Deception, Lies, and Quackery: How Weight Loss Scams Work

It’s an age-old game: companies promise the “secret” to easy, effective, celebrity-status weight loss to dupe their audience into buying their scams.

With about two thirds of U.S. adults qualifying as “overweight,”  alongside quite opposite standards of beauty and fitness expressed by the media, it’s no wonder so many fish in the sea are easy prey to such promises.

You may have seen ads for these “quick tricks” before — they are often accompanied by before and after versions of scantily clad women taking mirror selfies, or plastered with copy claiming “doctors hate it,” “celebrities love it,” and ” [insert your gender] in their [insert your age group] use this to lose weight the lazy way.”

How can I tell if it’s a scam?

According to, a scam-warning website run by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), these scams come in all shapes and sizes, but usually are offering something too good to be true.

The FTC warns against any claim of weight loss advertisement promising weight loss without diet or exercise. For example “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!” is an essentially impossible claim, as is “Lose weight permanently, never diet again!”

In addition, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) strongly advises users not be lured by these scams. Advertisements that link to blogs with “personal success testimonies” and also ask for credit card information for free trials are red flags, and should not be trusted blindly

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A multi-billion dollar disease the web can’t purge

Various versions of one scam, “1 Tip for a Tiny Belly,” has taken at least $1 billion in profit using deceptive marketing and armies of “affiliates” touting everything from pills to creams to acai berry dietary supplements, according to The Washington Post.

According to the BBB, Marketdata Enterprises forecasts the U.S. weight loss industry reached $66 billion in 2013. In 1998 (when the overall industry was worth $33 billion), at least $5 billion of the industry was estimated to be fraudulent, according to the FTC.

Though figures aren’t available on that number today, reason suggests it would have doubled as well to about $10 billion in fraud.

The secret is all in the fine print. Customers tend to believe that if an ad is presented on a trusted website, the source of the ad is reliable as well — unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Individuals that sign up for free samples are often charged repeatedly until able to call and cancel subscriptions, which the scammers make sure is as difficult as possible.

Who’s getting sued?

Weight loss scams have lead to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suing companies for false claims, fake news articles, and bogus promises and testimonies. Multiple celebrities have been sued as well, such as Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels, actress Kirstie Alley, and all three Kardashian sisters for claiming to use certain products.

Lawsuits pertain not only to deceptive marketing, but potential health issues that come with dietary supplements which are not FDA-approved and can contain illegal and unsafe drugs, the FDA says. Ingredients that are cause for concern include citrus aurantium, which reports show can increase blood pressure and the likelihood of heart attacks.

Despite lawsuits, thousands of reported scams and frauds remain active, with new schemes cropping up all across the web like a plague.

The only real solution? Ignore the quackery. If you really want to lose weight, talk to your doctor, and be prepared to work your butt off for it.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?

Originally published on 11/2/2013. 

Jennifer Markert