What the FTC says is a fake news site promotes acai berry weight-loss products.… (AP Photo/Federal Trade…)
It might be the ad that ate the Internet.
“1 Tip for a Tiny Belly” reads the headline, rendered in what appears to be hand-lettered type and positioned above a crudely animated drawing of a woman’s bare midriff. Try as you might to concentrate on something else, the midriff distracts your eye by shrinking and reinflating — flabby to svelte, svelte to flabby.
“Cut down a bit of your belly everyday by following this 1 weird old tip,” it reads. The “weird old tip” is revealed only after you abandon what you were reading and click on the ad.
For months, versions of the ad have been just about everywhere. They have run as pop-ups and display ads on some of the most popular Web sites around, including Facebook, Weather.com and About.com. They have also shown up on the home pages of news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper in Britain.
The ad is so broadly distributed that it’s likely you’ve seen it not just once or twice but hundreds of times. The accumulated number of “impressions” — the number of times it has flashed by someone on the Internet over the past 18 months— runs into “the tens of billions,” estimates Steve Wernikoff, a government lawyer who has tracked it. “It’s just a tremendous amount.”
The innocent-seeming “1 Tip” ad is actually the tip of something much larger: a vast array of diet and weight-loss companies hawking everything from pills made from African mangoes to potions made from exotic acai berries. Federal officials have alleged that the companies behind the ads make inflated claims about their products and use deceptive means to market them.
The take so far: at least $1 billion and counting.
The “1 Tip” ads are the work of armies of “affiliates,” independent promoters who place them on behalf of small diet-product sellers with names such as HCG Ultra Lean Plus. The promoters profit each time someone clicks through to the product seller’s site and orders a free sample. The sample, however, isn’t always so free.
A 3-step scheme, FTC says
In lawsuits filed over the past year, the Federal Trade Commission has alleged that the ads are the leading edge of what amounts to a three-step scheme that has conned millions of people.
Much like a barker outside a carnival tent, “1 Tip” is merely a come-on, a lure to start the process. People who click on the ad are directed to a second site, which looks like a diet or health-news page. The sites go by names such as Consumeronlinetips.com and Weeklyhealthnews.com.
The sites typically feature an article in which an attractive young TV reporter “investigates” the benefits of a diet involving a series of products. Sometimes the products are made from mangoes or acai berries, a fruit grown in South and Central America. In other cases, the products come from human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone produced by developing embryos and the pituitary gland.
“We here at Channel 7 are a little skeptical” of the hCG diet, reads the copy at Consumeronlinetips.com. “So we decided to put these products to the test.”
In each case, the sites carry favorable blurbs about the diet from well-known news organizations such as ABC, CNN and USA Today, along with brief, laudatory “reader comments.”
“I saw this report on TV the other day and was amazed at the results,” reads one. “I am getting married next month so the timing couldn’t have been better!!”
The pages have links that lead to a third site, where consumers can use a credit or debit card to order “trial” samples of the featured products.
Almost everything about these would-be news sites is bogus, the federal government contends. It has said that the offer of free or low-cost samples is a scheme to capture consumers’ credit card numbers, leading to thousands of complaints about unauthorized charges.
In an action aimed at Internet promoters of acai berry products in April, the FTC filed 10 lawsuits against some of the companies and individuals behind the ads. The agency’s allegations are nearly identical in each case: that sites such as Consumeronlinetips.com aren’t legitimate news organizations, that the defendants can’t substantiate the claims of dramatic weight loss (“25 pounds in only four weeks!”) and that the sites’ operators don’t disclose that they have financial ties to the diet-product merchants they’re linking to.
Although the promoters are apparently unconnected to one another, their sites are remarkably similar. All use what the FTC contends are fake articles. Several used the photo of the reporter supposedly investigating the diet. The woman identified as “reporter Julia Miller” on some of the sites is actually a French newscaster, Melissa Theuriau, who has said she was unaware that her image was being used this way. The endorsements from the real news organizations, such as CNN or ABC, are a sham, too, the government says.