Makers of a weight loss additive called Sensa will return more than $26 million to consumers to settle federal charges that the company used deceptive advertising claiming that consumers could lose weight by simply sprinkling the powder on their food.
Sensa Products LLC promoted the powder through major retailers like Costco and GNC and with infomercials on the Home Shopping Network and other television networks. The company sold a one-month supply of Sensa for $59 and urged consumers to "sprinkle, eat and lose weight."
But Federal Trade Commission officials said Tuesday the company used bogus clinical studies and paid endorsements to rack up more than $364 million in sales between 2008 and 2012.
The government's settlement with California-based Sensa is part of a broader crackdown on four companies peddling weight-loss products including food additives, skin creams and dietary supplements.
"The chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs, or using a supplement are slim to none — the science just isn't there," said Jessica Rich, director of FTC's consumer protection office.
Consumers like Beth Karriker gave Sensa a shot. She paid the $50-plus and thought it would finally be the miracle product that worked.
"I am not a bad eater to begin with, so the fact that I don't lose weight is really frustrating. I just tried it to see if it would. It didn't do anything. At all. Not at all. I didn't go up and I didn't go down, I stayed," she said.
The FTC will also collect $7.3 million from LeanSpa, a company that promotes acai berry and "colon cleanse" weight loss supplements through fake news websites. Also swept up in Tuesday's action are skin cream maker L'Occitane and HCG Diet Direct, which sells unproven hormones for weight loss. The companies will together return about $34 million to consumers to settle the federal charges.
Rich told reporters that the weight loss products targeted by FTC both waste consumers' money and prevent them from seeking out legitimate treatments.
Regulators acknowledged that they were only able to collect a fraction of what the public paid for the products in recent years. In the case of Sensa, FTC officials said much of the revenue was quickly spent on advertising, including infomercials.
"It's not uncommon for us to see that much of the money that has come in from consumers has been spent and is not available for refund," said Mary Engle, an associate director in FTC's division of advertising practices.
The total judgment against Sensa was actually $46.5 million, but $20 million was suspended because of the company's inability to pay, according to the FTC.
Under the terms of the FTC order, Sensa CEO Adam Goldenberg and Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch are barred from making weight loss claims for any future products unless they are supported by two rigorous clinical trials. According to the FTC complaint, Hirsch conducted two misleading studies and wrote a book used to sell Sensa. The company claimed that the powder enhanced the smell and taste of food, leading users to feel fuller and eat less.
FTC also said that Sensa failed to disclose that some customers who appeared in company ads were paid $1,000 to $5,000 and received complementary trips to Los Angeles.
The company said in a statement it has agreed to remove the claims cited by the FTC from its advertising.
"The settlement involves no admission of wrongful conduct by the company and does not challenge the product's safety," Sensa said, adding that it will continue marketing its products with new advertisements.
Online and in-store beauty product seller L'Occitane claimed its Almond Beautiful skin cream could help users "trim 1.3 inches in just 4 weeks." The international company charged more than $44 for each bottle of the cream. Under the FTC settlement, L'Occitane will repay $450,000 to customers and is prohibited from making such claims in the future without proper clinical studies.
Arizona-based HCG Diet Direct marketed liquid drops of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, which is produced by the human placenta. The hormone has been falsely promoted as a weight loss aid for decades, despite no evidence supporting that use. The government's $3.2 million judgment against the company was suspended because of HCG's inability to pay.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill spoke to KCTV5 from her Washington, D.C. office. She is the chairman of the Consumer Protection subcommittee that plans to look at what else can be done to protect consumers from the diet scams.
"Even if you are smart and know better, they make claims that really are believable, that this is scientific. If you rub this cream or take this powder, or drink this drink then you don't have to do anything else. It is really unfortunate the amount of money that these fraudsters are taking in," she said.
Jen Rhodes, the owner of Snap Fitness in Shawnee, KS, said the formula for losing weight doesn't come in a bottle.
"Everyone wants what is going to get you from point A to point B faster. And unfortunately, the thing that will do it the fastest is consistently good eating, good movement," she said.
Karriker said she's sticking to healthy salads, hiring a trainer and is done trying out the latest diet trick on the market.
"I am done with that. I am so over that. I do not believe it works. I am done wasting money," she said.
Besides going after diet companies, the FTC is also asking newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations to stop carrying the false and misleading advertisements from the diet companies.
To report weight-loss scams, Missourians can use the 'Submit Your Scam' tool at www.McCaskill.senate.gov which allows constituents to submit personal stories and tips to help McCaskill crack down on scams and protect consumers.
Copyright 2014 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.