The face that launched a global ad scam

BY IAN MCILWRAITH
Last updated 11:05 17/09/2010
scam MELISSA THEURIAU
STOLEN? Melissa Theuriau's face is being used to market suspicious products online. But did she approve it?

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Melissa Theuriau's face is familiar to regular web surfers, but they are most likely to know her as "Karen" or "Amy" because her image has been stolen for use in bogus advertising.

The face of Theuriau, an accomplished French television presenter, is being used to variously promote Swipe penny auctions, acai berry diets, colon cleansing and slimming teas.

Many of the sites have connections back to the Canadian internet entrepreneur Jesse Willms, some of whose companies were sued last year by Oprah Winfrey and Dr Mehmet Oz for using the television show hosts' images without permission, and in a manner that implied that they endorsed the products.

The issue with many of the sites is that not only do they make inflated claims about the worth of the products, and use deceptive tactics to imply they are endorsed by celebrities or major media outlets, but their so-called "free trials" mask the fact that consumers are actually signing up for a month-by-month contract and are likely to be charged for items they do not think they have ordered.

Consumers who think they have authorised a small postage and handling deduction suddenly find they have been charged up to US$100 (NZ$138) for a month's supply.

Last month the US Federal Trade Commission obtained freeze orders against an unrelated set of operators, alleging that up to US$30 million had been scammed from consumers last year.

Some Australians are known to have been caught up in the schemes, with one appearing on a Canadian TV show about Mr Willms's business operations.

Many of the sites promoting the products, often set up as blogs, contain disclaimers such as this one from ellashotsecret.com: "This website, and any page on the website, is based loosely off a true story, but has been modified in multiple ways including, but not limited to: the story, the photos, and the comments. Thus, this blog, and any page on this website, are not to be taken literally or as a non-fiction story."

The Ella Johnson depicted on that site, which also features the masthead of The Australian newspaper, is identical to the Ella Johnson on uk.ella shotsecret.com where she calls herself a Sydney mum and is recommending Cho Yung tea - although if you click on the free trial you get the AcaiMax site.

As for French journalist Theuriau, her real name is never attached.

Even the ABC has its logo used on one of the pages featuring Theuriau.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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