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Scam Alert:

Be Berry Suspicious

With a new calendar comes another wave of folks intent on sticking to what is historically the most common New Year’s resolution—to lose weight. But before you try shortcuts to diet and exercise in an attempt to lighten your load, take note: More people are duped in weight-loss product scams—nearly 5 million a year, or one in six of all fraud victims—than any other type of fraud logged by the Federal Trade Commission.

The latest slimming ruse making the rounds involves the tiny acai (“ah-sigh-EE”) berry, harvested in Brazilian rain forests.

Often sold in juice form at gourmet shops and health food stores, the berry is nutritious, but there’s little scientific evidence that it spurs weight loss. Nonetheless, it is “often touted as a weight-loss miracle, and many ad campaigns claim the endorsement of Oprah and other celebrities,” says Alison Preszler-Southwick of the national Council of Better Business Bureaus.

“The supposed Oprah stamp of approval has led many Americans to try ‘free’ trial offers of acai teas, supplements and juices,” she says. “However, complaints to BBB from thousands of consumers show that dubious marketing techniques only resulted in a slimmer wallet as the free trial cost them month after month.”

According to a BBB press release, two companies—Central Coast Nutraceuticals of Phoenix and FX Supplements of Arlington, Texas—are among dozens that “lure customers in with celebrity endorsements and free trial offers, and then lock them in by making it extremely difficult to cancel the automatic delivery of more acai products every month,” which cost $50 to $86 a month.

Typically, BBB reports, acai marketers have ignored e-mail requests from customers to cancel orders or placed callers on hold for up to 75 minutes until customers hung up. Some have billed customers, sometimes repeatedly, for additional products that they didn’t order. In some cases, consumers have had to cancel their credit cards to stop recurring charges.

Neither company returned messages left by Scam Alert.

A statement on Oprah’s website reads: “Consumers should be aware that Oprah Winfrey is not associated with nor does she endorse any acai berry product or online solicitation of such products. Attorneys for Harpo [Winfrey’s production company] are pursuing any companies that claim such an affiliation.”

Before you take the bait for the acai berry or other weight-loss products, check the seller at www.bbb.org. Although some sellers are legitimate, many engage in shady business practices that make it hard to cancel trial offers.

Resources

The FTC offers advice on bogus weight-loss claims.

For information on questionable products, some of which can threaten your health, visit Diet Scam Watch, a website run by retired physician and consumer advocate Stephen Barrett, M.D.

If you already have joined the millions of others duped in a weight-loss scheme, notify your local BBB and state attorney general’s office, or file a complaint with the FTC.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of "Scam-Proof Your Life" (AARP Books/Sterling). Send your queries about scams, deals and other consumer issues to Sid at asksid@aarp.org. If you want a personal response, please include a telephone number or e-mail address. Due to the volume of mail received, Sid regrets that he can’t answer all questions.

 

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