Way back in January 2009, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning to consumers to beware of online offers for free trials of acai berry--one of the many products sold on the Web that purports to promote weight loss and halt aging. Turns out many of the so-called free trials weren't free at all--they actually hooked unsuspecting shoppers into expensive monthly shipments of acai juice or supplements. Since then, many consumer protection organizations have issued similar warnings. And last year, Oprah Winfrey and her on-air doctor Mehmet Oz sued 50 Internet retailers for improperly using their names and likenesses to advertise acai and other supplements.
But as I learned recently while writing a story on questionable anti-aging supplements for US News & World Report's new "How to Retire Smart" issue, suspicious "free trial" offers are still rampant on the Internet. This despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission is now finally taking action against some of the bad actors. A few weeks ago, the FTC got a court order imposing a freeze on companies advertising AcaiPure and Colonpure, a colon-cleansing supplement that they claimed prevented cancer. (Click on the FTC link and you'll both see and hear an example of one of the offending ads.)
Acai is a Brazilian berry that stormed onto the U.S. market a couple of years ago with outlandish promises that it could not only help people lose weight and stay young, but it could also clear all the toxins out of their bodies and boost their energy. Close on acai's heels was resveratrol, the substance found in red wine that has miraculous anti-aging powers in mice. The usefulness of these substances in humans has never been proven. Still, hundreds of otherwise intelligent people couldn't resist trying them, even though the ads demanded that they punch in their credit card numbers to take advantage of the "free" trials.
Not surprisingly, many of these poor consumers found their credit cards being charged $90 a month or more for monthly shipments of supplements that they didn't want. Some had to cancel their credit cards just to get out of the schemes.
For the fun of it, I Googled "acai" today just to see what would happen. Alongside the results was a string of ads for free trials of the supplement, including one that shows a picture of "Cindy," a reporter for "USA Health News" who raves about a product called Acai Advanced.
Guess what? It's a sham. "Cindy" is actually Melissa Theuriau, a reporter on French TV whose image has been used--without her permission--to sell everything from tea to online auctions. In my research on anti-aging products I've found many more examples of faux endorsements, including blogs in which women claiming to have incredible results with resveratrol and acai turn out to be models whose pictures are being used by supplement sellers to hawk their products.
Perhaps David Schardt says it best. He's a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who has also tried to warn the public against these supplements. "Fake blogs," he marveled when I spoke to him last year. "Shameless."
Just like the ads the FTC is trying to stop, the online offer for Acai Advanced includes a free trial bottle. But it's not until you click on the "terms and conditions," which are buried at the bottom of the homepage, that you find out what you're actually signing up for when you order your free trial is three months worth of shipments for $99.97 a month.
The FTC says Internet supplement schemes cost Americans $30 million in 2009. And the problem is spreading around the world: A recent story in an Australian paper revealed that Theuriau's mug has fooled plenty of Aussies into handing over their credit card numbers, too.
My advice? If you see the words "free trial" and "credit card" in the same online ad, you should assume that whatever miracle pill or potion you're about to order is not actually free. You may as well save your $99 anyway. After all, when it comes to aging, there is no magic pill or potion.
Arlene Weintraub is the author of "Selling the Fountain of Youth: How the Anti-Aging Industry Made a Disease Out Of Getting Old--And Made Billions."