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Scammers lighten wallets rather than waists

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The competition watchdog has warned people to beware of weight loss scams when carrying out their new year’s resolutions, saying that rather than getting sucked into a fraudulent quick-fix, those looking to lose weight should discuss their options with a health care professional.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Deputy Chair Dr Michael Schaper said scammers were experts at preying on people’s vulnerabilities and trying take advantage of the good intentions of people to improve their health in the new year.

“Unfortunately, if you fall for this scam, the only place you will feel lighter is your wallet,” Dr Schaper said.

The scams usually promise dramatic weight loss for little or no effort.

Dr Schaper said they typically involve an unusual or restrictive diet, revolutionary exercise, a ‘fat-busting’ device or breakthrough pills, patches or creams. They are advertised online or via mail order with enticing claims such as “lose 30 kilos in 30 days” or “lose weight while you sleep”, usually accompanied by bogus before and after pictures.

“These scams suggest that you can achieve amazing results without having to do any extra exercise or even modify your diet,” he said.

“They lack any scientific evidence or demonstrated links between the program, food, supplement, gadget or process being promoted – and the result.”

The warning comes in the wake of a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development late last year that Australia had the fourth highest rate of obesity in the world (behind the United States, Mexico and New Zealand), and more than 1.7 million Australians have diabetes.

As community concerns about the growing obesity levels increase, so do the numbers of weight loss scams being reported.

Last year the ACCC received 173 contacts about weight loss scams – a 50 per cent increase on the previous year. Total reported losses in 2013 were over $20,000, a 70 per cent increase on 2012.

“The most common things being complained about are people engaging in a free trial of a weight loss product then incurring extra charges and being signed up to hidden subscriptions,” Dr Schaper said.

“Victims report being unable to contact the billing companies involved, and are therefore unable to cancel the subscriptions or stop the charges occurring. Some victims mention that even if they get a chargeback from the bank, new charges have appeared at a later date.”

Dr Schaper also warned that some of the weight loss products or schemes offered by scammers can have serious consequences for people’s health.

“Be very careful about advertised offers for medicines, supplements or other treatments, and always check first with a health care professional, such as a dietician or your local GP,” he said.

“Remember that there are no magic pills for rapid weight loss, so be very sceptical about claims of effortless, large or fast weight loss. Find out what evidence is used to support claims made for the product and do not rely only on testimonials from people who have used the product, as they may profit from selling you the product and may mislead you to do so.”

Dr Schaper said anyone who has resolved to lose weight in 2014 should discuss their options with a health care professional.

Anyone who thinks they may have fallen victim to a scam should contact their bank immediately and report the scam to SCAM watch at www.scamwatch.gov.au/reportascam

Debra Vermeer