Last May, we took an in-depth look at the Tommie Copper class action lawsuit; why it was filed, what it claimed, and why the company’s marketing hype didn’t match with reality.
Now, as of December 1, in a prime example of consumers’ voices being heard, the Federal Trade Commission announced that Tommie Copper has been ordered to “pay $1.35 million to settle … charges that they deceptively advertised the company’s copper-infused compression clothing would relieve severe and chronic pain and inflammation caused by arthritis and other diseases.”
Considering the number of scams we write about here at HighYa—many of which go unpunished—it’s positive to see a company finally being held accountable for their business practices. This sets a solid precedent, and sends a strong message that if you’re going to make scientific claims, you have to back them up with evidence.
But where do we go from here? What can we learn, and how can this help us all shop smarter? To answer these questions, let’s begin by taking a look at how the FTC investigates claims and enforces laws.
How Does the FTC Protect Consumers? Are There Limits?
At its most basic, the FTC is responsible for “promoti[ng] consumer protection and eliminati[ng] and preventi[ng] anticompetitive business practices, such as coercive monopoly.” But how does it accomplish this?
Within the FTC, the Bureau of Consumer Protection is the division that’s responsible for stopping “unfair, deceptive and fraudulent business practices,” including deceptive advertising practices. It does this by developing rules that companies must abide by, collecting consumer complaints against companies who may have broken these rules, and conducting investigations to determine if this is the case. If it is, the BCP is then responsible for taking these companies to court.
Now, because the FTC handles complaints dealing with everything from “data security and deceptive advertising to identity theft and Do Not Call violations,” they’ve definitely got their hands full. But when it comes to products you’ll find reviewed here on HighYa, especially those within the nutritional supplements and anti-aging industries, the problem is compounded because they’re completely unregulated before hitting store shelves.
In other words, as long as a product doesn’t claim to “diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease” (although many still do), companies are free to make just about any claim they want, without having to back it up without a single shred of evidence. As a result—although companies might technically be following the letter of the law—consumers end up feeling scammed.
To add insult to injury, by the time they see their day in court, many of these companies are already on to their next scam. And if they do end up being fined after everything’s said and done (as we can see with Tommie Copper, who raked in $60 million during 2013 alone), it usually amounts to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Ultimately, this is why HighYa exists. Because when the rubber meets the road, it’s your responsibility as a consumer to identify and avoid scams from the get-go. And the only way to do this is by becoming as informed as possible.
So, what do we (along with the FTC) recommend for avoiding scams like these? Let’s find out.
Learning How To Identify Potential Scams
After reviewing thousand of products and writing dozens of in-depth articles, what’s one of the biggest things we’ve learned? There isn’t one, single sure-fire way of avoiding scams. Why?
Because falling for a scam involves a lot of moving parts. From psychological aspects like cognitive bias and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to personality traits and age, we all tend to fall for scams for different reasons. And like any complex problem, there isn’t a magic bullet that can immediately solve it.
But the good news is that, when it comes to products like Tommie Copper, there are some tried-and-true methods you can immediately put to use in order to avoid falling for unverified medical claims:
1. Don’t Let Your Pain Cloud Your Judgment
According to Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “It’s tempting to believe that wearing certain clothing will eliminate severe pain, but Tommie Copper didn’t have science to back its claims. If you see an ad for a product that promises to replace the need for drugs or surgery, talk to a healthcare professional before you spend your money.”
In other words, less-than-stellar companies will take advantage of your pain. They know you’re desperate for relief, and that traditional pain relief techniques might not have worked for you. And as a result, you might be willing to try (and believe) just about anything.
Less-than-stellar companies will take advantage of your pain. They know you’re desperate for relief, and as a result, you might be willing to try (and believe) just about anything.
But even if traditional pain management isn’t working as well as you’d like, don’t leave your doctor out of the picture. Ultimately, they are your single biggest resource for sound advice based on scientific, clinical evidence.
2. Consider the Source
Continuing with the FTC press release, it notes:
“The company’s infomercials featured talk show host Montel Williams declaring, ‘Tommie Copper truly is pain relief without a pill.’ Company ads featured celebrity and consumer testimonials claiming that Tommie Copper garments alleviated pain caused by multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and fibromyalgia; and could provide pain relief comparable to, or better than, drugs or surgery.”
When talking with your doctor, one thing they might tell you (and we’d certainly agree) is that you shouldn’t put a lot of stock in celebrity endorsements. Why? Because in a lot of instances, these celebrities are simply paid to be talking heads. After all, companies fully understand that their likeness alone can greatly increase sales.
However, just because a celebrity endorses a product doesn’t mean that they use it themselves, that it works, or that the company’s claims have a lick of truth to them. These famous faces are simply used to boost credibility (and sales) by association.
Fake Customer Reviews
Some unscrupulous companies will even go so far as to base their whole marketing campaign on fake customer reviews, which they accomplish by hiring third-party freelance writers—and even specialized companies—to do the dirty work for them. But most of us put a great deal of stock in online customer reviews when we make a purchasing decision, so what can we do?
As we outlined in 7 Ways to Spot Fake Reviews & Shop Smarter:
- Watch for Trends – Are all the reviews positive? This could be a sure sign that some are fake.
- Does Everything Match Up? – Do the editorial reviews from professional consumer advocacy sites (like HighYa) tell a much different story than some of the customer reviews you’ve read? If a website doesn’t have a vested interest in selling you a product, but tells a different story than most online reviews, there could be a problem.
- Don’t Focus Just on Rating – Instead, take all of the reviews as a whole and look for trends. If you see a handful of complaints referencing the same thing, you might reasonably expect to experience the same.
- Too-Good-To-Be-True Claims – Just like your mother taught you, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Whether directly from the manufacturer or in online customer reviews, if you encounter a lot of over-the-top claims, this could be a sign that they’re fake.
- Language Cues – Many fake online reviews tend to overuse pronouns and figurative language. For example: Did someone claim that a basic product “changed their life”? Take reviews like these with a grain of salt.
- Facts vs. Adjectives – Feelings don’t help you make better purchasing decisions; facts do. So, although feeling-filled reviews might not be fake, they might not be very helpful, either.
- Spelling & Grammar – A lot of fake reviews are posted by overseas writers, whose first language might not be English. If you spot a lot of spelling and grammatical errors, this could mean they’re fake.
3. Be Wary of Advertisements
Finally, according to the FTC’s original complaint, “Since April 2011, Tommie Copper, based in Mt. Kisco, New York, and Kallish have advertised Tommie Copper copper-infused compression garments in infomercials, brochures, social media, and print media such as Arthritis Today magazine."
As with celebrity endorsements, just because you see a product advertised in a trustworthy magazine, newspaper, or website, this almost certainly doesn’t mean that the publication endorses it in any way. In other words, they probably know very little about the product or the manufacturer, or whether or not their claims are valid.
Pro tip: Some manufacturers will even feature images on their website with claims like, “As seen in NY Times, Vogue, and [insert the publication of your choice].” Again, this is credibility by association, and it usually just means their ads were included, but their products (or claims) weren’t featured or reviewed.
If you want, you can verify if a product was actually featured (instead of just being advertised) by entering the phrase “[Product Name] + [Publication] review” into your favorite search engine. If nothing comes up, then the company might be trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
What Does the Future Hold for Tommie Copper?
While Tommie Copper’s fine might seem fairly high, the actual judgment was much bigger. Here’s how the FTC explains it:
“The proposed stipulated federal court order imposes an $86.8 million judgment against the defendants, which will be partially suspended upon payment of $1.35 million by the defendants. If the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition, the total amount will immediately come due.”
Surely, we can expect Tommie Copper to comply with the original judgment and pay up. As consumers though, what can we do from here on out?
When it comes down to it, identifying and avoiding scams is all about information. Admittedly, each of us is different with distinct personalities and life experiences. But the one thing we can all rally around is accurate, unbiased information, which is where consumer advocacy organizations like HighYa come in.
So be sure to read up, ask questions, and seek professional guidance when necessary. And perhaps most importantly, be sure to share articles like this with your friends, family, and social networks!
Image: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com