This was a busy year for the watchdogs over at the Federal Trade Commission, judging from all the press releases we got announcing actions the agency had taken against products with overhyped health claims. Here are a few highlights, including some products that have passed through our labs at one time or another. The bottom line to consumers, as always: If it sounds too good to be true ... (You know the rest.)
Claims: Use this exercise gadget sold through infomercials for just three minutes a day and you can lose 10 pounds in two weeks. The infomercial also claimed that three minutes on the device, which cost $200 to $250, was equivalent to doing 100 sit-ups. It featured testimonials from people claiming they had lost as much as 60 pounds using it.
Busted: In August the FTC filed deceptive advertising complaints against the device's marketers, charging among other things that its promises of rapid or substantial weight or fat loss were false and/or unsupported. The defendants agreed to refund up to $25 million to consumers who had bought it.
Also: We tested the Ab Circle Pro in 2010 and found that while it engaged core muscles, it burned no more calories than brisk walking. And see our reviews of new infomerical exercisers, including the Rhythm Rocker and the Nautilus CoreBody Reformer.
Claims: On junior mouth guards: "Creates new brain safety space!" "Reduces Risk of Concussions! From Lower Jaw Impacts." On adult mouth guards: "Reduces risk of CONCUSSIONS! Protects Upper AND Lower Teeth!" Ads also claimed the guards, which retailed for $10 to $30, were clinically proved to work.
Busted: The FTC announced in November that it had reached a final settlement with Brain-Pad, Inc., which marketed the mouth guards, after filing a lawsuit alleging that its concussion claims were deceptive. The company is barred from misrepresenting the health benefits of its mouth guards. The FTC also sent warning letters to 18 other sports-equipment companies that it said might have been making allegedly deceptive claims that their devices could reduce the risk of concussions.
Claims: "Captures viruses"; "Kills viruses"; "Help stop the flu on virtually any surface and in the air in your home." An infomercial for the vacuum also referenced its claimed effectiveness against E. coli, staphylococcus, and other bacteria, and called it a "remarkable germ-killing machine."
Busted: The company agreed in May to issue partial refunds to 27,339 consumers who had purchased the products, after the FTC alleged that the claims about flu, germs, and allergens were false and unproved. The settlement barred the company from making any more such claims unless it has competent and reliable scientific evidence to support them.
See our latest Ratings of vacuum cleaners and air purifiers (available to subscribers).
Claims: Both products claimed to treat and prevent bedbug infestations via formulas made from natural, environmentally friendly ingredients such as cinnamon and cedar oil. Best Yet! also claimed that it was "developed at the request of the USDA for our military, as a solution for killing sand fleas. But guess what, it's equally deadly to bedbugs, larvae and eggs."
Busted: In September, the FTC announced that it had filed deceptive advertising complaints against both companies, citing that they failed to back up their claims about bedbug eradication and that Cedarcide Industries, Inc., which marketed Best Yet!, also falsely claimed that the federal government endorses and is affiliated with its product. In addition to its consumer product, sold for $30, Cedarcide marketed a bedbug eradication kit to hotels and other commercial establishments for $3,395. Yowsa.
Also: Rest Easy and Best Yet! aren't the only products that have been pitched to consumers wary of bedbugs. Just a few weeks ago we reported on a new study showing that ultrasonic indoor bug zappers, marketed on late-night TV and sold online, don't appear to work either.
Claims: Ads claimed that the shoes were designed to promote weight loss and tone the legs, abs, and buttocks, allowing users to "Shape Up While You Walk" and "Get in Shape without Setting Foot in a Gym." Celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Brooke Burke appeared in print and TV ads for the shoes, including one that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl.
Busted: In May the FTC announced that Skechers USA, Inc., had agreed to pay $40 million to settle charges that the company deceived consumers by making unfounded claims about weight loss and muscle strengthening and toning. The settlement also resolved a related action by the attorneys general of 44 states and the District of Columbia. Under the terms, consumers who had purchased Shape-Ups or other Skechers toning shoes could get refunds.
Side note: We've been warning consumers about the risk of injuries from Skechers Shape-Ups and other toning shoes for more than two years. Our medical adviser Orly Avitzur, M.D., is no fan of the toning-shoe trend; see what she has to say, and check out our video, too.
Claims: Ads and product packaging claimed that this program of videos, flash cards, and pop-up books could teach children as young as 9 months to read and that scientific studies proved the claims. The program was represented as giving kids a head start on academic learning, "better preparing your child for future success." In a 30-minute infomercial for the program, a 2-year-old girl was shown purportedly reading from "Charlotte's Web" in a home video.
Busted: In August the FTC filed false advertising complaints against the marketers of Your Baby Can Read! Two of the three defendants—Your Baby Can, LLC, and the company's former CEO—agreed to settle the charges for $185 million, the total of the company's gross sales since January 2008. But only $500,000 had to be paid at the time, because the company said it was failing financially and going out of business. Any further use of the product name "Your Baby Can Read" was also banned. The third defendant, who created the product, was not part of the settlement order, and the FTC said in a statement that it was initiating litigation against him. The reading kits sold for about $200 apiece.
Have you seen an ad or product package with claims you suspect are totally overblown? You can file a consumer complaint with the FTC.