Weight-Loss Scams: How to Really Lose

Frustrated woman staring down weight scaleMillions of Americans start each January pledging that most popular New Year’s resolution, to lose weight. Some succeed with the proven strategy and simple math — burning more calories than they consume.

Many lose in other ways. Billions of dollars are spent each year on bogus weight-loss products and programs — cleanses, creams, pills, potions, powers, exercising gizmos and “secret” diet regimens — that promise fast, safe and lasting results but only lighten consumers’ wallets, if not risking their health. Weight-loss products topped all categories of consumer fraud, generating twice as many complaints as any other, in the last survey by the Federal Trade Commission, published four years ago. (A survey tracking 2016 consumer fraud trends is in the works.)

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The loss can continue with so-called free trials. Because the clock starts ticking the moment you order the “miracle” merchandise (not when you receive it), unscrupulous vendors purposely delay shipments, so by the time you realize that the diet product is a dupe, it’s too late to cancel the free trial. Meanwhile, multiple monthly orders may be shipped (and billed) within days of one another for merchandise you wanted and perhaps other stuff you never asked for.

Scammers are often behind weight-loss products popularized by fake news stories, phony testimonials from celebrities and everyday consumers, bogus social media posts (that may appear to be from friends) and websites that feign to be legitimate news organizations. If you provide your credit card number, you may give them easy access to make fraudulent purchases. More significant ID theft can result from providing additional personal information, including bank accounts for “automatic withdrawals” or seemingly innocuous details such as your birth date. When combined with other personal details, this information can help con artists open fraudulent accounts in your name.

Another hazard: log-in credentials and sensitive computer files, handed to remote-access criminals via malware sneakily installed from clickbait headlines such as “Shed 20 Pounds in 20 Days!” In a survey of 15,000 adults released for 2016’s bathing suit season (another popular time to start diets), Intel Security found that two-thirds of respondents admitted to having clicked on a diet-related online ad. Of those, 88 percent still clicked on links that could contain malware or spam. And at least half had provided their name, age and contact information to suspected spam and malware senders.

Here’s how to use your head for a slimmer body:

Rather than relying on claims of miraculous results in advertisements, testimonials or Facebook posts, do an online search of the product and company name, with words such as “complaints” and “reviews.” A doctor-written website, dietscam.org, has details about many weight-loss scams.

Beware of ordering from websites that provide only an email address and/or phone or fax number. (If a physical address is provided, do an online search to ensure that it’s legit and that the “suite” isn’t just a P.O. drop box.) Check who owns the website domain; be suspicious if it’s registered overseas, especially a country in Asia or Eastern Europe.

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Know these signs of a weight-loss scam:

  • Claims that you can lose weight without diet or exercise. For real results, experts recommend reducing about 500 calories per day through diet and/or exercise for a safe and realistic 1-2 pound loss per week.
  • Buzzwords such as “miracle,” “revolutionary,” “secret,” “guaranteed results” and “scientific breakthrough.”
  • Claims that you will lose X pounds in Y days. No product or plan can guarantee specific results; everyone is different.
  • Claims that you can burn fat while you sleep and/or by wearing or rubbing on a product. Weight loss is an internal metabolic process, and no patch, lotion, etc., can rev up that process or eliminate fat in specific areas, reports the Mayo Clinic.
  • Promises of permanent weight loss. Even if you’re successful in losing weight, keeping it off requires permanent lifestyle changes.


For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: Juanmonino/iStock

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