The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit against 10 companies the agency says are using fake news websites to market acai berry weight-loss products.
The FTC said the defendants operate websites that seem like legitimate newsgathering sites but actually promote deceptive advertisements urging consumers to buy acai berry products.
The sites use names and logos of major media outlets such as ABC, CNN and Consumer Reports while touting articles documenting a "reporter's" own experience with acai berry supplements. The stories often claim that the reporter lost 25 pounds in four weeks.
"Almost everything about these sites is fake," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The weight-loss results, the so-called investigations, the reporters, the consumer testimonials and the attempt to portray an objective journalistic endeavor."
It is unclear how many consumers have fallen for the allegedly deceptive claims. But the FTC said the websites collectively have paid more than $10 million to advertise their fake news sites, suggesting that the site operators have earned more than that in commissions from companies that sell the products.
According to the FTC complaints, all filed in the past week, the defendants post ads on search engines and high-volume websites that drive traffic to the fake news sites. The news sites then link to other sites where merchants sell the products. The FTC said it has received numerous complaints from consumers who paid between $70 and $100 for weight-loss products after they were deceived by fake news sites.
The FTC filed five of its cases in U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois and the rest in other federal courts, asking that the defendants be barred from making deceptive claims and that the companies be required to give refunds to consumers. So far, judges in seven of the 10 cases have entered injunctions prohibiting the practices while also requiring the defendants to preserve their assets and give the FTC a full accounting of products sold and revenue collected.
The office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also filed suit Tuesday in Cook County court against Ishmael Lopez Jr. of Sauk Village, who is accused of operating websites with fake news articles on acai berry diet products.
The attorney general alleges that when consumers click on links from Lopez's sites, including thecnnews.org, cnnewsat6.com and newsline07.com, they are transferred to other websites to sign up for free trial offers. Consumers are then automatically enrolled in a subscription for products and are not notified that they will be charged unless they cancel within 14 days, according to Madigan's office.
Efforts to reach Lopez for comment were unsuccessful. His company is not named in the FTC complaints.
Jeffrey Blumberg, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, said there is little scientific research to show that acai berries have any benefits. "They are a natural berry fruit … rich in many antioxidants, but there have been very few studies that have been performed using them," he said.
Acai berry supplements are often marketed to consumers who hope to lose weight. In 2010, the FTC filed an action that accused acai berry marketer Central Coast Nutraceuticals of deceptively marketing acai berry supplements as weight-loss products and "colon cleansers" as an aid for preventing cancer.