The Better Business Bureau of Utah issued a warning this week that unwary consumers looking to lose weight may do just that if they're not careful. But the weight they lose could be in the form of "lighter wallets."
The Internet has put products that promise help to would-be weight losers just a few clicks away. But it's also increased the availability of worthless products.
The bureau has seen a rise in complaints about weight-loss products and programs, said Jane Driggs, BBB of Utah's president and chief executive officer.
"It used to be the weight-loss schemes were more along the lines of an ad you saw in a newspaper," she said. "With the invention of the Internet, people are just making up things that will help you to lose weight. And it's making it so people are able to buy things over the Internet more readily. But there's nothing to back up what they're selling, and the FDA doesn't have the resources to go out and research all these products being sold."
Last year, the BBB of Utah received more than 7,000 requests for information on weight-loss products, companies and health clubs. In that time, the bureau also received 200 complaints. Since 2002, complaints to the watchdog organization against weight-loss related companies and their products have increased by more than 40 percent.
"People are taking what they're seeing at face value and thinking it's going to work," Driggs said.
Among the complaints to the BBB nationwide last year:
• The office serving Boulder and Denver heard from consumers in six states who thought they were in a clinical trial of a new weight-loss drug. The company, Metacor (also known as Progenics), got people to "enroll," pay $144 up front and take a new pill every day. The company was to refund the money after a month and compensate consumers for participation. Consumers didn't get a refund, compensation or additional pills.
• A Texas BBB received complaints from people in eight states about Changes International, a quit-smoking and weight-loss hypnosis program that said it had BBB endorsement. Consumers said they paid more than $250 for a hypnosis seminar and CDs that didn't work and then were ignored when they wanted refunds.
• In the Northwest, the BBB heard from consumers in 19 states displeased with Wu-Yi Source, about a weight-loss tea. They said they were stalled when they asked for a refund, and then their requests were rejected because they passed the 60-day mark listed in the refund policy.
• The St. Louis BBB got more than 350 complaints about GO FIG Inc. (doing business as fig and Advanced Lipo Dissolve Centers) regarding fat-dissolving micro-injections that cost thousands of dollars. The injections were not approved by the FDA. Consumers said they were ineffective and caused swelling and pain, and it was difficult to get a refund. The company went out of business, but the BBB says other companies across the country currently offer similar procedures.
Most companies include a disclaimer saying the FDA doesn't evaluate the products, but may actually increase consumer confidence, she said.
But without product testing, there's no guarantee that the product works. And that's true of some products produced in Utah, as well, she said.
The products' appeal is the seduction of hoping you can take a pill or other product and skip the pesky need to control your calorie intake and exercise. the problem is that the products aren't effective, Driggs said. "Weight loss still takes a lot of hard work."
The market for such products is huge. People are always looking for shortcuts, in part because of the "busy-ness in our lives," she said. "We want to find something easy we can do."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than a third of U.S. adults 20 and older are obese. And the BBB cited Federal Trade Commission estimates that about 4.8 million Americans were taken in by weight-loss schemes centered on buying "bogus" pills, powders, patches, creams and other products, "all of which added up to make fat-fighting fraud the most common consumer scam" last year.
Some of the Web sites hook people with low prices for a first batch of product and then levy a "monthly fee" that adds up quickly. And "ironclad, money-back guarantees" are not necessarily what they claim, Driggs warns.
She tells of a woman who asked for her refund and was given the runaround repeatedly. Finally, the BBB was able to get the money back, "but she shouldn't have had to do that." And the BBB doesn't have the resources to go after every refund.
The Internet also makes it harder to track down companies, and the BBB tells people to Google companies before they buy, to see what the consumers find. Driggs has seen bogus "contact us" phone numbers and addresses, complete with pictures of property that couldn't possibly be what they say it is where it is.
"You can say anything on a Web site, and that doesn't make it true," she said. She urged consumers to do due-diligence and check out where Web sites are registered, for instance.
Driggs also warns people not to use debit cards for such online transactions There's inadequate protection if you're scammed, and credit cards are a better option.Consumers also can search the BBB Web site, at www.bbb.org, to look up weight-loss companies to see if complaints have been lodged.