The Federal Trade Commission can't tackle each of the hundreds of thousands of consumer complaints it receives annually (380,000 fraud complaints in 2002 totaling $343 million in losses), but it does go after crooks who rip off lots of consumers and passes on to other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies all complaints, be they large or small.
By reviewing the FTC's legal actions against swindlers, con artists and even legitimate companies that mess up, you can get a clue about the kinds of deceptive ploys and practices currently victimizing Americans. Here's a sampling of scams and misdeeds the FTC has cracked down on recently:
* Cellulite Lite: A week ago, Rexall Sundown Inc. settled FTC charges alleging that it made unsubstantiated claims for Cellasene, its "purported cellulite treatment product."
The maker of nutritional supplements and consumer health products advertised that an eight-week, $200 regimen using Cellasene eliminates or reduces cellulite. The company also claimed it had clinical evidence. Since Cellasene's 1999 introduction, sales to "hundreds of thousands" of U.S. consumers have exceeded $40 million.
Rexall Sundown has agreed to pay up to $12 million in consumer redress to resolve the FTC charges. Consumers who purchased and were dissatisfied with Cellasene should call the FTC's settlement hotline: 202-326-3793.
* Medical Billing Scam: Physicians Healthcare Development Inc. (aka PHD Billing and NetBiz Inc.) recently settled FTC charges that it pitched a phony work-at-home medical billing scheme. Consumers who paid up to $425 to start a home-based business processing doctors' claims had been told they could earn $3-$15 per claim and make a "substantial income." As part of its settlement, PHD agreed to stop selling any business venture or work-at-home opportunity and pay the FTC $65,000.
* Cancer Cure: Last month, the FTC persuaded a federal court to stop British Columbia-based CSCT Inc. from making claims that treatments with its electromagnetic-pulse "Zoetron machine" kill cancer cells. Advertising online, CSCT charged consumers $15,000 upfront for several weeks of Zoetron "treatments" at its Tijuana clinic. Mexican authorities have shut down the clinic. The court pulled the plug on CSCT's Web site and froze its assets pending further action.
* Collecting Unauthorized Information: Mrs. Fields Cookies and Hershey Foods agreed in February to settle FTC charges that their Web sites violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental consent. Mrs. Fields Web sites (mrsfields.com, pretzeltime.com and pretzelmaker.com), which host "birthday clubs" for children, collected names, home addresses, e-mail addresses and birth dates, among other information, from more than 84,000 children without the federally required parental consent. Several Hershey's candy-related sites asked children to have their parents fill out an online consent form but then collected data from children whose parents didn't. Mrs. Fields agreed to a $100,000 penalty and Hershey will pay $85,000.
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.