Dr. Oz: "False celebrity endorsements are stealing money and health from consumers, and it has to stop. I recently came across an online pitch for 'Dr. Oz's Diabetes Breakthrough.' It is not legit. But it's just one more scam in a 13-years-long battle I've been fighting against fake celebrity endorsements. It started when I was on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.' We're now sending out around 3,000 cease and desist letters every year."
To sound the alarm about these scams, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Kai Falkenberg, a media lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law School, penned an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on April 14, 2019. In December 2018, the Better Business Bureau published a study, Subscription Traps and Deceptive Free Trials Scam Millions with Misleading Ads and Fake Celebrity Endorsements. It notes that, "dozens of celebrity names are used by these frauds without their knowledge or permission." Folks like Dr. Oz, as well as Oprah Winfrey, Chrissy Teigen, Ellen DeGeneres, Mike Rowe, Sally Field, Christie Brinkley and more have been exploited.
Dr. Mike reports that he gets asked about Dr. Oz's endorsements all the time: "How can he do it?" folks demand. Dr. Mike replies, "He doesn't. They're fake ads." The scammers also have targeted Dr. Mike, and he's had to defend himself to his Cleveland Clinic colleagues.
Many of these scams take the form of "free trial offers" and are pitched as "a miracle" and "a medical breakthrough" - a sure sign they are neither. Because of these promises of better health and free trial offers, consumers spend (and lose) millions of dollars annually.
Sometimes, though, there's a reckoning. The Federal Trade Commission did go after one company that appropriated Dr. Oz and others, and cheated thousands of customers. In February of this year they mailed 27,995 checks totaling more than $6 million to consumers who purchased products from Tarr, Inc. - tarred and feathered!
The damage is not merely financial; these companies can threaten the health of the people who buy their products. The outlandish claims make people believe they can forgo their prescribed medications (no more insulin!) and the product can cause bodily harm. Christie Brinkley was sued for damage that a scammer's phony skin care product (marketed using her stolen name) caused to a woman's face.
The solution? It takes tech companies' intervention to block false ads on their platforms, federal regulations that can keep the global network of scammers in check, and consumer education. In Europe, Facebook and other platforms are responsible for false and deceptive advertising that they post and profit from. But here, there are no laws that protect influencers and victims. According to Falkenberg: "The U.S. lets web platforms off the hook for content they host, even if the content is clearly deceptive or misleading. It all stems from the 1996 Communications Decency Act, written at the dawn of the internet, before anyone imagined that Instagram, Facebook or Twitter would ever exist."
To combat Russian and other trolls, platforms like Facebook now require anyone placing political ads to verify their identity. Congress should require those same measures for health-related ads. In addition, new criminal statues are needed. Says the BBB: "The FTC and BBB ... do not have the ability to bring criminal charges. Only criminal prosecutions are likely to deter this type of fraud."
Consumer action: Be skeptical. If you think celebrities are endorsing health-related products, go to their website. If they're not advocating that product there, DON'T BUY IT!
If you've purchased any of these deceptively endorsed products, the BBB recommends that you contact your credit card company, then report the fraud to www.bbb.org/scamtracker or to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or by calling 877-FTC-Help. Raise your voice: Don't let the money hogs ruin the internet. Ask your congressional representatives to pass laws to make "health" ads online meet the same standards as political ones.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.