AUGUSTA, Maine (Legal Newsline) - Maine Attorney General William Schneider announced an agreement on Monday with four Maine acai supplement companies and their managers to settle allegations of unfair trade practices.

The complaint and consent decree were filed in Kennebec County Superior Court on Wednesday. The agreement resolved allegations that the companies - Grapevine, Great Berry, Vitality and 3V Marketing - and their managers, Ryan E. Dall and Eric R. Crouse (collectively known as Grapevine) violated the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act with Internet marketing sales using "free" or "risk free" offers that were deceptive and misleading.

The complaint alleges that Grapevine marketed and sold the dietary supplements Acai Advanced and Certified Acai to consumers using the "free" or "risk free" trial offers in 2009.

The supplements purportedly contained 750 to 900 milligrams of a proprietary blend of ingredients, including acai berry extract. According to packaging materials and internet advertising, use of the Certified Acai and Acai Advanced products would result in substantial and rapid weight loss. The acai berry was represented as the "#1 Super Food" that provides many health benefits, including supporting the immune system, promoting healthy sleep, improving digestion, reducing pain and soreness, improving stamina and libido, fighting cancer and disease, increasing energy, lowering blood pressure, and fighting aging and inflammation.

According to the "risk free" or "free" promotion, consumers could try the product for 15 days and, if not completely satisfied, receive a "30-day money back guarantee." The consumer would pay only a nominal charge for shipping and handling.

By requesting the "free" or "risk free" trial, consumers were allegedly enrolled in a recurring "Healthy Lifestyles Program" with automatic monthly shipments of the product. Many consumers complained about discovering unauthorized charges on their credit card accounts for the additional monthly shipment charges, which were usually $64.95 plus $9.95 shipping and handling per month. By that time, consumers had allegedly often been charged the full price for the "free" or "risk free" trial shipment in addition to the second shipment plus a shipping and handling fee.

In many instances, requests for refunds were allegedly refused even if consumers returned or offered to return the unopened product. As part of the "free" or "risk free" offer, consumers were allegedly automatically signed up for a trial membership in the "Live Lean for Life" weight loss management plan as a "free gift." Numerous consumers did not expect to be charged for an additional product that they did not order, and many were unaware that they had to take affirmative steps to cancel the trial membership to avoid being charged an added $24.95 each month.

"Even sophisticated consumers can be caught by deceptive advertising," Schneider said. "Merchants are required by the Unfair Trade Practices Act to be truthful in claims about their products. This settlement will contribute to ensuring fairness in the marketplace in Maine."

According to the consent judgment, Grapevine agreed to a permanent injunction that prohibits it from making any health or weight loss claim in connection with the marketing or sale of any product without having objective and competent scientific evidence to substantiate the claim at the time that it is made. In addition, Grapevine must follow restrictions on the future marketing and sale of any product or service through the use of a free or risk free trial offer. Grapevine will also pay $5,000 for costs related to the resolution of these claims.

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