Mail-Order Health and Beauty Company Penalized
Attorney General Tom Miller says company targeted older citizens and tried to skirt court orders to stay out of Iowa.DES MOINES-- A Connecticut mail order business specializing in questionable health and beauty aids is paying a $17,500 penalty and making refunds to 91 Iowans -- mostly older persons who answered ads for products such as pills touted to help people with arthritis pain or bladder problems.
"This posed a special threat to older Iowans who might be desperate to find remedies for health problems," said Attorney General Tom Miller.
Miller said that Willows General Store, Inc., of Westport, CT, and its president and owner, Martin Howard of Fairfield, CT, are required to make the payments and to conspicuously note in their tabloid and direct mail ads that their products are "NOT AVAILABLE IN IOWA."
The requirements are contained in a Consent Judgment filed today in Polk County District Court in Des Moines. The defendants also are subject to much higher automatic penalties if they violate the order in the future.
"Willows General Store has been a full-service health fraud outlet for too many Iowans for too long," said Attorney General Tom Miller. "Willows has repeatedly used misleading advertisements in tabloids to exaggerate the effectiveness of their health and beauty products, at least some of which we believe to be totally worthless."
Miller said that his office originally sued Willows and Howard in May of 1996 in connection with fraudulent ads directed at Iowans. At the time, Miller said, Willows sold a wide range of products, including pills and potions to remedy problems related to the bladder, the prostate, baldness, memory loss, obesity, and impotence. The Attorney General alleged that none of these products performed as claimed, and that some of them were total frauds.
"We caught them at it back in 1996 and obtained an injunction to keep them from defrauding Iowans," Miller said. "But they came up with a ruse to continue reaching into Iowan's pockets through misleading ads, and we had to take them back to court for violating the injunction."
Miller said a simple investigative action by his office's Consumer Protection Division determined that Willows was violating the earlier court order.
A Consumer Protection investigator replied to a national tabloid ad and inquired about ordering "Crash Loss and High Burn" diet tablets. "In the first place, the ad should have said NOT AVAILABLE IN IOWA, but it didn't," Miller said. "Second, Willows replied in a letter that our investigator could obtain the product by naming a person in another state who could receive the order for her from Willows. That clearly defied the judge's earlier order banning fraudulent sales in Iowa, and that's why we jumped on this again."
According to Miller, such a subterfuge will be more difficult and riskier now that the injunction has been strengthened, and any further violations will give rise to an automatic penalty of $25,000.
With the order, Willows no longer can market its health and beauty products to Iowans. Officials in Miller's office said they understand the company also is prohibited from marketing to citizens of its home state, Connecticut.
The defendants denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to the penalty, the stronger injunctive language, and the refunds. Most consumers will receive refund checks of either $19.95 or $24.95, for total refunds of $1,870.45. If consumers spent more they will be entitled to a larger refund.
"Willows was involved in cheating vulnerable Iowans by using dramatic but insupportable claims to sell supposed health remedies to the afflicted, and other blatantly fraudulent gimmicks," Miller said. "These are cynical efforts to prey on the desperate and the unwary."
Miller said that consumers have to be constantly on their guard against health fraud, since deception in this area is all too common. He warned consumers to watch out for miracle cures, dramatic testimonials, and exaggerated claims that are clearly "too good to be true."
Miller also advised consumers to consult with responsible health professionals before investing in an unfamiliar medical product or service, or embarking on an unusual course of treatment.