Consumers Warned of Web-Based Açai Scams
Companies Use Fake Blogs, Fake Endorsements, Fishy Science, and Hard-to-Cancel Credit Card Transactions to Bilk Consumers
WASHINGTON—The Center for Science in the Public Interest is warning consumers not to enroll online in supposedly free trials of diet products made with the trendy Brazilian berry açai (pronounced a-sigh-EE). There's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that açai pills will help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colons, enhance sexual desire, or perform any of the other commonly advertised functions. And thousands of consumers have had trouble stopping recurrent charges on their credit cards when they cancel their free trials.
"If Bernard Madoff were in the food business, he’d be offering 'free' trials of açai-based weight-loss products," said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt, who authored an exposé of the scam in the April issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter. "Law enforcement has yet to catch up to these rogue operators. Until they do, consumers have to protect themselves."
Photo Credit: Jeff Cronin
CSPI says that if—despite the total lack of evidence that the product works—you still want to take advantage of a "free" trial of açai, use a prepaid credit card with a low credit limit or a virtual credit card that shields your real credit card number from unscrupulous online vendors. Visit the web site of the Better Business Bureau, which in January announced that it had received thousands of açai-related complaints.
Look for the BBB seal on e-commerce sites and click on the seal to confirm its legitimacy, CSPI advises.
Açai began attracting attention in 2005 on the belief that its juice was especially high in antioxidants. In truth, açai juice has only middling levels of antioxidants—less than that of Concord grape, blueberry, and black cherry juices, but more than cranberry, orange, and apple juices. Even so, the extent to which antioxidants by themselves promote health is a matter of some debate. No credible evidence suggests antioxidants promote weight loss.
In early 2008, Açai got a jolt of publicity when Dr. Mehmet Oz included açai among tomatoes, blueberries, broccoli, and other healthy foods in a segment on Oprah. A guest on Rachael Ray also discussed an açai beverage. Since then, ads on Google, Facebook, and major news media web sites have misleadingly steered consumers to sites with names like Oprah-best-acai.com , OprahsAmazingDiet.com, DrOzMiracle.com, rachaelray.drozdiet-acaiberry.com and dozens of others.
OprahsAmazingDiet.com links to a blog post by a woman who supposedly lost 57 pounds using Oprah-endorsed products, and displays authoritative-looking biographies of Oprah and Dr. Oz. It then links to an offer for AcaiBurn, sold by a company that lists an address in Cyprus as its headquarters. Other sites link to FWM Laboratories of Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood, Fla., which has an F rating from the Better Business Bureau and scores of horror stories about it on Internet complaint forms. Oprah Winfrey, Mehmet Oz, and Rachael Ray have all publicly disassociated themselves from the açai sites that make unauthorized use their names.
"When I logged on to my Hotmail account, I saw an ad about how Oprah lost weight on this diet, and I enrolled in what I thought would be a free trial," said M Chanel Pinkett, a graduate student from Gaithersburg, Md. who signed up for a free trial at AcaiBerryDetox.com, a site run by FWM Laboratories. Pinkett's "free" trial actually cost $174.26. After posting a complaint on complaintsboard.com, which has thousands of açai-related complaints, she told her story to Washington's WJLA-TV.
"There are no magical berries from the Brazilian rainforest that cure obesity—only painfully real credit card charges and empty weight loss promises," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "Aggressive Acai berry pitches on the Internet entice countless consumers into free trials promising weight loss, energy and detoxification. These claims are based on folklore, traditional remedies and outright fabrications—unproven by real scientific evidence. In reality, consumers lose more money than weight after free trials transition into inescapable charges. We will investigate these allegedly misleading or deceptive nutrition and health claims and take action under our consumer protection statutes—as we have done with other food products."
FWM Laboratories, Advanced Wellness Research, and other acai companies benefit from dozens of fake diet blogs that steer unsuspecting consumers to sites plugging free açai trials. The woman depicted on Tara's Diet Blog, Olivia's Weight Loss blog, Alicia's Diet Blog, Becky's Weight Loss blog, and at least 75 other blogs is a German model named Julia who has nothing to do with acai or any weight-loss product. The German photographer who made the original photos of her available on Istockphoto.com said the pill companies manipulated some of the "after" images to give the impression of weight loss. The fake blogs were first uncovered by a real blog, wafflesatnoon.com, written by an ad-industry insider.
"These diet 'bloggers' are just a mirage," Schardt said. "Their weight loss is courtesy of Photoshop, not açai." Other açai companies with F ratings from the BBB include Pure Acai Berry Pro (Advanced Wellness Research), AcaiBurn, Acai Berry Maxx (FX Supplements), and SFL Nutrition.
One of several online purchases of açai attempted by CSPI was blocked when the fraud department of the credit card’s issuing bank called the group, flagging the charge as suspicious. The reason? The funds would have been routed to an overseas bank.
Of course there's good reason why some Internet supplement scammers might want to stay safely outside the U.S.: The company behind Enzyte, an herbal "male enhancement" pill advertised on late night television with grating "Smiling Bob" commercials, similarly charged consumers' credit cards after free trials ended. Company founder Steve Warshak is now serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).