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How to Spot Weight Loss Scams

Keep yourself healthy (and wealthy) by avoiding these fake supplements


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Illustration: Lehel Kovács

Americans spend big money on weight loss — the industry generates $3.8 billion a year, according to IBISWorld, a market research company. That kind of cash tempts scammers. In 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 18,000 reports of fraud associated with diet products, plans and centers.

It’s not just that the supplement you buy may not work; it may not even be safe. “I think people (believe) just because something is on a shelf, that means that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the product before it’s marketed,” says Cynthia Ng, head of the agency’s fraud drugs branch.

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The FDA approves prescription drugs, Ng says, but dietary supplements — including keto gummies and other products that are supposed to fight fat — are not reviewed by the FDA before being sold to the public. Some supplements may be tainted and dangerous; others may be completely ineffective and a waste of money.

Experts recommend talking to a medical professional before using any weight loss product. 

Your doctor is likely to tell you that although there are effective strategies for weight loss, there’s no magic pill. “Right now, there is no data on any food (or) any supplement that it has any significant benefit for chronic weight management,” says Ethan Lazarus, M.D., head of Clinical Nutrition Center in Denver and past president of the Obesity Medicine Association.

Hidden ingredients in diet supplements

In 2023, the FDA sent out four warnings to consumers regarding undeclared ingredients in weight loss supplements. One, Alfia Weight Loss Capsules, had a controlled substance, sibutramine, hidden among the “natural” ingredients. This drug not only poses a significant risk for people with a history of heart problems; it can have life-threatening interactions with other medications.

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The FDA found that Phentamene XT and Govvi WOW! both contained ingredients that could elevate blood pressure and lead to heart attacks. The fourth alert warned about three hidden ingredients in NORF 20; one of which, theophylline, prescribed for breathing problems, can be deadly if used without a doctor’s guidance. 

The drugs the FDA issues warnings about represent “just a small fraction of potentially tainted products on the market,” Ng says. “It’s easy for someone to create one of these products, to come up with a website and start selling.”

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“If (a doctor is) going to treat (a weight problem) with medication, (they’re) going to treat it chronically, not just for three months and then stop,” Lazarus says. So if a patient is choosing a treatment from an ad or online, “are they really comfortable being on that for the rest of their life with no data that it’s safe or effective?”

Popular weight loss drugs

That’s especially true when a drug has high name recognition. Three-quarters of Americans say they have heard about Ozempic and Wegovy, according to a 2024 Pew Research Center survey. Half consider them good choices for weight loss.

“Fraudsters like to come out and create (fake) products when there is something like Ozempic … or some other kind of hot topic,” Ng says.

“People have reported to us that they have sent in their money and never got the product,” says Melanie McGovern of the International Association of Better Business Bureaus.

Worse can happen. Lazarus says he has heard of incidents in which scammers labeled insulin as Ozempic, which can have fatal consequences. “The problem with buying medication off of the internet from unreliable sources is we don’t know who is selling it, and we don’t know what is in it.”

Influencers’ outsize impact

Sometimes the people selling supplements are in your social media feed. Three out of four shoppers have purchased a product because an influencer recommended it, according to a 2024 survey by Grin, a creator management platform.

“Influencer marketing has increased dramatically in recent years, and it’s continuing to rise,” says Cassandra Rasmussen, an attorney in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC works to protect consumers from deceptive advertising. Over the past few years, the FTC has taken action against influencers. In one case, the agency sent warning letters to influencers, including singer Cardi B, who promoted a weight loss tea. “They claimed all sorts of things that it did not do,” Rasmussen says.

The FTC requires influencers to disclose clearly and upfront if they’ve been paid. “It can be difficult or impossible for the consumer to know that an influencer’s post is really an ad in disguise,” Rasmussen says. Look for prominent disclosure overlaid on a screen or a clear statement about the influencers’ relationship at the beginning of videos.

Sometimes celebrities don’t even know their image is being used to sell bogus products, as scammers can use artificial intelligence to manipulate their images. 

Warning signs of a scam

Promises of speedy slimming. Considering the body’s ability to break down fat, the most someone can realistically lose is 10 pounds a month for women and 15 pounds a month for men, Lazarus says. “Anything above that is either going to be water loss or muscle loss.”

Weight loss patches, creams and wraps. “They may be helpful for complexion, but they don’t do anything for the disease of obesity or for weight loss,” Lazarus says.

Assurances that no change of habit is needed. A supplement may claim that users can lose weight while eating as much as they want. For most people, successful weight loss involves healthy eating, sleeping well, regular physical activity and stress reduction, Lazarus says.

Effusive language. Terms may include “miracle,” “revolutionary” or “scientific breakthrough.” A few years ago, a green tea extract was said to be effective for weight loss, Lazarus says. “That was on every street corner and in every mall. And it was later determined that they just made up the data.”

Rave reviews. “If there’s a bunch of glowing five-star reviews and there’s no two-star reviews, three-star reviews, you know … either the company is only publishing the positive reviews or those could be fake,” McGovern says.

Endorsements. “Any supplement that says it’s approved by the FDA should be a red flag,” Ng says. “The FDA does not approve dietary supplements.”

Free trial offers. These offers can do damage to your wallet. “You may need to put in a credit card for shipping, and then all of a sudden, you’re getting charged (monthly),” McGovern says. “You could be on the hook for a subscription that … you didn’t know you authorized.”

How to protect yourself

Check out the company. Check out a weight loss company’s reputation by searching the Better Business Bureau (BBB) database and other websites.

Check the product. The FDA keeps a database of approved drugs that consumers can check, as well as warnings to the public about weight loss products that contain hidden ingredients that may be harmful. 

Carefully scrutinize offers. Watch for pre-checked boxes that authorize the company to charge you for regular orders or additional products. Don’t sign up for subscriptions unless there’s an option to cancel. And research how much time you have to cancel, McGovern advises.

Use caution when buying online. Ng cautions against buying medications on the internet. “Who are you giving your health information to?” McGovern asks. “Any kind of health insurance card (or) Medicare card should be treated like a Social Security number.”

Above all: Talk to your doctor. A physician will do a comprehensive evaluation and can guide you toward evidence-based treatments, Lazarus says. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor, check for medical professionals trained in weight loss management through the Obesity Medicine Association.

If you’ve been a victim

Report weight loss scams to the FTC (online or at 877-382-4357) or your state attorney general’s office.

The FDA has a page on tainted weight loss products and information on how to report problems with dietary supplements.

You can search and file a report on the BBB’s Scam Tracker.

Resources

The Obesity Medicine Association has a searchable database of specialists in your area.

The Obesity Action Coalition, a patient advocacy organization, offers support groups, educational information and other resources.

The National Institutes of Health has information on weight management, including diet myths and facts.

This article was completely rewritten and new interviews were conducted with experts in April 2024.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.