The Federal Trade Commission is suing ten websites that the FTC claims use “deceptive tactics” and fake news to sell acai berry weight-loss products. The sites feature “fictional” reporters and the comments about the products are advertising and not objective comments from the public, according to the FTC complaint.
In a note, the FTC explained that the complaint isn’t a “finding or ruling” of law-breaking, just a “reason to believe” law-breaking.
The FTC also claimed that the defendants in the suit don’t “disclose their lack of objectivity and their financial incentive” on the site. See the list of defendants here. KansasCity.com noted that while “content on the sites is similar or the same,” the FTC doesn’t know yet if the defendants are related.
Charles Harwood of the FTC stated to PC World that the FTC is claiming that the acai berry stories are “pure fabrication” and that the “same user comments appeared on multiple sites ‘complete with the same spelling and grammatical errors.”
The FTC wants the sites, which it called “misleading,” shut down and it wants the companies to pay back anyone who bought the products. The FTC stated it “has received numerous complaints from consumers” who were tricked into buying the weight-loss products.
The FTC’s bureau of consumer protection director, David Vladeck, said in a statement:
“Almost everything about these sites is fake. The weight loss results, the so-called investigations, the reporters, the consumer testimonials, and the attempt to portray an objective, journalistic endeavor.”
The FTC claims that the defendants deceive the public with their websites because the material is presented as “objective news reports,” and because the sites claim to have had “independent tests demonstrate the effectiveness of the product.” See the FTC complaint here.
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Consumer Affairs noted that the websites also go by names like channel2local.com, News 9 and nbssnewssat6.com, names that could easily be mistaken for a real news site.
iMediaEthics’ Investigations into Fake News Sites
iMediaEthics has reported on other issues of deceptive advertising when it comes to acai berry products. For example, our 2009 report noted that advertisments for Resveratrol, an ingredient of acai berry products and an alleged “life-extending” product, accompanied the New York Times’ story wary of the products.
In response to StinkyJournalism’s inquiries for that story, the New York Times claimed it didn’t control the advertisements, but that the newspaper would “discuss with Google and their AdSense for Publishers team how we can prevent unacceptable products (like Resveratrol) from getting on the site via the text ad program.”
Representatives for Rachael Ray, who was listed on MSNBC ads as endorsing acai berry diet products, told StinkyJournalism in 2009 “lawyers are pursuing” lawsuits against the phony endorsements. URLs for berry ads used a misspelling of Ray’s name to deceive and suggest Ray backed the products.
See here our report on fake news advertisement for fake reporter “Tom Chilton” of the fake Los Angeles Tribune. In the comments section, we heard from numerous readers thanking us for outing “Tom Chilton” as a scam and complaining about scammers and fake news postings.
iMediaEthics has also looked into fake news gadgets on iGoogle. For example, in 2009, four of five New York Daily News headline gadgets spotted on iGoogle by iMediaEthics’ publisher Rhonda Roland Shearer weren’t legitimate and re-directed to other sites. While the Daily News initially “paused” acai berry ads and fake news ads, just a day later those ads were back up.