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Consummate Consumer

Reporting Rip-Offs (As Seen on TV!)

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page C08

Whether it's the latest miracle ab exerciser, a get-rich-quick scheme or a weight-loss supplement, many of those call-now-and-order products hyped on infomercials and TV shopping networks are nothing more than tacky junk. Separating the rip-offs from the useful gadgets isn't always easy.

Good news for consumers: The Electronic Retailing Association and the National Advertising Review Council partnered to launch a program last month that investigates consumer complaints of misleading or false advertising in infomercials and other direct-response ads.

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"I wish there was a pill out there that let me drop 20 pounds sitting on my couch eating potato chips," says Barbara Tulipane, president and CEO of the Electronic Retailing Association, the trade group of companies selling products over the airwaves. "But if you bought something like that in good faith, gave it a fair shake and feel it doesn't work, let us know. Chances are, if you're having a problem with it, somebody else is."

The program is designed to remove from the airwaves fraudulent or false direct-response advertisers. Consumers who suspect they've been duped by false advertising can file an online complaint at the ERA's "savvyshopper" Web site, and the ad will be reviewed.

If found to be "questionable," the ad is turned over to the National Advertising Review Council, an investigative arm of the Better Business Bureau that already polices other national advertising. Council attorneys review the ad's claims and substantiation provided by the advertiser. If the ad is found to be false, the marketer must correct it or the ERA will turn the case over to the Federal Trade Commission and alert media and TV cable stations.

But take note: This program handles only direct-response advertising. Tulipane says the simple definition is any ad on TV, radio or the Internet that asks the consumer to respond directly by picking up the phone, going online, and so forth. "It's like Time-Life saying, 'Order these CDs today!' It's not a Toyota commercial saying, 'See your Toyota dealer,' " she says, adding that spam and telemarketing calls also do not qualify.

The ERA designed the program to ensure it really had consequences, says Tulipane. In addition to taking action on complaints, the ERA is monitoring the home shopping channels and infomercials in search of dubious ads. And the FTC has "indicated that any cases we send over there will rise to the top of their cases," she says.

Richard Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, says the ERA's program has a structure similar to the National Advertising Review Council's national ad program, which has been proven to work.

"It has potential," he says, adding that there's no guarantee the FTC will take legal action on cases the ERA sends it, but will "quickly get some review and triage" to determine whether they fit FTC standards.

"We generally support self-regulatory programs. We think if they are effective, and if they have teeth and do the job, they are good for consumers, for government and for the industry."

Tulipane believes the program is going to become an educational tool for direct-response marketers by setting clear standards. "When ERA issues a report on a case, it will specify what was wrong with the ad campaign and what needed to be done to fix it," she says. "It's really going to change the mind-set of the industry."

Newest Nigerian Scam

The same old ho-hum Nigerian e-mail scams have become personal. Some of those e-mails that promise you millions of dollars for helping a foreign government official or a child of a slain foreign leader transfer a cache of money out of an African nation are now calling recipients by their last names.

The con artist says he's an attorney and his late client had the same surname as you. Since he can't locate a genuine beneficiary to his client's fortune, and facing a legal deadline in his country, he's asking you to claim to be a rightful heir.

From then on, it's the standard scam requiring tens of thousands of dollars in good-faith money or transfer fees, or requesting bank routing data to rip off anyone foolish enough to reply.

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company