If you’re a regular watcher of the ethically questionable Dr. Oz, then you may remember how he helped start a minor “green coffee extract” craze a couple years back by declaring it a miracle weight loss drug. In an attempt to cash in on this dubious hype, a number of sites started popping up within weeks, repeating and exaggerating the already puffed-up claims, and using fake endorsements, faux news articles and fictional “reporters.”
The Federal Trade Commission has filed a suit against the operators of several of these sites, for allegedly violating the law by making unsubstantiated weight loss claims, failing to disclose that endorsers were paid for their positive feedback, faking news articles and comments on their sites, and, perhaps most egregiously, using a headshot of an existing French news anchor to create a “staff reporter” out of whole cloth.
According to the FTC’s complaint, shortly after the Dr. Oz piece — which did not mention any specific brand of green coffee extract — the people behind Florida-based dietary supplement “Pure Green Coffee” began snapping numerous URLs both to sell their product to customers and to provide misleading and unfounded weight loss claims in the form of faked news stories and bought-and-paid-for testimonials.
The URLs range from the obvious — buypuregreencoffee.com, buygreenweightloss.com, greencoffeeweightcontrol.com — to the seemingly unrelated — womanshealthplus.com, econsumerlifestyle.com. (Some of these sites are still active, but please don’t visit them as we can’t vouch for their safety).
The WomensHealthPlus sites not only pilfered the logo of well-known Women’s Health Magazine, it also features a first-report from “Staff reporter Helen Hasman,” who then gives a detailed rundown of just how much weight she lost using a green coffee extract.
Reads the conclusion of the sham article, which continues to try to convince the reader that this story is from Women’s Health magazine, and not a scammy website:
“Like us, here at WomensHealth, you might be a little doubtful about the effects of this diet, but you need to try it for yourself; the results are real. After conducting our own personal study we are pleased to see that people really are finding success with it (myself included ).”
Problem is, the face of “Helen Hasman” is actually that of well-known French newswoman Mélissa Theuriau, who has nothing to do with this scam other than that her pictures probably showed up when the idiots who made the site Googled “attractive reporter”:
Additionally, the FTC says that the “comments” at the bottom of these sites, which alternate between asking softball questions about the product and trumpeting its miraculous effects, are fake and not actual comments submitted by readers of these stories.
And in videos run by the Pure Green Coffee people, they allegedly neglect to reveal that the endorsers featured in the clips did not actually purchase the product and were also paid $200 each to appear.
“Not only did these defendants trick consumers with their phony weight loss claims, they also compounded the deception by advertising on pretend news sites, making it impossible for people to know whether they were seeing news or an ad,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The Pure Green Coffee folks were selling their supplements for about $50 for a one-month supply. Since May 2012, it’s believed the company has sold around 536,000 bottles of the stuff.
The FTC also takes issue with the study most frequently cited in touting green coffee extract as a fat-burning miracle drug. In the complaint, the FTC points to the “clinical” study, in which 16 overweight teens were each given, at various stages, high-dose extract, regular-dose extract, and placebo. The study claims that at the end of the trial, all participants lost an average of 17.7 lbs. and 16% of their body fat.
But the FTC sees two huge problems with the study. First, that most of the weight loss occurred during the two-week “washout” periods as groups switched between the three types of pills being tested. Second that the highest level of weight loss occurred during the first washout period, meaning that the 1/3 of the test subjects who had been taking placebos experienced weight loss without ever taking a single pill containing green coffee extract.