This story is part of a partnership between MedPage Today and VICE News.
If a product you buy on the internet doesn't work, what better way to vent than by writing a scathing online testimonial or review?
But Florida company Roca Labs makes its customers promise not to leave negative comments before they buy its weight loss powders. If the company spots negative comments, it threatens to enforce its fine print anti-disparagement clauses and sue those customers, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which filed a complaint for a federal injunction against the company on September 24.
"Roca Labs had an adversarial relationship with the truth," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "Not only did they make false or unsubstantiated weight-loss claims, they also attempted to intimidate their own customers from sharing truthful — and truly negative — reviews of their products."
Roca Labs, Inc. and Roca Labs Nutraceutical USA, Inc. market a "safe" supplement powder that can be used as an "alternative to gastric bypass surgery," according to court documents. They also market products to pregnant women, children, and people with diabetes. The website said customers could lose up to 100 pounds in as little as eight months.
The powders cost $480 for a three- or four-month supply, according to the complaint. The company has made at least $20 million in revenue since 2010.
Ingredients in the products include glucomannan, a dietary fiber, and galactomannan, a smoothing ingredient added to foods like cream cheese, according to the Roca Labs website.
"It's used in a lot of different foods that we eat, but in smaller amounts," said Dr. Leena Khaitan, who directs the bariatric surgery program at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "And the problem with this is if [Roca Labs customers] have large amounts of some of these different things, and they don't take it with enough fluid, it can actually cause intestinal blockages."
It's not the first company to be reprimanded for making exaggerated claims regarding glucomannan, which has been used to treat constipation but has not been proven to help people lose weight, Khaitan said.
The product also contains 500 percent of the FDA's daily recommendation of vitamin B6, which Khaitan said can be toxic and affect the nervous system.
Roca Labs did not respond to VICE News' repeated requests for comment.
One customer wrote a review of Roca Labs on the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) website, complaining that the product didn't work and made her ill. Another customer wrote that Roca Labs kept billing his credit card even after he had already paid in full, and then wouldn't answer its customer service line.
The company responded:
We are sorry that you are having a problem with your purchase. We understand that the Better Business Bureau suggests that you can resolve your complaints online and encouraged you to publish your complaint on their website. Unfortunately the BBB has no ability to resolve your complaint with Roca Labs and in fact maybe [sic] creating more problems. As you are aware, in exchange for a significant discount, you agreed not to complain publicly about the company and to resolve disputes in the Florida court system. Thus, we trust that you will honor this Agreement and remove this complaint. We are happy to attempt to resolve your issue privately or in the Court system.
In the last three years, the nonprofit BBB has received 116 complaints against Roca Labs. The company is not BBB-accredited, and BBB lists an alert on its page for Roca Labs, mentioning that it sued a customer for complaining about its product on a BBB site.
"BBB believes that customer opinions, whether positive or negative, can be valuable information both for businesses and for their future customers," the Council of BBB's legal officer Richard Woods said in a statement to VICE News. "We are concerned to see a small number of businesses using non-disparagement or confidentiality clauses in customer contracts to prohibit negative online reviews or even penalize customers who file complaints with BBB or governmental agencies. We discourage using these clauses to stifle expression as contrary to BBB's vision of 'an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other.'"
US Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, introduced a bill called the Consumer Review Freedom Act of 2015 to prevent companies from adding gag clauses to their user agreements.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it cannot comment on Roca Labs because of an "open compliance matter." Speaking generally, FDA spokeswoman Lyndsay Meyer said health scams can lead to serious or fatal injuries; most scam products, she said, are related to weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding. The agency has issued hundreds of warning letters, pursued civil and criminal enforcement against scam companies, and worked with companies to recall products.
"Consumers should also know that unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing by the FDA, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to 'approve' dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer," Meyer said.
Follow Sydney Lupkin on Twitter: @slupkin