Madigan offers advice on how to avoid weight loss scams

CHICAGO—With many consumers vowing to shed extra pounds in the new year, Attorney General Lisa Madigan urged Illinoisans aiming to lose weight in 2004 to protect themselves from fraudulent claims that could result in a lighter wallet but not a smaller waistline.

Madigan noted that increasing exercise and fitness are terrific goals for the new year. However, consumers must know that some retailers pushing diet products are no doubt aware of their clients’ susceptibility and may even have a history of making false claims. Advertisements for weight loss products are often riddled with deceptive claims, and health club contracts can tie exercisers down to limitations they weren’t prepared for.

“Consumers should keep their guard up wherever there is a seasonal rush for any particular product or service,” Madigan said. “With the arrival of the New Year, many people are making fitness and weight loss top priorities, but Illinoisans should be aware that advertisers may use deceptive practices to get their business.”

Fraudulent health and fitness businesses prey on the insecurities and health concerns of a large part of the American population. The American Obesity Association’s (AOA) most recent statistics revealed that 127 million adults in the United States are overweight, 60 million are obese and 9 million are severely obese. According to AOA, 20.5 percent of the obese adults in the United States in 2001 were residents in Illinois. And for the second year in a row, Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Chicago the second most overweight U.S. city in 2003, based on relevant environmental factors.

While more exercise is an excellent way to lose weight, Madigan said too often consumers don’t know their rights when it comes to signing and canceling health club membership contracts.

Madigan said the Illinois Physical Fitness Service Act protects consumers from being caught in a gym-membership scam. The Act requires that the health club or gym give a written contract or membership agreement to the consumer and disclose in writing all costs and payment obligations.

Under the law, Madigan said, Illinois consumers also have the right to cancel a membership and receive a full refund within three business days following the date the contract is signed. Additionally, if a consumer moves farther than 25 miles from the gym and the owners do not provide a substitute gym with comparable facilities in the new area, the consumer has the right to cancel the membership and receive a prorated refund.

Madigan cautioned consumers to take several steps to avoid being caught in a long-term membership contract at a gym that doesn’t satisfy their needs. First, because it often is very difficult to get out of a contract once signed, shopping around and having a well-thought-out list of needs will prevent a consumer from making a bad decision.

Madigan noted that the FTC recommends consumers first check out the facility in person, find out if the club limits the number of members they accept, and determine the hours of operation and when the club is the busiest. Consumers also should ask what services, such as personal trainers, area available and at what cost.

When consumers believe they have found a gym that fits their needs, the next step is to find out whether trial periods are available and whether the club will make a refund if the contract is cancelled for a legitimate reason. Then, before signing the contract, consumers should make sure that everything that was promised is set down in writing. As required by Illinois law, a contract’s initial term cannot exceed two years and the total payment cannot exceed $2,500 a year.

While some consumers are talked into signing long-term contracts at gyms and health clubs, owners may fall prey to advertisements making false claims. The FTC’s 2002 “Report on Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends” revealed an overwhelming number of false or misleading claims when it came to weight loss products, with the numbers having significantly increased over the past decade.

The FTC warns consumers to keep an eye out for extravagant claims of rapid weight loss, dramatic “before and after” photographs, testimonials from “famous” doctors and fine-print footnotes revealing the truth that diet and exercise are in fact required. If an advertisement seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.

For more information on gym membership traps or fraudulent diet advertisements, please contact the Office of the Attorney General at 1-800-386-5438 and 1-800-964-3013 (TTY) in Chicago or 1-800-243-0618 and 1-877-844-5461 (TTY) in Springfield.

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