Fake news stories used to sell worthless products

Feb. 7, 2012 at 1:01 PM ET

That online news story with glowing reviews about an amazing weight-loss product (or other health supplement) may be fake – designed to look like objective reporters have tested the stuff. Don’t be fooled.

Just a few weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission permanently shut down six companies charged with running fake news sites to market acai berry supplements and other weight loss products. The bogus news sites had names like “Daily Health 6,” “Consumer News Reporter” and “Health News Health Alerts.”

In a previous column I warned that there is no proof acai berry products can help you shed the pounds. Read: Acai berry scam: You'll lose money, not weight)

These fake news sites often use logos of major media outlets, such as ABC, Fox News, CBS, CNN, USA Today and MSNBC, to add instant (and unwarranted) credibility. 

“The scam artists are exploiting people’s trust in well-known news organizations,” says FTC attorney Steven Wernikoff. “There was no reporter; there was no investigation, no dramatic weight loss and no affiliation with a reputable news source. Essentially, everything about the site was false.”

The word “advertorial” is on the page in small print, but it’s real easy to miss. And prosecutors say a disclaimer like that does not make it OK to run an ad that is otherwise misleading and deceptive.

So who are the reporters on the site? Investigators say some are stock photos; others are simply copied from reputable sites. For instance, the attractive reporter in many of the ads is Melissa Theuriau, a reporter for the French television network M6 who had nothing to do with the fictional news story in the online ads. 

How do they get you to their fictional news sites? The marketers and their affiliates buy display ads all over the Internet on trusted, high-volume websites. 

“In our investigation, we found that there were billions of these ads that were posted on these sites, so consumers saw these ads pretty regularly,” Wernikoff tells me. “The individuals we sued paid over $10 million dollars just to post these ads.” 

Unfortunately, deception can be lucrative. 

The bottom line

Be skeptical of anything trying to sell you a product – especially if it’s disguised as a news story. Legitimate news organizations do not endorse products. And they don’t put links to “free trial offers” in their news stories, as these fake news stories did. 

Don’t let down your guard just because you click on a link on a trusted website. No one can check out all the ads flying around the Internet.  It’s up to you to protect yourself. 

More Info:

News Release: FTC Permanently Stops Six Operators from Using Fake News Sites that Allegedly Deceived Consumers about Acai Berry Weight-Loss Products 

Consumer Alert: Fake News Sites Promote Bogus Weight Loss Benefits of Acai Berry Supplements