BULLETIN: FTC Goes To Federal Court To Take Down Alleged Acai Berry Scam Operating On ‘Fake News Websites’; Some Domains Listed In Complaint Now Load Error Messages Or Blank Pages

Is this an image of a "fake" reporter sometimes listed as "Julia," "Stacie" or "Karen," depending on the acai-berry site?

BULLETIN: (Also see editor’s note below.) The Federal Trade Commission says a major law-enforcement initiative is under way to stop an acai-berry weight-loss scam that features “fake” news stories on websites that appear to be real media outlets but are really just sites that flog acai products. The agency appears to have filed at least six lawsuits against multiple defendants. Although the complaints are filed in Washington state and Illinois, the corporate and individual defendants do not all reside in those states, according to documents viewed by the PP Blog.

Some of the defendants reside in Minnesota, Texas, Michigan, California and New York.

Although the FTC said today that it did not plan to announce until Tuesday the names of the defendants in the cases alleging that fake news sites were hawking acai products, some sites that aggregate court filings are showing that the agency filed complaints Wednesday against Tanner Garrett Vaughn in Washington state; Ambervine Marketing LLC, Encastle Inc. and Zachary S. Graham in Illinois; Beony International LLC, Cody Adams and Mario Milanovic in Illinois; IMM Interactive Inc. in Illinois; Ricardo Jose Labra in Illinois; and Thou Lee in Illinois.

Details of the filing that names Thou are unclear. Like the others, the Thou case is listed on Justia.com, with the FTC as the plaintiff and Thou as a defendant. The case number is sequential to the others, which suggests it was filed at the same time.

Separately, Courthouse News Service has obtained a copy of the complaint against IMM Interactive, which once was known as Intermark Communications Inc. and does business as COPEAC and Intermark Media, according to the FTC. Courthouse News published the IMM Interactive complaint yesterday.

It is unclear if the FTC  is filing actions in states beyond Washington and Illinois. The PP Blog checked several domain names alleged by the FTC to have delivered fraudulent news content about the acai berry. Each of the domains threw error messages.

It was not immediately clear if the domain owners shut down the sites independently or if one or more federal judges ordered the sites taken down. Each of the URLs tested by the PP Blog had domain names that implied visitors were at a journalism site.

“Millions of consumers are being lured to websites that imitate those of reputable news organizations,” the FTC said today. “The ‘reporters’ on these sites supposedly have done independent evaluations of acai berry supplements, and claim that the products cause major weight loss in a short period of time with no diet or exercise.

“In reality,” the agency continued, “the websites are deceptive advertisements placed by third-party or ‘affiliate’ marketers. The websites are aimed at enticing consumers to buy the featured acai berry weight-loss products.”

In past acai-berry cases, the FTC has said Internet Marketers had ripped off customers in promos featuring bogus testimonials and hidden continuity-billing schemes. Talk-show host and business icon Oprah Winfrey has filed lawsuits against acai promoters who’ve traded on her name.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The acai-berry scandal is growing, and it may not be easy for promoters in the direct-selling sphere to contain or explain away. Some sites that appear to use “fake” reporters continue to be operational and appear to be hosted on any number of domain names owned by individual promoters. One “fake” reporter featured in “news” accounts appears to have been referred to by three different names, but also appears to be the same “person” — that is, the sites used the images of an attractive female  “reporter” and changed the “reporter’s” name. Details about how much weight the “reporter” purportedly lost also varied from site to site. One site we viewed had a disclaimer in small type at the very bottom of the page. The disclaimer appeared against a gray screen, which created a washing effect. The type was smaller than the type of the fake news report, which used black type against a white background. We could not read the disclaimer without glasses.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the developing story is why the promoters simply did not permit the acai-berry products to be sold on their own merits. An entire fantasy world featuring interchangeable, fake reporters or news anchors appears to have been created to drive sales.

To be sure, today is not a banner day for Internet Marketers. When MLM and direct-sales aficionados in general wonder why there are so many critics, they need look no further than the acai-berry sector. Despite case after case in which the government and private litigants such as Oprah Winfrey alleged elements of false advertising and bogus business practices, purveyors of the schemes dialed up the acai madness to greater and greater extremes.

A big section of the public no longer may know what is real and what is fake in the acai world. One of the reasons is that promoters also have used the names of real media companies to plant the seed that they endorsed the acai offers.  Today alone we have seen the logos of CNN, Forbes magazine, ABC, CBS News and USA Today in acai promos. The promoters clearly were trying to plant the seed that the famous media companies had endorsed the product.

 

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2 Responses to “BULLETIN: FTC Goes To Federal Court To Take Down Alleged Acai Berry Scam Operating On ‘Fake News Websites’; Some Domains Listed In Complaint Now Load Error Messages Or Blank Pages”

  1. The ‘fake’ news reporter is actually a real news reporter in France:

    http://www.melissa-theuriau.fr/

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  2. Ads for these fake news websites are still being run on sites like About.com (owned by the New York Times) and on Facebook, Yahoo and Google Adwords.

    Acai has largely been replaced by African Mango, but the current fake news site scams are mostly promoting free trial wrinkle cream, teeth whitener and work at home scams: http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?t=3475221

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