Despite what you may read on the Internet, Priscilla Chan — pediatrician, philanthropist, and wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — has not launched her own skin care venture, nor is she offering “free trials” of an anti-aging wrinkle cream she supposedly invented.

Nor, for that matter, is reality television star Joanna Gaines quitting her popular HGTV series Fixer Upper to promote her own “anti-aging serum” called VLamorous, or Fox News pundit Sean Hannity’s wife, Jill Rhodes, selling a “plastic surgery alternative” called Nouveau Restor Revitalizing Moisturizer.

Celebrities aren’t the only victims of a long-running Internet scam that uses fake celebrity endorsements to peddle skin care products online. Ordinary individuals who fall for the advertorials (advertisements written to look like articles) in some cases wind up bilked out of hundreds of dollars. 

The perpetrators use networks of bogus web sites, social media, and e-commerce technology to trick users into ordering “free trials” of supposedly celebrity-endorsed products, only to find they’ve unknowingly signed up to receive regular shipments for which they’re automatically charged on a monthly basis.

The Internet is rife with consumer complaints about these scams. “I saw an ad on Facebook about some eye serum and eye cream,” one user wrote on a web site devoted to reporting fraud:

All you pay is shipping & handling. Nowhere did they say you started an automatic shipment every month. When I received the shipment, there were no papers inside box describing it or telling me anything about the auto ship. There was no return address either. Two weeks after, I was billed $97.43 for eye serum and $98.66 for eye cream. When I called, they said I only paid for shipment and since I didn’t call or return products I was charged for a whole product then. What a rip-off!!! I haven’t even used the crap!

The creators of these advertorials exhibit just as few scruples with regard to the accuracy of their claims as they do in their financial dealings. The ad for the product supposedly touted by Sean Hannity’s wife was built around rumors proclaiming that Hannity might be fired by Fox News for pushing a conspiracy theory on his program after being ordered not to:

The ad didn’t merely mention the conspiracy theory that got Hannity in trouble; it named names and repeated hurtful and disproven allegations:

Sean Hannity has recently been caught in the cross fire surrounding the slaying of Seth Rich. Conspiracy theorists have claimed the 27-year-old DNC staffer was murdered last summer in Washington in retaliation for being WikiLeaks’ source of party emails later published online. The U.S. intelligence community, though, concluded it was Russian hackers who infiltrated the DNC and not the work of an internal whistleblower. Washington police consider Rich’s murder to have been a botched robbery attempt.

Despite continued instruction to drop the story, Hannity continued pushing the theory on his radio show. After this blatant refusal to obey orders, rumors instantly swirled about Hannity being fired. Hannity was forced to openly admit he would stop this tirad but it was too late. After this bombshell, rumors began to swirl about Sean Hannity and his possible departure from Fox News after this tragic murder causing journalists to dig deeper into Hannity’s life.This intense speculation led to investigators prying into the entire Hannity family, revealing Jill’s multi-million dollar secret.

Jill’s “multi-million dollar secret,” of course, was that she supposedly developed her own skin care line, making her the “breadwinner of the Hannity household.” The Fox News host said the claims were false in an e-mailed statement to the Daily Beast:

Hannity confirmed that the ad was “all a lie” in an email on Wednesday. “I have my attorneys on it. Fake news,” he wrote.

In an interesting twist on an otherwise boringly common scam, the Daily Beast found that the bogus Hannity ad was also distributed via the right-leaning e-mail list “Lifelong Conservative,” which is operated by a marketing company connected with the Prosper Group, a political consulting firm that has worked for the likes of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. 

The version of the scam using the name and likeness of Priscilla Chan appeared online in April 2017. Chan, said the article, formulated her own “natural, holistic” skin care line about which “Ivy League scientists” and “Hollywood dermatologists” were raving:


A spokesperson for Priscilla Chan confirmed the obvious:

Neither Priscilla’s name nor likeness were approved for use in this advertisement — it is both false and misleading.

Nor was the use of Mark Zuckerberg’s name and likeness authorized, despite appearing in this and a previous iteration of the advertorial which claimed that Zuckerberg was quitting Facebook to become a cosmeceutical mogul.

The web site on which the Priscilla Chan advertorial was posted (www.piop.net) contained literally dozens more examples following the same formula, each featuring a different celebrity. Kellyanne Conway, Joanna Gaines, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Scarlett Johansson, Ann Coulter, Joy Behar, Ellen Degeneres, Meryl Streep, and Kate Middleton are just a few of the names used.

And that’s just one web site. Among the others we found cranking out similar false and misleading content were wshape.com (which mimics Shape magazine’s web site), peoplesmag-mobile.com (which mimics People), total-health-choice.com/people (also mimicking People), stories-people.com, peoplemz.comhealthyheadlines.co, 42news.net, and many others (more than we could count). Since these web sites spring up and disappear quickly, many of those that we found are already defunct. 

We found that in some instances multiple sites with similar domain names are hosted on the same servers; in other cases the sites were freestanding. When we looked up the geographical locations of these servers, we found some scattered around Europe (in the Netherlands and Iceland, for example), and others in the United States. In every case we were able to check, ownership of the domain names was anonymized.

Things get risky for users visiting these sites (usually after encountering links in social media posts) when they click on a button inviting them to claim their “free trial,” which sends them to an e-commerce site warning that “stocks are limited,” so they should submit their order right away:

From there, users are then shunted to a second page (where they’re informed, yet again, that stocks are limited) and instructed to enter credit card information to cover a modest $4.95 shipping fee in order to receive their “free trial” product.

What is all too easy to miss (when it can be found at all) is the block of fine (and excruciatingly faint) print toward the bottom of the page informing users they’re signing up for way more than just a free trial:

In case you weren’t able to read that, it says that by submitting your order you “concent” [sic] to being enrolled in the company’s “membership program,” for which you will be charged $98.66 plus shipping per month (per the company’s Terms & Conditions, which say, among other things, that by so “concenting” you will give up your right to take them to court).

People who say they’ve been victimized by these sites typically relate horror stories about the companies giving them the runaround when they try to get their money back:

They showed many before & after pictures and used a testimonial from Melania Trump to sell the products. There was NO mention of having to send the samples back or of agreeing to receive more at full price in the ads I viewed. In fact I have no address to use if I did want to return them. When I called them they said I was 3 days past the deadline and they couldn’t refund my money, but did offer me a 30% discount for calling. When I asked to speak to a supervisor I was told none were available.

Such complaints are all-too-familiar to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which warns that so-called “free trial” offers almost always come with hidden costs or strings attached:

If you’re tempted to sign up for a “free” trial offer, keep these tips in mind:

Do some research online. Search for the name of the product and words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam” to see what others are saying.

Read the fine print. Look for hidden fees and details on how to cancel shipments. You might find them in the fine print in ads or on sites for the products.

Monitor your credit and debit card statements. If you’re charged for something you didn’t order, you can work on disputing those charges.

Consumers should also note any dates or time limits mentioned in such offers. Typically, there is a deadline for canceling an order if one wishes to get a refund and/or avoid paying further charges.

Anywhere there is fine print, read it.

The Federal Trade Commission has taken legal action against the operators of web sites using these tactics in the past. In 2016, they obtained court orders permanently barring 29 defendants in California from running businesses that sell products via a “negative option” — meaning the consumer’s silence is automatically interpreted as consent. But as we have seen, those 29 people now banned from scamming the public were only the tip of the iceberg.

“The Commission will continue to attack scams that rely on supposed ‘free trial’ offers and unauthorized credit card charges,” former Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich said after the 2016 court orders were handed down. In the meantime, consumers need to stay vigilant to avoid possible online scams.

Anyone who feels they were defrauded by this type of marketing is encouraged to report it online to the FTC.

Sources:

Markay, Lachlan.   “Seth Rich Murder Conspiracy Is Being Used to Sell Face Cream.”
   The Daily Beast.   5 July 2017.

Small, Bridget.   “Rick Free Trials Were Bait for Rip Offs.”
   FTC.gov.   22 February 2017.

Weintraub, Arlene.   “Beware Free Trials of Anti-Aging Products Sold on the Web.”
   U.S. News & World Report.   1 October 2010.

FTC.gov.   “‘Free’ Trial Offers?”
   April 2011.

FTC.gov.   “FTC Obtains Court Orders Barring Skincare Marketers from Deceptive Marketing and Billing Practices.”
   13 October 2016.