A Consumer Action News Alert • April 2022
  Easy [not so] peasy  

Americans spend billions each year on weight loss products, but studies show that most are ineffective, and those that may contribute to weight loss (green tea and fiber, for example) were tested as part of a reduced calorie diet. Buying products that promise "easy" weight loss does little more than lighten our purses. Peddlers of supplements, books, infomercials and guides that promise quick weight loss know that true weight loss takes time and effort, but still they prey on our desire for a quick fix. (AARP tells how consumers lost money, and not weight, after falling for "keto diet pill" scams. TV's "Biggest Loser" club "free trial" was anything but.) WebMD offers a list of top "diet scams" that includes metabolism boosting pills, body wraps, weight loss teas, body patches and carb blockers. The wellness retreat Canyon Ranch offers tips on how to spot a fad diet: promises of very rapid weight loss, claims to reduce specific areas of the body, and prohibitions on certain types of food among them. Some products capitalize on the fact that supplements can be sold without FDA testing and approval. However, making false claims about product efficacy is illegal. For more info, read "Gut Check: A Reference Guide for Media on Spotting False Weight Loss Claims."

  Bitter pills  

Millions of people "self-medicate" using dietary supplements. While some supplements might be helpful, caution is advised, because their ingredients are mostly unregulated and some even have been found to contain dangerous, undisclosed substances. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work together on issues related to dietary supplements. The FDA has primary responsibility for claims on product labeling, including packaging, inserts and other promotional materials distributed at the point of sale. The FTC has primary responsibility for claims in advertising, including print and broadcast ads, infomercials, catalogs and similar direct marketing materials. According to the FDA, in recent years, hundreds of supplements have been found to be tainted with prohibited drugs and other chemicals. The FTC monitors diet product claims, including social media posts that push misinformation about products. One example: The FTC in 2015 charged a California operation known as Sale Slash with using millions of illegal spam emails, along with false weight loss claims and fake, unauthorized endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, to market unproven diet pills.

  Revolting tricks  

Not a 'fluke.' While, as Americans, we are fortunate to have a reliable supply of nutritious and safe foods, it turns out that for some items, it's "buyer beware." Forbes writes about "5 Fake Foods and Food Scams You Need to Avoid," like bait-and-switcheroo fish, not-so-organic foods labeled organic, and extra virgin olive oil that comes with some "extra," cheaper oils. A few years ago, the New York State Attorney General's Office found masquerading seafood at supermarkets across the state when it tested the DNA of fish it purchased. CBS News offers this list of "10 most adulterated foods," including honey, vanilla extract and orange juice, to name a few. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies work to keep adulterants out of our food supplies, but we need to be on our toes as well. HuffPost offers tips on how to detect fraudulent foods.

Put on your thinking SNAP. Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards are a lifeline for millions of low-income families, giving them access to subsidies to help buy healthy foods. (EBT systems allow participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--SNAP--to pay for food at markets and grocery stores.) But, like any government program, EBT cards attract scammers and predators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns of EBT-related scams to avoid, like the "contest" that asks you to take pictures of your EBT card and submit them in exchange for prizes. You might be targeted by emails, texts and social media posts saying you can get monthly payments and food stamps just by filling out a form asking for personal information. (Raised eyebrows duly noted, loyal SCAM GRAM readers!) Robocalls from EBT scammers may appear to be coming from a government agency--it's easy for fraudsters to "spoof" calling numbers. Don't take the bait! Protect your benefits card as you would any personal financial information and know that there is no charge to apply for low-income subsidies and benefits. Check your eligibility here.

A hoodwink and a nod. Last month, the New York Times ran a not-to-be-missed article about Zelle payments fraud--a topic familiar to SCAM GRAM readers. Zelle is owned by seven major banks, and the banks are aware of the widespread fraud. But so far, they are digging in their heels about reimbursing consumers who were convinced to send money using Zelle by scammers. The banks say they are not required to make hoodwinked victims whole because the federal law covering electronic transfers--Regulation E--requires banks to cover only "unauthorized" transactions. Unfortunately, in the Zelle scams, bank customers are tricked into making the transfers themselves by people who pose as bank fraud department employees and convince them their Zelle accounts have been compromised. A woman in the comments section broke our hearts with her post that said: "I still burn with shame when I think about the $500 I lost to a scam on Zelle." (Honey, you didn't do anything wrong--these scammers are well versed in the art of the con and we believe Zelle should have stronger guardrails.) She said scammers phoned her from a number her caller ID said was "Amazon" and asked her to verify a $749 charge she didn't recognize. In order to help her "correct" the problem, the scammer led her through "a series of steps online that ended incredibly to my authorizing a transfer from my bank account to the account of a 'Bank of America manager'." She balked at one point, refusing to check a box next to "Do you want to send the above amount?" The scam "manager" grew testy, so the commenter said she backed out and called BofA's fraud department, thinking "the transaction could be stopped. It couldn't. I don't know why Zelle asks that last confirmation question if they are going to ignore the response. I was out $500."


Vultures with veneer. Anti-money laundering web magazine ACAMS Today writes that while "investment fraud has existed for years...with greater access and global reach, it has changed in recent years," as business moves online. People who were able to save their discretionary income during the pandemic hit the markets with full coffers and heightened interest in investing with, and in, new technologies. But fraudsters, too, are eyeing these eager and newly flush investors, and since many are newbies investing for the first time, there's lots of opportunity to mislead them. Some of the investments you need to approach with an abundance of caution are pre-initial public offering (pre-IPO) scams and initial coin (cryptocurrency) offerings (ICO). In a release announcing the SEC's 2018 enforcement action against AriseBank's ICO, a U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman observed, "Attempting to conceal what we allege to be fraudulent securities offerings under the veneer of technological terms like 'ICO' or 'cryptocurrency' will not escape the Commission's oversight or its efforts to protect investors." Visit the SEC's press release page and search for keyword "fraud" to learn about fraudulent schemes that have fallen under the regulator's hammer.

Hello, old friend! We're big fans of the National Consumers League (NCL) Fraud.org site. A recent alert told of nearly a dozen people contacting NCL about scammers using Facebook (Meta) Messenger to pose as long-lost friends. Messages purporting to be from a former classmate or an old pal arrive and coerce recipients into conversations that--surprise!--lead to requests for money. Learn more about how to protect yourself at Fraud.org. And while you're there, check out the site's solid info on common scams.

Drive-thru deception. The website So Yummy makes the great point that "not all scams are made to steal your personal information. There are plenty of things we experience in our day-to-day lives that might seem totally normal...but are actually pretty shady." In this case, the site is referring to "15 Fast Food Tricks That You've Probably Fallen For." The sleight of hand includes charges for toppings you didn't want, half-filled fries cartons, and "combo deals [that] might not actually be much of a steal." Hmmm...not So Yummy!

Worthy of review. Since the advent of the internet and social media, consumers have been going online to express their displeasure with products and services. Being able to shame and publicize an offending company online is an important tool to promote marketplace fairness. But ever since consumers have been posting reviews, companies have been fighting back with unfair tactics, such as inserting prohibitions on posting reviews in consumer contracts and filing SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) legal actions against consumers alleging defamation--but really meant to intimidate them. Some companies even post fake reviews to make their products seem more legitimate or desirable than they are. Now the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued policy guidance regarding potentially illegal practices related to consumer reviews of financial products and services. The move is intended to uphold the rights of consumers who write reviews and to protect shoppers who need to be able to trust that product reviews are unbiased. The Bureau notes that subjecting consumers to contract clauses that forbid them from publishing honest reviews may violate the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the CFPB: "Markets can be harmed if consumers cannot trust that online reviews are legitimate." Attempting to silence consumers from posting online reviews can undermine fair competition. The Bureau warns that companies engaging in these practices could face steep penalties.

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