At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has ordered the marketers of acai berry supplements, “colon cleansers,” and other products to temporarily halt an Internet sales scheme that allegedly scammed consumers out of $30 million or more in 2009 alone through deceptive advertising and unfair billing practices. The FTC will seek a permanent prohibition. Since 2007, victimized consumers have flooded law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau with more than 2,800 complaints about the company.
Acai berry supplements, derived from acai palm trees that are native to Central and South America, have become popular in recent years. Last year, the Better Business Bureau named fake “free” trial offers – including those for acai supplements offered by the defendants in this case – as one of the “Top 10 Scams and Rip Offs of 2009.”
“Too many ‘free’ offers come with strings attached,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “In this case, the defendants promised buyers a ‘risk free’ trial and then illegally billed their credit cards again and again – and again. We estimate that about a million people have fallen victim to this scam. As if that weren’t enough, there were fake endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray for a product that didn’t work in the first place.”
The court order halts the allegedly illegal conduct of Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc., imposes an asset freeze, and appoints a temporary receiver over CCN and several related companies, while the FTC moves forward with its case to stop the company’s bogus health claims and other deceptive and unfair conduct.
The FTC charged CCN, two individuals, and four related companies with multiple violations, including deceptively advertising AcaiPure, an acai berry supplement, as a weight-loss product, and Colopure, a colon cleansing supplement, as an aid for preventing cancer.
The FTC complaint alleges that to sell AcaiPure, the marketers made dramatic claims on their website, including:
“WARNING! AcaiPure Is Fast Weight Loss That Works. It Was Not Created For Those People Who Only Want To Lose A Few Measly Pounds. AcaiPure was created to help you achieve the incredible body you have always wanted …USE WITH CAUTION! Major weight loss in short periods of time may occur.”
In pitching Colopure, the defendants cited frightening statistics about colon
cancer, while promising that their product would get rid of consumers’ “excess weight and toxic buildup.”
The marketers also deceived consumers about their purported “free” or “risk free” trial offers, and about the charges and refund terms consumers could expect, according to the FTC’s complaint. The FTC also alleges that the marketers made numerous additional unauthorized charges to consumers’ credit and debit card accounts.
The alleged deceptive practices include:
“Visa is committed to ensuring that consumers trust digital currency when they shop online by protecting them from deceptive merchant marketing practices,” said Martin Elliott, Senior Business Leader, Payment System Risk, Visa Inc. “Deceptive merchant practices hurt the economy by eroding trust in e-commerce and undermining the vast majority of ethical merchants who deal and compete fairly. We have tightened enforcement of our rules against banks whose merchants generate excessive levels of cardholder disputes because of deceptive marketing. We also make it a priority to partner with law enforcement and agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and support their investigations such as this case.”
The FTC would like to thank the Better Business Bureau of Central, Northern & Western Arizona and Visa, Inc. for their invaluable assistance in this investigation.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and seek a temporary restraining order was 5-0. The FTC filed its complaint and requested a temporary restraining order against the defendants from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. On August 6, 2010, the court granted the request for the temporary restraining order.
The complaint also names as defendants Graham D. Gibson and Michael A. McKenzy, and four companies affiliated with Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc. – iLife Health and Wellness LLC; Simply Naturals LLC; Health and Beauty Solutions LLC; and Fit for Life LLC.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has reason to believe that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.