FTC Takes Action Against 'fake' News Sites

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Several websites apparently featuring news reports that show the weight-loss benefits of acai berry products aren't what they appear to be, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Illinois Attorney General's Office said Tuesday.

The news websites are fake, and the claims that acai berry products help people lose weight are not supported by science, the two agencies alleged. In the past week, the FTC has filed 10 lawsuits in courts across the U.S. and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed an additional lawsuit in her state against affiliate marketers of acai berry products, the two agencies announced.

The affiliate marketers place billions of advertisements linking back to the fake news sites, and consumers have paid an estimated US $10 million for acai berry products that don't cause weight loss, FTC officials alleged.

The websites, with names such as News 6 News Alerts and Health 5 Beat Health News, feature a phony news report with a reporter who claimed to lose weight using the products, the agencies said during a press conference. But multiple news sites used the same picture of a reporter, with a different name depending on the site, FTC officials said.

The fake news sites often used logos of legitimate news organizations, including CNN and USA Today, without their permission, FTC officials said.

"We're alleging that nearly everything about the defendants' websites is false and deceptive," said Charles Harwood, deputy director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The supposedly objective news reporter "always produces the same result" across several sites, Harwood added. According to the multiple reports, the reporter always lost 25 pounds in four weeks without changing her diet and exercise routine, he said. The picture of a reporter commonly used by the marketing sites is a real-life French reporter who didn't give her permission for the image to be used, officials said.

"We allege this is pure fabrication," Harwood said. "There never was any sort of test conducted by any independent reporter, and the weight-loss results ... are impossible to achieve. There simply is no scientific evidence that acai berries can help anyone lose weight, let alone cause rapid and substantial weight loss."

The purported news sites also contain "user" comments about weight loss using the acai berry products, including Acai Max and Acai Optimum, the FTC said. But the sites don't let visitors post comments, and the same user comments appeared on multiple sites "complete with the same spelling and grammatical errors," he said.

The FTC lawsuits have asked courts to halt the websites' allegedly deceptive practices.

IMM Interactive, a Woodbury, New York, marketing firm named in one of the FTC cases, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Two other defendants with contact information on their websites didn't immediately return messages seeking comment. Some of the other marketers named in the lawsuits didn't have contact information available.

Affiliate marketers and the companies that hire them can be held liable for deceptive practices, said Steven Wernikoff, an attorney with the FTC. Affiliate marketing can be a good way for companies to market their products, but "sometimes affiliates are willing to cross the line to make a sale," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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