How fake news stories about Meghan Markle and Kelly Clarkson are used to sell diet pills and wrinkle creams

Scammers hijack the look of the "TODAY Show", CNBC, CNN, ESPN and other legitimate news websites to trick you into buying bogus diet pills and beauty products. Here's what to look for.
Image: Scammers hijack the look of TODAY, CNN, CNBC, ESPN. PEOPLE and other legitimate websites to trick you.
If you know what to look for, there are various ways to tell these fabricated news stories are really ads in disguise.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; ConsumerWorld.org
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By Herb Weisbaum

Scammers have always used deception, such as fake testimonials and bogus test results, to sell worthless diet pills and wrinkle creams. Now, they have a “new and improved” way to fool you.

Shady operators are publishing fake online news stories designed to look like they’re from a trusted news source, such as NBC, CNN, Fox News, ESPN and "People".

These phony news stories tend to center on a celebrity — such as Chrissy Metz, Meghan Markle, Dr. Oz, Tom Hanks, Kelly Clarkson or Kim Kardashian, just to name a few — who supposedly used the company’s products with miraculous results. At the bottom of each “story” there’s a free trial offer and fake customer reviews.

A recent investigation by Consumer World calls this “a brazen new move” by scam artists to mislead buyers and lend legitimacy to their questionable products.

“In the past, these crooks created fake news websites with familiar but made-up names, such as “Entertainment Today” or “News 8,” to sell their pills and potions,” said Edgar Dworsky, Consumer World’s founder and editor. “Now scam artists are hijacking the look and feel of popular news sites to publish phony stories that can fool even a savvy reader. Even I fell for it at first glance.”

Dworsky’s journey down this shady rathole started when he visited a local TV station’s website. An ad box appeared on the screen (image below) and one of the stories, labelled “breaking news,” caught his eye: “After Losing 105lbs, Kelly Clarkson Is Unbelievably Gorgeous!”

Courtesy of ConsumerWorld.org

When he clicked on the box, Dworsky landed on a story that appeared to be published by the "TODAY Show". According to this fabricated story, producers of “The Voice” told Clarkson she had to lose 105 pounds, or she’d be dropped from the show.

Courtesy of ConsumerWorld.org

Ellen DeGeneres supposedly heard about Clarkson’s predicament, the story continued, and got Clarkson a product that “burned the fat in 22 days.”

All of this nonsense was a build-up for the ad at the bottom of the page for Keto 101 weight loss pills. It offered a free 30-day supply for just $4.95 shipping and handling. But wait, there’s more!

Courtesy of ConsumerWorld.org

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When Dworsky clicked on the terms and conditions, something few people do, he discovered that the free trial period is only 14 days — and the clock starts ticking the day you place your order, not when the package arrives. That means your cancellation window could expire before you get the product.

If you don’t cancel in time — which is very likely — you’ll be billed $89.99 for those 60 pills. And because you signed up for a “membership program” with automatic renewals when you requested your sample bottle — whether you realized it or not — the company will continue to send shipments and charge you $89.99 a month — until you call the toll-free number to cancel.

I called the customer service number for Keto 101, but no one there would talk to me or even tell me the name of the company selling these diet pills. I was told to expect a call from someone in management. That never happened.

NBC News Digital is aware that its sites are being cloned. “When these sites pop up, they get flagged to the legal teams here who handle copyright infringement/takedown requests,” our parent company told me in an email.

Falling down the rabbit hole

Click on a pop-up ad that takes you to one of these fake news stories and you’ll find yourself getting other pop-ups that take you to more bogus stories … and on and on it goes. A few examples:

  • A fake CNN story selling a male enhancement formula based on a made-up testimonial from Dr. Oz.
  • A fake "People" story selling an anti-wrinkle cream that purported to share Meghan Markle’s beauty secrets.
  • A fake Fox News story that claimed Tom Hanks had discovered a cure for diabetes.

NBC News BETTER asked CNN, FOX News, ESPN, "People" and "US Weekly" about these deceptive ads that piggy-back on their trusted brands. We heard back from ESPN.

“We are aware of these sorts of fake ads and have worked through the hosts of these sites — as well as with Twitter and Facebook — to have them taken down,” ESPN said in a statement. “It is a challenge to keep ahead of these imposters, but we remain committed to protecting our IP and support efforts that address issues of online theft and impersonation.”

Bonnie Patten, executive director of TruthInAdvertising.org, says this deception works because so many of the people who click on these ads “think they're going to legitimate news sites that they believe they can rely on and trust — and they're just absolutely being scammed.”

You have to be “a pretty savvy consumer to be able to pick up on the fact that this is not reliable information, that this is someone trying to pitch their product to you in a very disingenuous way,” Patten told NBC News BETTER.

How to spot these fake news stories

If you know what to look for, there are various ways to tell these fabricated news stories are really ads in disguise.

Courtesy of ConsumerWorld.org
  • Check the URL: Even though this page has a familiar logo, the web address is something different. For example, the URL for the bogus "People" story about Meghan Markle and the fake CNN story about Dr. OZ is the same: healthylifeupdate.com.
  • Check the Menu Buttons: The tabs on the menu bar of a real news site, such as local news, national news, politics, etc., take you to that section. The links on these fake sites take you to an ad for the product.
  • Check the Testimonials: They’re there to add credibility, but chances are most of these testimonials are fake. Click on the links, as we did, and you see that most of them result in a message that says the URL was not found, this is not a Facebook page, or it just goes to an ad for the product.

Beware so-called "free trial" offers

A free trial offer is a legitimate marketing tactic. Fraudsters use it to get your credit or debit card number by requiring you to pay a shipping and handling fee.

“They want your credit or debit card number so they can run up the bill,” cautioned John Breyault at Fraud.org. “So think twice before you do that, especially with an unknown company. Unauthorized charges for a product you don’t want can quickly eat into your pocketbook, and getting out of these 'free' trial offers is often a big pain.”

As we reported last year, complaints about free trial offers are skyrocketing. The Better Business Bureau received nearly 9,000 complaints about these offers in the last 12 months. A common complaint is that it’s difficult or impossible to cancel the charges for the “free” trial or stop future shipments.

“In cases like these, your credit card issuer is your friend,” Consumer World’s Dworsky said. “Withhold payment and ask them to remove any unauthorized charges.”

And file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency that prosecutes these scammers.

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