Scam Alert: Fake News and Gossip Sites Using Phony Celeb Endorsements

The newest trend to hit the advertising scene is that of companies using deceptive marketing to lure people into buying their products.

We’re talking everything from wrinkle creams to diet pills. These fraudulent individuals and companies create fake news websites with fake celebrity stories that culminate with fake product endorsements made by the powerful and famous.

Earlier this summer the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged four individuals connected to a Florida marketing firm for using these tactics to deceptively market weight-loss products. According to the FTC:

  Colby Fox, Christopher Reinhold and their companies, Tachht, Inc. and Teqqi, LLC, paid for e-mails to be sent to consumers from hacked email accounts, making it appear to consumers that the messages came from their family members, friends, or other contacts.  These email messages lured consumers into clicking on links that led to websites deceptively promoting the defendants’ unproven weight-loss products, such as Original Pure Forskolin and Original White Kidney Bean.

“These defendants used a variety of deceptive tactics to sell their bogus diet pills,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But we have a clear message for them – we want their illegal practices to stop and we want to give people back the money they took.”

And that is just one of many such incidents.

How most of these bogus sites operate is by commandeering the logos of well-known media sites, including CNN, TMZ, Vogue, and Entertainment Today–without their permission. Then they fabricate celebrity gossip stories and include eye-catching headlines and pictures, and have celebrity quotes that sing the praises of whatever product is being pushed. At the bottom of each “story” is a large ad that offers a free sample.

“This is out-and-out fraud,” said consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who blew the whistle on this latest round of deception. “They’re using famous celebrities without their permission, publishing fake testimonials and stealing the logos of trusted news organizations to fool people.”

The danger with these scams–especially those marketing products that can be ingested or used topically on the skin–is that NONE of the claims made in the advertisements are true. And that includes statements concerning the effectiveness and safety of the products being pedaled.

Wait…there’s more!

People who take the bait and click the link for a “free sample bottle” at the bottom of the webpage will be told they need to pay a nominal fee– $4.95 is the popular going rate– for shipping and handling.

A short time later, they get hit with an unpleasant surprise — by signing up for the “free trial offer” they’ve unwittingly agreed to buy more of the product each month if they don’t cancel quickly. The  charge is billed to the credit or debit card they used to pay for the shipping of their free sample. And victims report, once their in it’s often impossible to get out.

These company thrive using these unscrupulous business practices.

 Sheryl Reichert, president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of San Diego, Orange and Imperial counties says, “they’re signing people up for a monthly purchase of their products, but all of their marketing talks about a free trial and all you pay for is the shipping.”

And once you spot the charge it is nearly impossible to reach anyone at the company to cancel.

“Consumers call it the black hole. They call and call, day after day and can never get a person to cancel,” she said.

The FTC reminds consumers to be careful and vigilant. They advise:

Don’t click emailed links or open attachments, even if you think you know the sender. Emails that seem to be from a friend might not be.
Be skeptical of outrageous weight-loss claims. Anyone saying they lost more than a pound a week without diet and exercise is probably lying.
Learn how to spot a fake news site, which often include fake celebrity endorsements. These actually are elaborate ads created by marketers.
File a complaint with the FTC if you ever spot a scam, or get sold on phony product promises.

Consumer Expert Denise Hill

Denise is currently a writer and editor for a federal agency in Washington, DC. She is an open-minded free spirit always ready for new adventures. She enjoys traveling and relishes being exposed to alternate points of view. Faith, family and finances are the core of her value system. She follows her own path and marches to her own beat. She is a dream chaser and with her husband and best friend by her side, she plans to take over the world.