False Advertising Claims

FTC — The FTC has gone to court hundreds of times to stop allegedly misleading weight loss claims and Roca Labs’ “gastric bypass alternative” promises are no exception. But other parts of the complaint – including a count challenging the defendants’ use of consumer gag clauses as an unfair practice – warrant a careful reading.

For consumers who want to lose 50 pounds or more, Florida-based Roca Labs pitches its products as safe and effective alternatives to gastric bypass surgery. According to the defendants’ website, consumers can lose up to 21 pounds a month while continuing “to eat what you like” – including chocolate cake and ice cream – with “no menus, no diet restrictions.” Roca Labs claims to have “testimonials of 100,000 users” and posts dramatic before-and-after videos.

What do medical professionals have to say? Consumers who click the Medical Questions link can read a “Letter to Your Doctor” that purports to offer scientific proof for the company’s claims. In addition, typing phrases like “gastric bypass” or “gastric sleeve” into popular search engines serves up Roca Labs ads that promise “extremely fast weight loss” for “only $480.” The company touts a “90% success rate” and says that even children “have used the Formula successfully and safely.”

In addition, consumers researching their weight loss options may find their way to gastricbypass.me, a website offering “loads of information about each bariatric surgery, insurance information, surgeon information, alternatives to surgery and everything in between.” While expressing some initial skepticism about Roca Labs’ claims, the sponsor of the site ultimately concludes, “With some averaging weight loss of 0.5 to 1 pound per day, the Roca Labs Surgery Alternative Solution is quite impressive.”

But according to the complaint, Roca Labs doesn’t have scientific support for its claims. In addition, the FTC says the company induced consumers to provide before-and-after videos with a “Money Back Reward or up to $1,000” – a material connection that should have been disclosed.

And guess who runs that gastricbypass.me site. According to the lawsuit, it’s Roca Labs.

That’s where the typical weight loss action usually ends, but the FTC says the defendants were just getting started. You’ll want to read the complaint for the full story, but one allegation of note is Roca Labs’ use of gag clauses and legal threats against dissatisfied customers.

To buy the product, people have to click the usual “I have read and agree to the terms, privacy, and money back reward / return policy” box. But only after receiving the product do many consumers learn what was behind those hyperlinks. For example, the online terms contain a consumer gag clause:

You agree that regardless of your personal experience with RL, you will not disparage RL and/or any of its employees, products, or services. This means that you will not speak, publish, or cause to be published, print, review, blog, or otherwise write negatively about RL, or its products or employees in any way.

According to a stand-alone insert Roca Labs includes in the package:

You were given a discount off the unsubsidized price of $1580 in exchange for your agreement to promote our product and when possible share your weight loss success with us (keep those youtube videos coming). As part of this endorsement you also agree not to write any negative reviews about RLN or our products. In the event that you do not honor this agreement you may owe immediately the full price of $1,580.

In other words, negative information would cause the purchase price to revert from the advertised $480 to $1580.

And Roca Labs means business. The FTC says the defendants have threatened consumers with enforcement of these provisions. They have sued buyers who posted negative comments and a website where consumers can post complaints against companies. According to the FTC, the defendants’ course of conduct is an unfair practice, in violation of the FTC Act.

The complaint also includes an interesting consumer privacy count. To buy the defendants’ products, people have to turn over a substantial amount of personal health data. Despite Roca Labs’ promise to keep it confidential, the FTC says the defendants have disclosed it in public court filings and to payment processors and banks.

The lawsuit, which names Roca Labs, Roca Labs Nutraceutical USA, Don Juravin, and George C. Whiting, is pending in federal court in Florida.

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