FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The program features former CNN talk show host Larry King and is labeled on-screen as a "Larry King Special Report." But it’s not journalism; it’s an infomercial.
"We've all heard about the benefits of a daily dose of fish oil," King said. "But they tell me that Omega XL takes a giant step forward."
King introduced Ken Meares, whose Fort Lauderdale-based Great HealthWorks company sells Omega XL across the country.
"We believe it’s the most powerful Omega 3 on the face of the planet," Meares said.
Then comes the sell from a faceless announcer: "Don't miss the opportunity to regain control of your life … there's no financial risk, Omega XL offers a 90 day money back guarantee. You have nothing to lose!"
Scores of former customers, however, disagree. The company has racked up complaints on consumer websites and the Better Business Bureau, which has received 138 complaints in the last three years alone. Many of them say they lost plenty of money after calling the toll-free money on the screen.
A large percentage of the complaints revolved around the company’s practice of automatically shipping those who take the “special offer” more bottles every month at $60 a pop, plus shipping and handling. It’s something that isn’t mentioned in the version of the infomercial posted on YouTube.
"Without consulting me they shipped more product and charged $69.95 to my credit card," wrote one complainant to the BBB. "Is this not fraudulent?"
"Once they got my credit card number, there was no stopping them," complained another in a review on a consumer website.
Numerous former Omega XL customers also have claimed that once they ask for their money back, the refund has been difficult to get. Over and over again in their responses to Better Business Bureau complaints, the company claims that sales representatives made mistakes, that the money is being refunded, and that the rep is being disciplined or terminated.
When Nova Southeastern University consumer law professor Michael Flynn watched the Omega XL infomercial on YouTube, he said the marketing tactics were questionable at best.
"No disclosure of an auto ship," he said. "You can't do that. … They don’t tell you the terms and conditions of the special offer. What they have to lose is the $60 a month that's billed to them for the shipment of the product on a continuing, auto-ship basis. … That is deceptive. That's an attempt to hide what the true nature is of what you're purchasing."
The product is also sold on an Omega XL Web page featuring King.
"Nowhere on their home page does it reflect that they're entering into a continuing obligation," Flynn said.
The notification of auto-shipping only comes on the billing page and it's explained as an asterisk under a pre-checked box supposedly referring to accepting a free online magazine subscription.
"They didn't even get to make the choice. It's already clicked," Flynn said.
When Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman caught up with Meares outside the Great HealthWorks warehouses, the owner answered no questions before driving away in his Mercedes-Benz. Meares, however, speaks loudly in local politics, with interests tied to Great Healthworks contributing some $57,000 to state politics since 2009, most of it to GOP interests, and he’s become one of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s top political donors, with Meares and interests tied to his company shelling out at least $20,000 to Israel's campaign and PAC, Citizens for Integrity in Law Enforcement.
Meares has also contributed more than $5,000 to the sheriff's "legal defense fund” and $300 to his children as a graduation gift, according to Israel’s financial disclosures submitted to the Florida Ethics Commission. Israel did not respond to questions sent to both BSO and his campaign regarding Meares’ support.
Meares raised eyebrows locally when he hired David Boden as executive vice president of Great HealthWorks after Boden’s previous employer, Scott Rothstein, was busted in a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Even while Boden worked at Great HealthWorks he was under federal investigation for his role in the fraud.
Boden is now serving an 18-month sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. In a deposition, Rothstein said Boden knew confidential settlement agreements involved in the Ponzi scheme were fake and that Boden was “lying to people and defrauding them” at the time.
While Meares refused comment, his company sent out a statement through a public relations firm saying the company ships out more than 2 million bottles of Omega XL a year, but receives an average of fewer than five complaints per month and that in each case they resolved the issues and therefore retain an A-plus rating with the Better Business Bureau.
"Our company offers auto shipments as a convenience for customers who look forward to receiving their product on a monthly basis," the statement said. "Auto shipping is an option that is becoming a more common option among other well-known and respected retailers in the market. Within the first 90 days of the initial purchase of our product, we will gladly refund money to anyone who did not fully understand the terms of the program or who are not 100 percent satisfied for any other reason. This money-back offer is clearly stated to consumers before the sale is finalized. Once the initial purchase has been made, our exceptional customer service department follows up via telephone with each buyer at least two times to ensure they are happy with their purchase and to make sure their buying experience is nothing short of exceptional."
Whether or not King has any stake in Great HealthWorks -- other than serving as a spokesman -- isn’t known. The former CNN host claims in the infomercials that he takes the product himself, even swallowing two of the pills on camera.
A request for comment made to the office of King’s agent, Michael Kagan of ICM, was not returned.