Diet website in U.K. worries Health Canada
With similar name, site sells herbal goods; billing practice angers customers
The site, weeklyhealthcanada.com sells products such as Cho Yung tea, a colon cleanser and acia supplements through practices many consumers consider deceptive.
When Janis Daly of Toronto first saw the website in January, she thought it was a credible source for nutrition information.
"I thought it was a Canadian website," she said in an interview with CBC News, adding, "It sounded like it was a legit thing."
"They're doing a lot of sneaky stuff, and the implication with the Canadian flag is that it's a company that people would know about in Canada," she said.
The company's material, currently visible only at one sub-page on the site, looks like a legitimate health news site, even featuring logos from credible news organizations such as CNN and the Globe and Mail as part of its pitch.
It features a headline story about "Canada's newest super diet," which recommends the use of Cho Yung tea and a colon cleanser.
While the site claims the story has been featured in the Globe and on CNN, a check of the news archives at both organizations indicates neither has reported on the products or the diet.
The site was convincing enough that after looking at it Daly submitted her credit card number and agreed to try a 14-day free trial of the products listed in the story.
Based on what she read on the website, she expected to spend about $40.
Only one of the products arrived, however, by the time the trial period ended in early February. Other products she ordered didn't arrive at all.
Then she discovered her credit card had been billed for $261, far in excess of what she had agreed to pay.
Small print at the bottom of the site states: "Some of the products described on this site have terms regarding continued billing after the trial period ends. This is referred to as negative option, or continuity billing."
After repeated calls and emails, the business agreed to refund a portion of her money, but stated, "Unfortunately, we cannot issue a portion of your refund by credit card due to our technical problems."
Instead she was asked to submit her personal banking information, which she declined to do.
Daly has filed complaints with Canada's Competition Bureau and a similar agency in the United Kingdom.
However, CBC news was able to track a domain attached to the company's help desk to a U.K. company called Cho Yung (U.K.) Ltd, in a business centre in East Sussex.
The company has not yet replied to an email and questions from CBC News.
Health Canada investigates
The site has caught the attention of Health Canada, which is concerned about people confusing the site's name with Canada's national public health agency.
"Health Canada is looking into the improper use of its name on this website," an agency spokeswoman told CBC news.
It's also looking into the health claims made on the site.
"The primary objective of the response strategy is to manage the risk to Canadians and use the most appropriate level of intervention," Health Canada stated in a written response to questions about the site.
Reservations about ingredient
One of Canada's leading experts on supplements and herbal products says consumers need to be cautious.
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, has looked into the ingredients of Cho Yung tea and has reservations about its use
He says one of the ingredients, hawthorn extract, is a cardiac stimulant.
"It speeds up your heart, so if somebody has underlying heart problems, it can trigger some episodes," Schwarcz said in an interview with CBC news.
Hawthorn is also listed in a manual on herbal-drug interactions used by Alberta physicians as a supplement that can increase the effect of cardiac medication and blood pressure drugs.
Another ingredient in the tea is cassia seed, which is a herbal laxative.
Schwarcz also cautions some herbal weight loss supplements from China contain fenfluramine, an appetite suppressant pulled from the market 13 years ago because it caused heart damage in people taking it.
"They put it in there because it actually does have an appetite suppression effect, so it will keep the customer coming back but at great risk." He said.
Schwarcz says he doesn't know if fenfluramine is used in Cho Yung tea, but he advises consumers should be cautious about any weight loss supplement, especially those coming from China that are sold on the internet.
He says any positive health claims associated with Cho Yung tea are unsubstantiated.
"There's no evidence, they don't have any studies, there's no references," he said. "It's all hearsay, and at best some anecdotal evidence, and they make absolute nonsense sounding claims."
Most complaints surround billing
Consumers who have had a run-in with a company selling Cho Yung tea have taken to venting their anger on the internet.
One poster told the RipOffReport, an international website which posts customer complaints, "Now firstly you need to know this is NOT a free trial as I later found out way too late, just over a month after I had my tea. The people at cho yung tea then took my bank details and used them to do their flamin' shopping in Israel via my debit card money."
Dozens of people have also posted to complaintsboard.com, a consumer site aimed at exposing unethical companies and business practices.
"I've recently been scammed by the CHO YUNG weight loss tea bags. It seems my story is similar to many others, you pay for the postage only, then they take out money that isn't theirs. You cannot ring them or email them to cancel the SO CALLED FREE TRIAL, because it is a FAKE EMAIL and FAKE PHONE NUMBER. I have to borrow money from family members to pay back the reccuring charges," wrote one person.
Daly says she hopes her story will stand as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about ordering supplements on the internet, even when the site looks legitimate.
"It's not as if I wasn't willing to spend money, but I don't like being abused, and I don't like being charged for products I've never received," she said.