Image: Acai berries
Andre Penner  /  AP file
Using bogus claims, fake testimonials and slick marketing tricks, companies have sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of acai berry supplements.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/2/2010 11:55:04 AM ET 2010-09-02T15:55:04

For the last five years, the exotic acai berry has been the superstar in the world of diet supplements.  Acai berry weight loss products claim to “boost your metabolism,” thereby making your body burn fat more quickly.

Of course, there’s no proof the acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry can do anything to help you lose weight, but you’d never know that from the ads.

The skinny on
the acai berry

Using bogus claims, fake testimonials and slick marketing tricks, companies have sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of acai berry supplements. They often use the “free trial offer” to snag customers.

That’s how they got Landria Brattain, who lives near Indianapolis. She saw a pop-up ad for a trial bottle of AcaiPure. All she had to do was pay $4.95 to Central Coast Nutraceuticals (CCN) to cover shipping and handling. The deal was simple: Try it and if you don’t like it, return the bottle and you won’t pay anything. But the package came with a bill for $68 that was already charged to her debit card.

Brattain used the stuff for three days, but it made her very sick with diarrhea, cramps and nausea. She called the company to complain but they would not remove the charge.

“They were very rude and very unfriendly,” she remembers. “They kept saying, ‘It’s your fault because you did not read the fine print.’ ”

Story: Oh snap! New baby carrot campaign mimics junk food

Soon there were two more charges of $68 on her account, which caused her to get hit with an overdraft fee.  Afraid the charges would not stop, Brattain closed the account. She complained to the Better Business Bureau and eventually got her money back.

In the last three years, the Better Business Bureau has received nearly 3,000 complaints about Central Coast Nutraceuticals. Most deal with billing and refund issues.

The Feds get the company shut down
Central Coast Nutraceuticals, based in Phoenix, isone of the big players in the acai berry industry. Last month, a federal judge approved the Federal Trade Commission’s request to prohibit deceptive claims, freeze the company’s assets, and turn the firm over to a court-appointed receiver.

The FTC charges CCN with using “deceptive, unfair, and unlawful acts and practices” to sell its acai berry weight loss pills (AcaiPure) and colon cleansing supplement (Colopure) via the Internet.

In its complaint, the FTC says CCN “deceived consumers across the country out of tens of millions of dollars.” Steve Baker, director of the FTC’s Midwest Region, tells me there may be more than a million victims.

I contacted CCN’s lawyer, who tells me neither he nor anyone from the company can comment on the charges because of the pending litigation.

Allegation: Free-trial offer wasn’t free
The FTC makes three major allegations in the case. The first deals with CCN’s “free” or “risk free” trial offer. In order to receive the supposedly free 30-day supply of AcaiPure or Colopure, online shoppers had to pay a small fee (normally $1 to $4.95) to cover the shipping and handling. Unhappy customers say they were shocked to find the full price of the "free sample" charged to their credit or debit card account.

“It was virtually impossible to avoid being charged for at least one bottle of these pills,” says the FTC’s Baker. “That’s because you had to go through an amazing number of hoops to return the product.”

The FTC’s lawsuit says to avoid being charged customers had to return the product within 14 days of the date they placed their order. In many cases, the shipment hadn’t even arrived by then. They also had to get a “return authorization number” from the company – something that was not easy to do – and pay for the return shipping. Plus, there could be a 15 percent restocking fee.

The FTC alleges this information was often hidden in the fine print, or in some cases it wasn’t disclosed before shipment.

And there's more to what many customers didn’t understand. By ordering the supposedly free sample, they agreed to become a member in the company’s “Lifestyle Program” which would automatically ship them another 30-day supply of the products every month. Those new shipments would be billed at full price to the credit or debit card used to pay for the shipping of the trial sample.

Allegation: False claims
CCN promised AcaiPure would deliver rapid and substantial weight loss – anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds in the first month. The lawsuit cites one of those claims:

"WARNING! AcaiPure Is Fast Weight Loss That Works. It Was Not CreatedFor 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."

CCN’s website said these weight loss claims were backed by “ironclad, double-blind, placebo-controlled weight loss studies from the medical establishment …”

The FTC’s lawsuit says “AcaiPure does not cause rapid and substantial weight loss” and the company does not have any proof it does.

CCN claimed Colopure would prevent cancer because it would “cleanse your entire system” and “detoxify your organs.” The FTC alleges there is no reason to believe Colopure has any role in preventing cancer whatsoever.

Story: There's no such thing as a free teeth whitener

In preparing their case, government lawyers had expert scientists examine the ingredients in AcaiPure and Colopure. Those experts said the main ingredients in both products were laxatives.

Allegation: False endorsements  
Some CCN products carry endorsements by Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Ray. How can you go wrong with a product endorsed by these trusted celebrities? Well, it turns out those endorsements were bogus.

Rachael Ray provided the FTC with this sworn statement: “I have never approved or agreed to the use of my name or my image in conjunction with the sale and marketing of AcaiPure, or any acai berry-related product.”

In his sworn statement, Douglas Pattison, the Chief Financial Officer of Harpo, Inc. (Oprah’s production company) said Oprah never endorsed or approved AcaiPure or agreed to have her picture or name used to sell or market the product. “Ms. Oprah Winfrey has never endorsed any acai berry supplement or acai berry related product by name,” Pattison said.

The bottom line
My advice is to avoid any free trial offer that requires you to give out your credit or debit card number. The only exception would be an offer from a trusted company you’ve dealt with before. I’ve simply seen too many people burned by “free trial” scams in the last few years.

Once a company has your account number, the business can use it to bill you for other charges. If you use a credit card, you can probably get the charges reversed. With a debit card, stopping the withdrawals could be a real pain. If the charges don’t stop, you may have to close that account and open a new one.

If you feel you’ve been taken by a bogus health supplement or free trial offer that’s not really free, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.32%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.05%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.50%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 10.98%
10.98%
Cash Back Cards 16.43%
16.43%
Rewards Cards 16.00%
16.00%
Source: Bankrate.com