These are the types of claims the Federal Trade Commission has challenged in complaints filed in federal district courts against three widely advertised electronic abdominal exercise belts - AB Energizer, AbTronic, and Fast Abs. The FTC alleges that the marketers of the devices, which use electronic muscle stimulation (EMS), have falsely advertised that users will get "six pack" or "washboard" abs without exercise.
"For years, marketers of diet and exercise products have been preying on overweight, out-of-shape consumers by hawking false hope in a pill, false hope in a bottle, and, now, in a belt," said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. "Unfortunately, there are no magic pills, potions, or pulsators for losing weight and getting into shape. The only winning combination is changing your diet and exercise."
The FTC filed three separate complaints against the following defendants:
- AB Energizer marketers: Electronic Products Distribution, L.L.C., based in San Diego, California, and its general partners, Thomas Nelson and Holly Hernandez, also known as Holly Bryan; Energizer Products, Inc., based in Tarzana, California; Ab Energizer, L.L.C., based in San Diego, California; and AbFlex USA, Inc., also located in San Diego, and its president, Martin Van Der Hoeven;
- AbTronic marketers: Hudson Berkley Corporation, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and also doing business as Hudson Berkeley, Inc., and its officer and director, Matthias Granic; Bismarck Labs Corporation, based in Palm Springs, California and also doing business as BLC Bismarck Labs Corporation; TMI Tricom Marketing, Inc., a Delaware corporation; CCI CAD CAM Industries Ltd., Inc., located in Hong Kong; and Bernd Ebert, a director and officer of BLC, managing director of TMI, and president of CCI; and
- Fast Abs marketers: United Fitness of America, L.L.C., based in Ventura, California, and its sole manager, George Sylva; and Tristar Products, Inc., based in Parsippany, New Jersey, and its president, Kishore Mirchandani, also known as Keith Mirchandani.
According to the FTC, the defendants sold their devices through heavily aired, 30-minute infomercials on national cable television stations such as USA, TNN, Lifetime, E!, FX, and Comedy Central. Each of the infomercials has been among the ten most frequently aired infomercials in weekly U.S. rankings and has aired well over a thousand times. The infomercials feature fitness professionals who tout the products' efficacy, user testimonials, photos of models sporting trim, sculpted midsections, and purported expert opinions from health care professionals. The AB Energizer and AbTronic marketers also aired shorter television commercials. In addition, Fast Abs has been advertised in national newspaper magazines such as Parade, and mailed circulars such as Clipper Magazine.
The defendants advertised the three devices through Internet Web sites and at national retail outlets. In addition, the defendants made claims on the packaging for the three products, which the FTC also allege were false and deceptive. The products sell for about $40-$120.
The FTC's complaints allege that the advertisements for the three ab devices falsely represent that:
- The ab devices cause fat loss and inch loss;
- The ab devices will give users well-defined abdominal muscles (e.g., "rock hard," "six pack" or "washboard" abs); and
- Use of the ab devices is equivalent to (and, for AbTronic and Fast Abs, superior to) conventional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups or crunches.
The complaint against the AB Energizer defendants also alleges that they falsely represented that the device will cause weight loss. The AbTronic complaint alleges that the defendants falsely represented that the device eliminates cellulite, and that a scientific study proves that use of the AbTronic improves abdominal strength better than exercise alone.
The FTC complaints further allege that the advertising for all three devices falsely claimed that the devices are safe for all users and failed to disclose, or failed to disclose adequately, warnings about health hazards for some people. According to the FDA and leading texts on EMS therapy, EMS devices should not be used by persons with certain conditions, including implanted pacemakers or other implanted metallic or electronic devices, swollen or inflamed areas (such as phlebitis), or cancerous lesions. Additionally, safety of EMS during pregnancy has not been established. The AbTronic and Fast Abs complaints also allege that the marketers falsely advertised that the products are safe for use over the chest area.
In addition to the false advertising allegations, the FTC complaints challenge refund, shipping, and warranty practices. The FTC alleges that all of the defendants misrepresented their "money-back guarantees" and, in many cases, failed to provide timely refunds. The FTC also alleges that marketers for all three devices violated the FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule by failing to ship their direct-order products within the promised shipment time (and in some cases, failing to ship the products at all), and failing either to notify consumers of the delay or cancel the order and make a prompt and full refund. Further, the FTC alleges that the Fast Abs infomercial represented that the product comes with a one-year limited warranty, when in fact, some consumers received only a 30-day limited warranty with the product.
The FTC is seeking permanent injunctions in each of these cases to prohibit the defendants from making false or deceptive advertising claims, stop them from engaging in other deceptive marketing practices, and require them to pay redress to consumers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Napa County, California District Attorney's Office provided assistance on these cases.
The Commission vote to authorize staff to file the three complaints in the appropriate federal district courts was 5-0. The Ab Energizer matter was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, in San Diego, on May 7, 2002. The Fast Abs and AbTronics matters were filed in the U.S. District Court, District of Nevada, in Las Vegas, on May 7, 2002.
Consumer purchasers who desire more information, please call the FTC's "abs belts hotline" at (202) 326-3343.
The FTC has updated two consumer publications about exercise equipment: "Avoiding the Muscle Hustle" www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt113.shtm and "Pump Fiction: When Marketers Overextend Their Fitness Claims." www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/products/pro10.shtm
These materials offer tips to consider and questions to ask before buying exercise equipment, including:
- Ignore claims that an exercise machine or device can provide long-lasting, easy, "no-sweat" results in a short time. These claims are false: You can't get the benefits of exercise unless you exercise.
- Don't fall for claims that a product can burn fat off a particular part of the body - for example, the stomach, hips or buttocks. Achieving a major change in your appearance requires sensible eating and regular exercise that works the whole body.
- Read the ad's fine print. The advertised results may be based on more than just using a machine; it also may be based on restricting calories.
- Be skeptical of testimonials and before-and-after pictures from "satisfied" customers. Their experiences may not be typical. Just because one person had success with the equipment doesn't mean you will, too.
- Get details on warranties, guarantees and return policies. A "30-day money-back guarantee" may not sound as good if you have to pay shipping on the equipment you want to "return to sender."
- Check out the company's customer and support services. Call the advertised toll-free numbers to get an idea of how easy it is to reach a company representative and how helpful he or she is.
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.
Copies of the complaints, as well as the consumer brochures, are available from the FTC's Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at https://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. Consumer purchasers who desire more information, please call: AB Hotline Number: 202-326-3343 and is there some way to link this to the home page. This number will not be activiated until after 10:00 am on Monday May 13.
Office of Public Affairs
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3042 or 202-326-3743
(AB Energizer and Fast Abs) Heather Hippsley,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
(AB Energizer: File No. 022 3111; Civil Action No. 02CV888H(AJB)
(Fast Abs: File No. 022 3110; Civil Action No. CVS 020648-KJD)
(AbTronic: File No. 022 3145; Civil Action No. CVS 020649-PMP)