People everywhere are being redirected to fake, lookalike websites from legitimate news websites. They click on a link which appears to be part of the news website and next thing you know, they’re on a fake site reading a fake story by companies and affiliate marketers trying to trick people into signing up for a $90/month subscription.
The content below comes from Shane Wilcutt. Shane emailed me with such great detail I decided to publish their story here (with their permission). Shane had found my documentation of a very similar scam here for a testosterone pill: Fake Fox News & Shark Tank Content Showing on CNN.com.
Rob Gronkowski Fake News and Primal XL
Early this AM I placed an order for a free sample of Primal XL, which I was directed to through the latest “fake news” story about Rob Gronkowski’s supposed suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. I’m a huge Patriots fan and was initially drawn in out of concern for my team. We need the Gronk!
Anyway, I ultimately (and stupidly) ordered a free sample of the Primal XL product, for a modest shipping charge of $4.95. I had to navigate through a couple of additional screens after providing my CC info, and when it was all said and done, my order had been confirmed for one free sample of Primal XL, $4.95 S&H, a free sample of Primal Male, $4,90 S&H, and an additional charge for $1.95 which was itemized as Insurance. I did not sign on for the latter two charges, and that was the first sign that something was wrong.
Soon after I placed my order, I received an email receipt confirming my order. It was a generic form, with no identifying information related to the company except © Primal XL. This was the second red flag, and it got my attention.
I proceeded to search the internet and ultimately found the article you wrote in February 2017, almost exactly a year ago. I can’t believe they’ve been getting away with this for so long. After reading the extensive list of comments at the end of your post, I realized that I had to take action. I’m a graduate student and single parent of a 16 year-old, and we have been living off student loans for about 18 months now. It has not been easy, but we’ve managed to get by. All of this is to say that I can’t afford to be scammed.
My first action was to send an email to “Primal XL’s” customer support email address. I quickly decided that wasn’t good enough. I did some more digging and found a customer support hotline number. When all was said and done, I made four phone calls over the span of about an hour. As I peeled back the layers, I was shocked and appalled with the complexity of this scam and the anonymity of the company that is running it. Here’s what I ultimately discovered:
- The contact information provided on their (many) websites gives a physical address in Denver, CO, and a customer support hotline number
- I made my first call to the hotline at 5:45 AM CST, where I received an automated message stating that business hours were between 7a and 9p (Mountain time, I assumed).
- For some unknown reason, I called the hotline again at 6:05a CST, and to my surprise, someone answered. After a lengthy conversation with a CSR, my order was cancelled
- I requested that this CSR transfer me to a supervisor, and she agreed to transfer me, and after 10 minutes on hold, I hung up.
- I called a second time, and eventually made contact with a supervisor. When I asked her for her company’s name and location, she started to back-pedal. I told her that while I had been led to believe they were located in CO, the time discrepancies now made me suspect that they were actually on the east coast. She said something like “Well, you just said you found our address in Denver.” I know that’s what I said, but is that what you’re saying. She stated unequivocally that yes, they were located in Denver.
- I called the hotline a third time, determined to get a straight answer. The second supervisor I spoke to was very receptive to my request, and she eventually provided me with contact information for a home office located in Orlando, FL. Just as I suspected. However, she gave me a generic customer support email and a PO Box address.
- By this time, I had received two separate emails confirming cancellation of two separate transactions (initially generated from a single order). I also received one email verifying that that a single charge had been refunded back to my account. When I checked my bank statement, I discovered I had been charged for three separate transactions, for $4.95, $4.90, and $1.95
- I called the hotline again, and spoke to another sympathetic CSR who assured me that all three transactions had indeed been cancelled, processed, and refunded. She also provided me with transaction numbers for each of the three refunds. When the call ended, I was nearly convinced that I had been taken care of. However, when I cross-referenced the transaction number provided in the refund confirmation email, it did not match any of the numbers that were provided for me. This was the last straw.
- I called my bank’s consumer fraud hotline and was told two of the transactions had been generated from California, and the third from Canada. I reported the charges as fraudulent, despite the supposed refunds.
- Next, I went to the local branch of my bank, told them my story, and cancelled my debit card. Despite the inconvenience of being without a debit card for two weeks, I at least feel comfortable that I will not be responsible for any current or subsequent charges.
All of these minor details may be excessive, but I feel compelled to tell someone my story, and I suspect that you will appreciate it. In the age of electronic transactions and blatantly deceptive advertising campaigns, someone has to stand up for the little guy. My story is a perfect illustration of the patience, diligence, and knowledge of the system which is necessary to protect yourself. Unfortunately, I fear that I am among a very small minority of people who know how to advocate from themselves (my graduate degree will be a Master’s in Social Work). That’s why I have such a tremendous amount of respect for the work that you do. IMHO, consumer protection work represents a vitally important check on a capitalist system which has gone off the rails and is completely out of control. I’m quite sure that, after all this time, such a scam can only continue because it is technically legal, achieved by carefully manipulating the loopholes that inevitably exist in our Federal laws.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a graduate student, it’s that you have to pick your battles. As much as I’d love to right all of the wrongs in this world, if I get too fired up and take things too personally, I am bound to burn out quickly. I’m still learning to accept this reality, as evidenced by this communication. However, I can’t help wonder if something more can be done.
On that note, I was hoping you might provide me with some insight. If one were so inclined, who might they contact to file a grievance? I’m certain that no one incident will lead to meaningful action, but I have to hold out hope that cumulatively, if enough people voice their concerns, maybe something can be done to stop the unscrupulous and predatory practices which are running rampant in our country. I know I can’t set the world on fire by myself, but I’ll be damned if I’m don’t do my part, whatever that may be.
Thanks in advance for your diligence, your dedication, and your time. If you are able to respond to this message, I would greatly appreciate it.
Thank you Shane!
Thank you Shane. I have been online since 1988 and love Internet marketing, but this is just taking advantage of people. I don’t know how some people sleep at night. Every once in a while I’ll document a scam or some fake news that I run into on the Internet. Your email was so detailed I just had to put it online for the world to see.
How To File a Complaint
Over the years I have definitely had my problems with online businesses and there are indeed some steps anyone can take to file a complaint.
- Write an article warning people of the dangers or your experience. 🙂
- File a complaint with the FTC here: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/. The FTC has charged companies in the past and posts warnings about these sites.
- File a complaint with the Attorney General for your state.
- If you can find them, file a BBB complaint for them with their local BBB. This won’t stop them but reminds them that they suck.
- Dispute credit card charges. It’s a pain in the rear for them.
- Complain to the news website hosting the ads. I haven’t tried this just yet. But, I mean at some point publishers need to take some sort of responsibility to what is appearing on their website, even if it’s an advertisement.
- Complain to the company placing the ads on the publsiher’s site. A lot of fake news is pushed out via Newsmax and I don’t think they care. But hey why not.
Have you seen a fraudulent Primal XL website?
How did you get to it? Which website were you on when you saw the advertisement? Do you have a similar story to share?
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Thank you again Shane.
As a follow up, I think the only way and easiest way to stop this is to hold publishers and their advertising networks accountable for letting their trusting users get scammed. It takes under 1 minute to switch from one ad network to a new one. I just wrote up a complete overview with actionable advice for the FTC and publishers here: Ad Networks on News Publisher Sites are Serving Spam, Malware and Fake News.
Len, I think you hit the nail right on the head! These kinds of unsavory marketing campaigns couldn’t continue without someone else paying the bill. Shame on the advertising firms who create the content (in this case, Outbrain), and shame on the manufacturers who pay for their services. It’s often hard to know exactly where the buck stops, but there are numerous parties in between who are equally responsible for the end result.
Keep telling it like it is! It may take some time, but the truth will set us free.