FTC Stops Online Marketing Scheme That Allegedly Scammed Consumers Out of Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Using 'Free' Trial Offers

For Release

At the Federal Trade Commission’s request, a federal court halted an online operation that allegedly took in more than $450 million from consumers in the United States and several other countries, and froze the alleged ringleader’s assets, pending trial. The scheme allegedly lured consumers into “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

The court order granting a preliminary injunction against Jesse Willms and 10 companies he controls stems from the FTC’s ongoing crackdown on online fraud. Pending trial, it bans the defendants from selling products or services that feature a “negative option,” in which the seller interprets consumers’ silence or inaction as permission to charge them, or “continuity plan” in which consumers are sent regular shipments of merchandise until they cancel. The preliminary injunction also prohibits the defendants from offering any products as a “free trial” or “bonus”; misrepresenting costs of a product or any cancellation policy; failing to disclose the amount and timing of fees and the terms and conditions of any refunds; making misrepresentations about the benefits or safety of products; misrepresenting any product endorsement or testimonial; and charging consumers without their express consent.

According to the FTC’s complaint, filed in May, Willms and his companies deceived consumers with offers of “free trials” for various products online, including acai berry weight-loss pills, teeth whiteners, and health supplements containing resveratrol (the supposedly healthful ingredient in red wine), as well as for a work-at-home scheme, access to government grants, free credit reports, and penny auctions. Consumers were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

The court found that the FTC showed enough evidence in the case to justify freezing the assets of Willms and his companies. It stated, “Not only has [the FTC] shown a likelihood that Defendants have engaged in misleading marketing practices, but it has also shown that Defendants have moved substantial funds to offshore companies and bank accounts. . .” Specifically, the court stated that Willms admitted to establishing several holding companies in Cyprus to facilitate international merchant banking, and that email exchanges show that funds were likely transferred from Willms’ accounts to Cyprus and possibly for the purpose of hiding assets.

The FTC recently filed an amended complaint adding two defendants to the action, Elizabeth Graver and Mobile Web Media LLC, a company Graver allegedly established to help Willms acquire credit and debit card processing services.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the amended complaint was 5-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle. The preliminary injunction was entered by the court on September 13, 2011.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendant has actually violated the law. The case will be decided by the court.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call
1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

(Jesse Willms PI)
(FTC File No. X110031)

Contact Information

MEDIA CONTACT:
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2180
STAFF CONTACT:
Robert J. Schroeder, Kathryn C. Decker
FTCs Northwest Region
206-220-4477, 206-220-4486