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Feds target false acai berry claims

You've seen the countless ads all over the Internet: Pure Acai Berry, Lose weight fast.

And you think, it must be true because the acai (pronounced a-sigh-ee) ad includes endorsements by Oprah and Rachael Ray.

And, hey, why not give it a try since the seller is offering these weight-loss pills for free. All you have to pay is as little as 99 cents for shipping.

It's all a scam.

The warning came Monday from the Federal Trade Commission after hundreds of thousands of victims found their bank and credit card accounts bilked of tens and even hundreds of dollars for what turned out to be a laxative.

Oh, and neither Oprah nor Rachael Ray endorsed any specific product. That, too, was a lie.

The FTC is filing a lawsuit against Phoenix-based Central Coast Nutraceuticals, maker of AcaiPure and colon supplement Colopure. The agency said there are other companies making similar offers, and consumers should be cautious.

"We estimate that the consumer losses may be as high as $100 million to this scam," said David C. Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"Consumers need to understand that the next time they're browsing on the Internet they need to be aware of risk-free trials," Vladeck said. "Beware if the product comes from a company you've never heard of."

Vladeck added that the pills did not always contain acai berry. And even if they did, he said, the berry might have some antioxidant benefits, but there is no scientific evidence of it helping with rapid weight loss.

"I wouldn't use any of this stuff," Vladeck said. "The products don't work."

It perhaps cannot be said enough that in these troubled economic times and the rapidly changing world of technology, consumers increasingly find themselves vulnerable to fraud.

The Internet has fostered a new level of con artistry with slick, rapid-fire ads that can appeal to millions in minutes. With a click of a button, consumers can lose $5 or $10 and make a crook a multimillionaire before law enforcement receives a single complaint.

Once the con artist has your information, you and your money become vulnerable.

With the acai berry scam, consumers who gave their credit or debit card information found their accounts charged for more than shipping. Sometimes it was for a subscription they never intended to sign up for or for the pills themselves, despite the claims of a "free trial."

Because online buying and selling aren't going away, there are steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim.

It's recommended that consumers use credit cards rather than debit cards when making online purchases. The credit card company can charge back the merchant if you dispute an item, said Martin Elliott, senior business leader for Payment System Risk at Visa Inc.

When Visa sees hundreds of charge backs popping up on the company's screens, it signals that a merchant might be engaged in fraud. So it is important for consumers to report incidents, not only to get their own money back but also to help protect other consumers.

Rhonda Wooten, 48, of Paxton in east-central Illinois told investigators that she learned "a hard life lesson" after falling for the acai berry weight-loss scam. She lost up to $500 trying to stop the shipments and the charges to her checking account.

"I'm a preschool teacher and they don't make good money, so $200 to $500 is a lot," Wooten said. "It could buy a lot of food for my kids and my family."

In addition to the acai weight-loss pills, Central Coast Nutraceuticals has sold a colon cleansing product that it claims will help prevent colon cancer. As many as a million consumers bought it. (The colon prevention claim also is false). And a teeth whitening product Central Coast Nutraceuticals sold also did not work.

In protecting yourself from online scams, it is most critical to fully understand the offer and the company you are dealing with.

So here's the Edge, suggestions from Visa:

• Read all terms and conditions. Sometimes even fraudulent companies disclose the terms of the deal in fine print.

• Pay particular attention to prechecked boxes. Prechecked boxes could hide charges that will cost you.

• Try to resolve the problem with the merchant. If the merchant does not respond to you, contact your card company and report the incident. Consider having your card company order a charge back to reclaim your money.

• Report questionable activity to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or 1-877-382-4357 and the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

FAST FACTS

What is acai berry?

A purple fruit a little smaller than a grape from the acai palm tree found in the Brazilian Amazon. It contains antioxidants and can be part of a healthy diet, but there is no scientific evidence that it promotes weight loss or affects body weight, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Feds target false acai berry claims 08/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 9:56pm]

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