Edmonton man subject of W5 investigation
Jesse Willms, the Canadian owner of Just Think Media, is a multi-millionaire connected to more than 40 product and company names.
Published Friday, June 11, 2010 6:11AM MDT
The best things in life might be free, but beware of the fine print. It's a lesson Sylvia Catera learned the hard way. She was browsing the Internet from her home in Whitestone, N.Y., when she came across an advertisement for a teeth-whitening pen offered by a company called Dazzle Smile Pro.
The ad claimed there was no obligation to buy the product, as long as the consumer paid $1.95 shipping and handling. Seeing no risk in signing up for the offer, Catera entered her credit card information to cover the mailing cost.
It was only later that Catera realized that she had actually signed up to receive monthly supplies of Dazzle Smile Pro. Instead of a free trial offer she was facing nearly $100 in fees for each shipment.
"These are deceptive practices" Catera said. And she's not alone. She is one of thousands of people who have complained about deceptive on-line free trial offers.
Candice Rozak is yet another who felt deceived. She ordered a free trial of a diet pill called Acai Burn after viewing an advertisement for it online. Almost a month later the Edmonton-native received the pills but, like Catera, her credit card was successively billed -- amounting to nearly $700 over the course of several months.
Besides Catera and Rozak's similar experience with on-line freebies and subsequent continued billings, the two had one other thing in common -- they were both duped by the same parent company, Just Think Media, and the company's Canadian owner, Jesse Willms.
Willms is not your typical online entrepreneur. At just 22 years old, the high school dropout is a multi-millionaire, connected to more than 40 product and company names. More than half a dozen law suits have been launched against Willms and his companies -- including separate lawsuits by software giants Microsoft, Symantec and high profile television celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Mehmet Oz.
The lawsuits against Willms and his companies have ranged from copyright infringement to software counterfeiting, to false product endorsement. Some of the complaints are still before the courts, while others have reached settlements. Willms paid Symantec $225,000 and he reportedly settled with Microsoft for $1 million.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon and host of the popular medical talk show "The Dr. Oz Show." Oz, along with Oprah Winfrey, sued Willms' company, JDW Media, and 40 other companies for unlawful use of their names and images to market products.
"People walk up to me in the street and say 'Shame on you, you sold out. You know, I trusted you how could you do this to me?'" said Dr. Oz. "And then there was a whole financial side, by getting them to sign up for products that would often cost them $90 a month, $100 a month and they could not get out of it."
Candice Rozak admits that she decided to try the Acai Burn pills because the product's web page claimed it was backed by Dr. Oz. "It said you know recommended by Dr. Oz and it had a picture so I thought you know what they can't really use the name unless he endorses it," Rozak said.
JDW Media has now settled that case, agreeing not to use the names or images of Dr. Oz or Oprah Winfrey to sell products. In a court order, filed in New York on May 3, 2010, JDW Media is "permanently enjoined from using the names, pictures, voices, identities, likeness and / or images of Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Mehmet Oz…" The court order also requires JDW Media to spend 14 hours a week searching the Internet to make sure no "affiliates", companies or people contracted by JDW Media to promote it's products, are using the names or images of Dr. Oz or Oprah Winfrey in violation of the court order.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), in North Bay, Ont. -- more commonly known as Phone Busters -- is the central agency in Canada that collects information and criminal intelligence on mass-marketing fraud, identity theft complaints and Internet fraud.
As Canada's anti-fraud call centre, it receives hundreds of calls a day from consumers who complain that they have been ripped off. CAFC spokesperson, RCMP Cpl. Louis Robertson, admits that Canada has a huge problem with on-line marketers who mislead consumers.
"We have a major international problem" said Cpl. Robertson. And he also noted that the problem is bigger than his team can handle."We're not equipped, we need manpower, we need equipment, we need people that know how the Internet works."
Law enforcement agencies worry that without proper resources to fight deceptive on-line marketers, companies like those owned by Jesse Willms will likely continue to flourish, and unsuspecting online shoppers may keep clicking, missing the fine print and finding themselves billed for something they thought was free.
Sylvia Catera can only hope that police are successful. "I hope this person, and I use the term loosely, is brought to justice and he's put out of business for good," she said