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Fake News Sites Make Deceptive Claims About Acai Berry Weight Loss, FTC Alleges

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Sophisticated online advertisements disguised as legitimate news sites deceive consumers into believing they can quickly drop unrealistic amounts of weight with acai berry pills and supplements, say federal regulators who by Wednesday had won federal injunctions against seven of 10 targeted operations.

After fielding complaints from consumers who paid up to $100 for acai diet products and companion products that were said to promote ultra-fast weight loss when taken together, the Federal Trade Commission on April 13 asked judges in six states to stop companies and those behind the fake news sites from making deceptive dieting claims, said Steven Wernikoff, a staff attorney with the FTC's regional office in Chicago. The states were Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Michigan and Georgia. In addition to the federal crackdown, the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office also sued a Chicago-area acai berry diet product marketer for allegedly scamming consumers.

With the injunctions, the judges ordered the marketers to stop making the claims "for extravagant weight loss" and stop using fake news sites to do so. The judges also froze the companies' assets, Wernikoff said. However, the judges' rulings didn't prohibit continued sales of the products, Wernikoff said. Asked if the companies had responded to the recent orders, Wernikoff said, "We believe the defendants are complying."

The FTC criticized a marketing tactic that steers a consumer searching the Web for "acai" to ads that include statements such as "Acai Berry EXPOSED: Health Reporter Discovers Shocking Truth." Clicking on the ads brings the consumers to fake news sites featuring photos of fictional reporters and their first-person testimonials about how well the products helped them lose extra pounds. The online accounts are laced with such details as how quickly the products arrived and how often the tester took them, along with week-by-week results. The sites also show additional posts about the products.

The Web page stories are accompanied by sound nutrition and exercise tips that add to their apparent legitimacy. From these pages, consumers are encouraged to "click here to get a free trial" of the merchants products. Some of the offers are advertised as time-limited, with dates that they expire.

The FTC also created and posted a video warning consumers about the potential risks of accepting the free trials. Back in 2008, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers that 14-day free trials for products containing acai, sometimes called a "super food," also can be misleading, after fielding thousands of complaints about online acai product sales.

Last summer, the FTC also won a court order telling companies to stop saying the products had been endorsed by celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray. In one of the newly filed cases, the company operating the allegedly fake news site also "operated a blog that suggested an endorsement from Rachael Ray," he said.

"The FTC has ongoing efforts to aggressively challenge false health claims," Wernikoff said.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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