subjects were taking the antioxidant or a placebo during the trial.
AFS didn’t play a part in getting the study on The Dr. Oz Show but issued a release highlighting the show for extra publicity afterwards, as per the FTC. The company was ordered to pay $3.5 million and “to have scientific substantiation for any future weight-loss claims it makes.”
8. “Get High School Skinny” Healthe Trim supplements
Healthe Trim supplements, sold online and at CVS, GNC and Walgreens, claimed they could help customers lose up to 165 pounds with the tagline: “Get high school skinny.” A month’s supply cost up to $65.
Dwyer and HealthyLife Sciences “made false and unsubstantiated claims that Healthe Trim supplements would cause rapid and substantial weight loss” and “relied heavily on consumer testimonials that portrayed losing weight as easy,” the FTC wrote in an Oct. 24 release. The firm claimed the supplements would “burn fat, increase metabolism, and suppress appetite.”
John Matthew Dwyer III, the CEO and co-founder behind Healthe Trim, was banned from the weight-loss industry. The company, HealthyLife Sciences LLC is banned from making seven “scientifically infeasible” weight-loss claims.
9. Ads that claimed using the “ab GLIDER” for three minutes a day “would lead to lost pounds, inches or clothing sizes.”
ICON Health & Fitness ads claimed using ab GLIDER alone, or for three minutes a day, would cut pounds, inches or clothing sizes.
This violated a 1997 order against ICON that prohibited it from making “unsubstantiated claims for weight-loss exercise equipment,” while also requiring an endorser’s claim “reflect a typical user’s experience or be accompanied by a clear and prominent disclosure.” Given it wasn’t clear the results were solely from the ab GLIDER, the firm agreed to pay $3 million in civil penalties to settle FTC charges.