Some people clip coupons. Maria Simonson clips diet ads. She also has been buying, borrowing and scrutinizing weight loss devices, potions and pills for more than a dozen years. A clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Johns Hopkins University Health, Weight and Stress Clinic, Simonson claims to have collected close to 29,000 ridiculous, useless or potentially dangerous ways to lose weight -- 20 of which appear on this page.

Ads in supermarket tabloids that promise amazing and effortless weight reductions are nothing new. What is surprising is that people continue to buy these ideas -- and the products that go with them.

Just as "everyone is always hoping they'll win the lotto," said Simonson, people think these "crazy" devices "might just work." Unfortunately, all that most of them ever do is lighten your wallet, not your waistline, she contends.

Kelly Brownell, co-director of the Obesity Research Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. The people who buy these products "aren't stupid." They're "just holding out any hope" for weight loss, he said. Brownell has a file of his own ad gimmicks, among them fat-melting pajamas and a face mask with a padlock that he says is "like a chastity belt for your mouth."

At a recent weight reduction class she teaches at Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital, Simonson asked the group if anyone had ever bought any of these kinds of products. Although one woman admitted to purchasing Vacu-Pants, a pair of pants with a tube that attaches to a vacuum cleaner -- ostensibly to suck away fat -- the most common purchases among the group were body wraps.

Later, during a lively show-and-tell lecture in which she demonstrated some of the pieces in her collection, Simonson showed the class the "principle" behind the body wraps by asking members to tightly press one thumb against the other. After a few minutes, she asked the class to look at how their depressed thumbs had returned back to their original sizes.

Several years ago, Simonson said she performed a test to show the ineffectiveness of a cream that a company was selling to rub on the body prior to wrapping. One group smeared themselves with the $35 cream, another used Pond's Cold Cream and a third group used Crisco solid shortening. Inch loss was most prevalent with the Crisco, according to Simonson, although within an hour to six hours, the natural contours of the test subjects' bodies returned.

Some of the items on Simonson's list may trigger weight loss; however, it's not the device that does it, but the diet that accompanies it. For example, by chanting in front of a pricey Indian prayer bowl before meals "you will lose weight," Simonson said. That's because the diet advice that comes with the bowl recommends eating fruit, vegetables, chicken and juices -- a low-calorie regime. "Try it {the diet} without the prayer bowl," Simonson said.

Other contraptions -- such as a cellulite sponge that claims to wipe away cellulite -- don't pose a health threat. But some do. For instance, Simonson said that pressure belts can cause breathing difficulties in some people.

While Simonson's informal collection is now scattered in boxes and files and is not particularly up to date, the U.S. Postal Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, are officially responsible for keeping tabs on these products.

The Postal Inspection Service, which seems to take the most active role in monitoring the sale of mail-order diet products, employs 400 inspectors nationwide to investigate fraud. (The bulk of their civil investigations involve get-rich-quick schemes, not diet devices; out of 119 civil suits resolved in the last quarter, only four involved weight loss products, according to Don Davis, an inspector with the Postal Inspection Service's national office.)

The Postal Inspection Service employs a clipping service that scans publications for questionable ads. The postal investigators try to concentrate on the larger promotions, the products that pose a distinct danger to public health and the firms that receive a sizeable amount of mail. A large company can get upwards of 1,000 pieces of mail a day on a hot ad in a national publication, according to Ben Kilgrow, the inspector attorney with the service's Western region.

Once a suspect product has been identified, the inspectors will order it and perhaps have it tested by outside experts, should such testimony be necessary.

Jack Wilmore, a professor in the department of physical and health education at the University of Texas, remembers when the Postal Service asked him to test the validity of claims being made about Slim-Skins, a product similar to Vacu-Pants. When the roomful of test subjects plugged in their pants and revved up their vacuum cleaners, Wilmore recalled, "it sounded like the Indianpolis 500."

Not surprisingly, Wilmore concluded that the three-day Slim-Skin exercise program showed little or no change in body composition, skinfolds and girths. Under a consent agreement, the company that made the product agreed to stop selling the devices.

To win a civil suit, according to Davis of the Postal Inspection Service, the agency must prove that the ads misrepresent the product. It does not have to prove that the seller knew the product didn't work, or that it intended to defraud the public.

Some of the products sold by companies that the Postal Inspection Service has taken civil actions against recently include diet sunglasses (two different-tinted lenses were supposed to distort the color of food and make it look unattractive), diet teas, a vibrating belt that claimed to turn fat into muscle and a fat-burning girdle that promised wearers a new body in a month. The latter two devices were featured in a mail-order catalog that also sold an alleged male genitalia enlarger and a "hypnotic powder" claiming to be an aphrodisiac.

Nevertheless, flipping through the back pages of a supermarket tabloid, or watching the advertisements on cable television, reveals a seemingly unregulated glut of diet come-ons. "There are only so many of us and just a torrent of these things," said Kilgrow of the Postal Service. These types of devices "have been around for 100 years and they'll probably be around for 100 more."

Kilgrow said part of the problem with enforcement is that the companies that sell the products frequently go in and out of business before action can be taken, or are difficult to locate because they often change names and addresses to avoid detection. (Of the handful of attempts that this reporter made to contact companies, all toll-free numbers reached an ordering service and not the company itself. Also, the firms listed at the bottom of ads checked were not listed with telephone information.)

Another issue, at least with the FTC, is whether the agency should be devoting time and money to such cases. Lee Peeler, associate director in the agency's Division of Advertising Practices, said that there has been criticism against the agency when it goes after small companies rather than large national advertisers, and when it attacks claims that don't involve subtle issues of deception. A few years ago, for example, the FTC ordered a company to stop selling a device that "you stuck in your ear" to lose weight, according to Peeler. The agency was concerned about the sale of the product, Peeler said, because of its cost -- somewhere over $300.

Tom Ziebarth, a consumer protection attorney with the Postal Service, said that he hasn't seen as many actions against medically oriented products as in the past and recommended recently that the service "gin up more."

Said Ziebarth, "There's certainly no diminution to these crazy cases. All you have to do is go to the supermarket, buy a bunch of papers, and you'll have work for a year."