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November 11, 2019

Celebrities Fight Back Against Fake Product Endorsements

Filed under: Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:39 am

For the past 10 years, we have warned readers about fake news sites with stories that tout pills and face creams supposedly endorsed by big celebrities or reporters. In reality, those celebrities never actually used or promoted those products. Now the stars are fighting back against the scammers (See New York Times story.) Also, see our 2019 story, 2016 story and one from 2009.

Last week, Ellen DeGeneres and Sandra Bullock filed a lawsuit against 100 unspecified defendants who over the years have set up websites selling beauty aids usually on a free trial offer basis using their likenesses and made-up endorsements without authorization.

Here are excerpts from two such websites with fake stories and testimonials about products they never used:

Ellen and Sandra Bullock

Ellen never said this

All these types of sites use celebrities’ testimonials to convince potential buyers of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the products they are pitching. The offers generally end with a free trial period (just pay $5 for shipping). Inconspicuous fine print disclosures ultimately hoodwink unsuspecting buyers into receiving monthly shipments of the products for $70-$90 a bottle or jar.

We asked Ellen’s lawyer why they filed this suit.

“People are being defrauded in this massive scam using Sandra’s and Ellen’s names and images. Like Whack-A-Mole, for each fake site exposed, another one pops up. The complaint exposes the scam and how it works so people can avoid getting trapped in it, and provides a way to identify those responsible and profiting from it so they can be stopped and held to account.” — Michael Weinsten, Attorney for Ellen DeGeneres.

The lawyers are seeking compensatory damages, disgorgement of profits, punitive damages, and an injunction against the use of their clients’ likeness and name in the future.

We say, go get’m.




• • •

November 4, 2019

Beware This Disingenuous Discount

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:46 am

When a web store offers 20% off upon entering a promo code at checkout, who wouldn’t use it? We all would. But here is an example from the Bath and Body Works website that may make you rethink always using a coupon code.

Bath and Body 5.99

For this purchase of some hand sanitizer, they are charging $5.99 for shipping. There is, however, at the top of every page a 20% off offer if you enter a particular promo code when you check out.

20% off

If you enter that code, something surprising happens.

*MOUSE PRINT:

$9.99 shipping

While you indeed get a $2.20 discount on the hand sanitizer, the price of shipping mysteriously jumps up $4 from $5.99 to $9.99.

What’s going on here? The answer is contained in a fine print disclosure elsewhere on their website:

*MOUSE PRINT:

shipping policy

The 20% off coupon which was applied to this order reduced the merchandise total to under their $10 minimum and thus a $4 surcharge was imposed. Most people would never realize that using a discount coupon could actually cost them money.




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October 7, 2019

New Amazon 4-Star Stores Charge Full List Price to Non-Prime Members on Some Items

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:47 am

Amazon 4-Star StoreAmazon has begun opening small brick and mortar retail stores called “Amazon 4-Star.” The stores only feature products that are rated four stars or higher and that are new and trending or bestsellers. One just opened last week in Natick, Massachusetts, to join the ones already in Manhattan, Denver, Seattle, and Berkeley. So MrConsumer paid a visit to the new store.

The company installed electronic shelf tags that allow it to change prices on goods multiple times a day just the way they do online. Worse, they are using an unusual type of dual pricing on some of those tags – one price for Prime customers who pay $119 a year, and another price for the rest of us.

Here’s a book they had at the store.

Amazon in-store book

The electronic price tag shows a Prime price of $20.99 and a “price” of $34.95. The store says that non-Prime customers would pay $34.95.

Looking up that book at Amazon.com provides a surprise.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon book on website

It shows that $20.99 was not a special Prime members only price, but a price that anyone could order it for. Worse, it says the list price of the book is $34.95 — exactly what the Amazon store was charging non-Prime customers. Since when does Amazon sell anything at full list price?

Here’s another example.

Amazon store instant pot

This Instant Pot is $79 for Prime customers only, and $99.95 for everyone else. But a quick look at the website reveals…

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon online Instant Pot

Everyone pays $79 online for the Instant Pot and it is not a Prime exclusive item or price. The $99.95 they are charging in their brick and mortar store is full list price.

A third example is here.

While many items in the store have this dual pricing system, most have a single price on them. That single in-store price appears to match the online price. The store will not price match Amazon.com’s web price for non-Prime customers.

We asked Amazon’s PR folks why they use a dual pricing system, and why in the world this famous discounter is charging full list price on some items to non-Prime customers. The spokesperson was not able to reply in time for publication, but we will post the response when it is received. And surprise, they did not provide us with a statement. But, we found an inconspicuous disclosure now on the Amazon website:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Amazon FAQ

The lesson here is not to assume you are paying the regular Amazon.com price at their retail stores. Do a quick check online to make sure you are not overpaying.




• • •

September 30, 2019

Tribune Newspapers Blur the Line Between Advertising and News

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:05 am

Several prominent newspapers in the Tribune family are now devoting entire sections of their websites to product reviews. Sounds great – a good consumer service. The problem is that the articles amount to a form of advertising because the papers get paid for each product sold, and they don’t disclose that fact to readers upfront.

Here is a screen capture of the product review section from the Chicago Tribune:

Chicago Tribune consumer reviews

Scroll down the list.

Some of what they cover are important topics such as “The Best Men’s Slipper,” “The Best Baby Bath Toy,” “The Best Nipple Pasties,” and “The Best Cake Pop Maker.” These certainly are the type of reviews that shoppers are clamering to read, MrConsumer opines sarcastically.

A full page of stories/reviews also appear in the consumer review section of the Sun Sentinel (Florida), the New York Daily News, the Baltimore Sun, and other Tribune newspapers.

Here is an excerpt of the men’s slipper story, as an example. Note that the links to the three “best” slippers all go to Amazon.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Chicago Tribune Slippers story excerpt

Scroll down the story to see links.

Those links are affiliate links where Amazon (in this case) pays a small commission if a reader buys any of those slippers. Hovering over the link reveals a “tag” used by Amazon to identify the affiliate so it knows whom to compensate.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Tribune affiliate link

That commission on each sale is shared between both the newspaper and the service that provided the reviews, BestReviews. Tribune Publishing is a majority owner of BestReviews. The review company says it strives to be 100% objective because it buys all the products it tests. But the company admits it doesn’t really test all the products it writes about.

*MOUSE PRINT:

“For some product categories we solely use research and consumer feedback to create the information in our review.”

If you didn’t realize that the newspaper publishing these stories makes money via those links, that is no accident. The paper only discloses that financial connection at the very end of each review.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Chicago Tribune disclaimer

Federal Trade Commission guidelines for both product endorsements and native advertising (where advertising looks like regular editorial content) require clear disclosure if there is a financial connection between the parties, and that advertising content that looks like regular articles be clearly labeled. Whether the Tribune has violated the law is up to the FTC to decide, but we think they could do a better job of disclosing at the top of these articles that both the company that wrote the stories and the newspaper that publishes them make money if readers make a purchase through the provided links.

We asked editors at the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Sentinel, and the Tribune entity that distributes these stories some very pointed questions about their review section. None of the three responded to our inquiries.

The use of affiliate links in traditional media stories seems to be increasing. So (unfortunately) you have to look carefully to see if a website posting a story about a particular product might also be recommending it because they have a financial incentive. If so, take that into account.




• • •

September 16, 2019

Dog Walking Company Sued Over Fine Print

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:52 am

This summer, three New Yorkers sued a California dog walking service, Wag!, for various alleged misleading representations.

Wag! maintains a website and app to allow dog owners to schedule local dog walkers and dog sitters on demand. Thnk of it as an Uber service for pets. The company says walkers go through an extensive vetting process and that each walk is insured and bonded, and they guarantee home insurance of $1,000,000 for “extra peace of mind.” Their website emphasizes “trust and safety” — “we treat your dog just like we’d want ours to be treated.”

Wag insurance
Composite Illustration

The lawsuit, however, points out that contrary to the great care promised, the company’s terms and conditions tries to absolve itself of most responsibility.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The Services includes a marketplace technology platform that connects Pet Care Providers with Pet Owners. We do not provide any pet care services and [we] make no representations or warranties about the quality of dog walking, boarding, sitting, … Wag! does not employ, recommend or endorse Pet Owners or Pet Care Providers, and we are not responsible or liable for the performance or conduct of Pet Owners or Pet Care Providers, whether online or offline. Wag! provides Pet Care Providers with access to third-party vendors that perform background checks and verifications. Wag! itself does not conduct background checks and does not independently verify information in the background checks. Wag! is not responsible or liable in any manner for the background checks. [Emphasis added]

These provisions and others were added recently to the company’s terms and condition statement after the lawsuit was filed.

Despite promises of a million dollars in insurance being provided, in Wag’s prior terms and conditions the company attempted to cap its liability at a mere $500:

*MOUSE PRINT:

IN NO EVENT SHALL WAG!’S TOTAL LIABILITY TO YOU IN CONNECTION WITH THE SERVICES FOR ALL DAMAGES, LOSSES AND CAUSES OF ACTION EXCEED FIVE HUNDRED U.S. DOLLARS (US $500).

A spokeperson for Wag! released the following statement:

“While we don’t comment on pending litigation, ensuring the safety and security of all those who use the Wag! platform is of utmost importance to us. Every day, thousands of pets are cared for using the Wag! platform. Accidents and incidents are rare, but we know the impact even one can have on the family involved. We are committed to the safety and security of our platform…”

Various media outlets around the country, but particularly in the New York area, have reported unfortunate incidents that have befallen dogs under Wag’s care, including some deaths.




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