Some sleazy companies are using a deceptive marketing technique to trick people into buying wrinkle creams and diet pills. They've created fake news websites with fake celebrity stories and fake product endorsements.
These bogus sites use the logos of well-known media sites, including CNN, TMZ, Vogue, and Entertainment Today. The fabricated celebrity gossip stories with their eye-catching headlines and pictures, all sing the praises of whatever product is being pushed. At the bottom of each "story" is a large ad that offers a free sample.
"This is out-and-out fraud," said consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, publisher of MousePrint.org, who blew the whistle on this latest round of deception. "They're using famous celebrities without their permission, publishing fake testimonials and stealing the logos of trusted news organizations to fool people."
The headline on the "exclusive" phony story on Entertainment Today (not to be confused with the real website EntertainmentToday.net) reads: "The Shocking Reason Joy Behar Is Quitting The View! Joy Behar Reveals All."
Behar is leaving The View, it says, to spend full time working on her "wildly popular anti-aging skin care line" called JuvaLux that is "highly potent and effective."
This made-up story even has fabricated quotes from Behar, such as:
"Users of JuvaLux are experiencing anti-aging results that before now were only possible through surgeons. It's obviously a much cheaper, easier and safer alternative and because of that plastic surgeons are finding it harder to book patients for Botox injections and face lifts."
The story is filled with made-up testimonials from Behar's celebrity pals, including Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell, and Meredith Vieira.
You shouldn't believe any of this made-up hype.
Joy Behar doesn't have a line of skin care products and she isn't leaving The View, as she explained this summer.
"I have never heard of this skincare and people are putting words in my mouth and people are buying this stuff," she said. "If I'm going to do a skincare line, pay me for it at least."
And Meredith Vieira didn't say:
"It's hard to believe, but all of my wrinkles have vanished! They have completely disappeared. I used to have lines around my mouth, eyes and forehead. But after a month of using JuvaLux my skin is completely smooth without a wrinkle in sight."
Vieira told NBC News she didn't use JuvaLux and had never heard of it. She was very upset that people might buy the product because they believed she had endorsed it.
"It's really despicable on a lot of levels," she said. "It's taking advantage of people purely for the sake of greed. And I find it really, really offensive."
But wait, there's more
At the bottom of this so-called story, the Entertainment Today site has a long list of Facebook comments — all positive — from people who supposedly used JuvaLux and loved it.
Again, they're bogus.
Lauren Kirschenbaum Silver supposedly wrote: "For once I was able to do something nice for myself without feeling guilty about the cost. Can't beat free." NBC News contacted Silver, who said she had never purchased the product, never used it, and didn't write the testimonial.
"They're using me to perpetrate this scam and I can't get them to stop," Silver said. I'm getting hundreds of Facebook notes from people all over the world asking me about this. It's very frustrating."
Silver said family and friends bought the product because they thought she had used it. Now they're being billed for the ongoing shipments and can't get them to stop.
It's all just a big lie, honest
What does the company selling this stuff have to say? NBC News called the customer service line, but no one answered (we held on for more than 20 minutes) and there was also no response to our emails for a comment.
The legal disclaimer on the Entertainment Today website does state that it's "not a source of facts or real information" and that all the content is "artificial and falls under the umbrella of fiction." The disclaimer goes on to say:
"EntertainmentToday.Co is a fabricated web publication, which uses real names in a fictitious way. All news articles contained within EntertainmentToday.Co are fictional and should be presumed as fake news. Any mention of celebrities and public figures are used to pepper our stories, grab your attention, and sensationalize our content. They are entirely inaccurate and should not be believed as fact."
John Breyault, who runs the National Consumers League's Fraud.Org website, called this outrageous.
"Disclosing that the endorsements and testimonials are not real does nothing to hide the fact that this is not mere tabloid entertainment as its perpetrators claim, but a scam," Breyault said. "This is fraud in my opinion and I hope law enforcement comes down on these crooks like a ton of bricks."
That 'free' sample can be mighty costly
People who take the bait and click the link for a "free sample bottle" at the bottom of the webpage will be told they need to pay $4.95 for shipping and handling.
A short time later, they could get hit with an unpleasant surprise — by signing up for the "free trial offer" they've agreed to buy more of the product each month if they don't cancel quickly. The $95 charge is billed to the credit or debit card they used to pay for the shipping of their free sample. And victims report, it's often impossible to cancel.
Information about the enrollment in the auto ship information is buried in the "Terms and Conditions." The small link to that page is easy to miss. In reads, in part:
"If you do not cancel within 14 Days of yourintial [sic] trial purchase, we will charge the same card you provided the full product cost of $89.95 and enroll you in our auto ship program, which will ship you a fresh monthly supply of the product, and charge your card $94.90 (including S&H) every 30 days."
Based on complaints and the company's lack of response to the Better Business Bureau, JuvaLux Skincare has an 'F' rating with the bureau.
"The company has really, really bad business practices," said Sheryl Reichert, president & CEO of the BBB of San Diego, Orange and Imperial counties. "They're signing people up for a monthly purchase of their products, but all of their marketing talks about a free trial and all you pay for is the shipping.
Those who spot the charge find it nearly impossible to reach anyone at the company to cancel.
"Consumers call it the black hole. They call and call, day after day and can never get a person to cancel," she said.
Not an isolated case
The company running these fake Joy Behar stories also runs fake stories for other products featuring other made-up celebrity gossip.
"You need to be careful," cautions Lois Greisman, associate director of the Division of Marketing Practices at the Federal Trade Commission. "Fake news sites are nothing new. We keep seeing them time and time again."
They keep being used because they're effective. People believe them, click on the links and order the stuff.
Three years ago, the FTC shut down 10 companies that used fake news sites to make deceptive claims about Acai Berry weight loss products. The sites made it look like Oprah and Dr. Oz endorsed the products when they did not.
The FTC's advice: "Any time you see a free trial offer, you've got to be skeptical as to whether it's legitimate, because all too often we see free trial offers that simply are not free," Greisman said. "Your account information is going to get billed right away and to compound all of that, you may be enrolled in a membership program or some sort of buyer's club that you've never heard of and have absolutely no interest in."