Fake news sites luring consumers to buy acai berry diet products

Consumers searching for unbiased journalism on the acai berry diet clicked their way into a scam, according to federal regulators who have filed lawsuits in six states in an attempt to shut down the alleged Internet tricksters.

CHICAGO — Consumers searching for unbiased journalism on the acai berry diet clicked their way into a scam, according to federal regulators who have filed lawsuits in six states in an attempt to shut down the alleged Internet tricksters.

The Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday it has asked federal courts to stop a wave of fake news sites that entice consumers to buy the unproven weight-loss products.

The sites violate federal law by using the logos of major news outlets to mislead consumers into thinking they’re reading real news reports, according to the court filings. In reality, the sites are advertisements.

Over the past seven days, the FTC filed complaints in federal courts in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Georgia and Washington. The complaints named 10 website operators and asked the courts to freeze their assets.

The defendants paid more than $10 million to advertise their fake news sites, the FTC said. It’s not clear whether the defendants allegedly running the sites are connected, although content on the sites is similar or the same, said FTC attorney Steven Wernikoff in Chicago.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Wernikoff told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “There was some copying of content going on. Regardless of the genesis of the content, the operators are still responsible for the deception on their sites.”

Courts granted temporary restraining orders in some of the cases and many of the websites have been taken down.

One typical lawsuit alleges that Tanner Garrett Vaughn of Mill Creek, Wash., claimed on a website called BreakingNewsAt6.com that a reporter tested an acai berry product and lost 25 pounds in four weeks without dieting or exercise.

The FTC claims no real reporter tested the products.

Vaughn is co-operating with the FTC and the website is no longer operating, said Vaughn’s Washington, D.C.-based attorney James A. Kaminski.

“It’s our position that the defendant has done no wrong,” Kaminski said.

The Illinois attorney general’s office filed a separate lawsuit against Ishmael Lopez Jr. of Sauk Village. The office alleges Lopez used a fake news site to promote acai weight-loss products. A phone listing for Lopez could not be found.

According to court filings, the scam worked like this:

A consumer types “acai” into Google or another search engine. An ad pops up that says, “Health Reporter Discovers The Shocking Truth.” Clicking on that link leads the consumer to a fake news site featuring a first-person story about a fake reporter’s positive experience with the diet products. One more click and the consumer lands on an ad offering a “free trial” of an acai berry supplement.

The FTC received multiple complaints from consumers who paid from $70 to $100 for weight-loss products after having been duped by the fake news sites.

Acai, a popular beverage flavour, is a dark purple fruit from a palm found in Central and South America. Marketers sell a diet supplement purported to contain acai, often selling it with a separate “colon cleanser” product.

Last year, the FTC filed a separate lawsuit against a Phoenix-based company for using fake celebrity endorsements for acai berry products. In that case, still under way, Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray filed statements with the court denying they’d ever endorsed the products.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,183 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

50.5% of all active cases are variants of concern

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
Security and police block the entrance to GraceLife Church as a fence goes up around it near Edmonton on Wednesday April 7, 2021. The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules. Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

SPRUCE GROVE, Alta. — Hundreds of people are gathered outside an Alberta… Continue reading

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces is developing contingency plans to keep COVID-19 from affecting its ability to defend the country and continue its missions overseas amid concerns potential adversaries could try to take advantage of the crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian special forces supported major Iraqi military assault on ISIL last month

OTTAWA — Some Canadian soldiers supported a major military offensive last month… Continue reading

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Most Read