Sales Sharks: En Español

Hispanics are twice as likely to be victims of consumer fraud as non-Hispanic whites, the Federal Trade Commission's top fraud expert warned Tuesday.

"Advertisers in Spanish have tended to assume that no one was watching and no one was doing anything," said Howard Beales, the director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "We are trying to change that assumption."

Recent frauds, he said, include miraculous weight-loss products, too-good-to-be-true business opportunities, dietary supplements that cure AIDS and other incredible deals offered by Spanish-language magazines, TV channels and newspapers.

A 2003 poll of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers by the FTC's Spanish Language Media Monitoring Project determined that Spanish speakers were more likely than other groups to be duped.

Manuel Machado, president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, based in Coral Gables, Fla., said his association is aware of the problem and that it makes sure that its members refrain from using deceptive practices.

To publicize its concerns, the FTC is launching a multimedia Hispanic Law Enforcement and Outreach Initiative offering warnings in Spanish against consumer fraud and advice to state and local police and prosecutors on how to pursue cases.

The FTC already has a large Spanish section on its web site, with translations of publications on nearly 70 consumer subjects, including job scams, telemarketers, loans, debt collection, and identity theft.

Beales said the FTC had levied seven complaints in recent months against deceptive Spanish-language ads for products such as weight-loss pills and nonexistent work-at-home opportunities.

One such federal court complaint was filed against American Dream Enterprises. The Miami company offers a weight-loss dietary supplement called "Fat Seltzer," which, when added to water, produces bubbles. The effervescent action, combined with Fat Seltzer's ingredients, is supposed to lead to permanent weight loss without consumers having to exercise. The FTC complaint, which is pending, says American Dream's claim is "scientifically unfeasible."

Another company, Latin Hut of San Diego, Calif., advertised a weight-loss patch and a "fat absorber" dietary supplement, falsely claiming equally magical results, according to the FTC. As part of a settlement, a federal court ordered Latin Hut to pay $149,425 in fines. The money will go to Latin Hut customers.

California-based Unicyber Technology Inc. advertised a complete computer system for three payments of $199. Instead of delivering the computer at the time of the first payment, Unicyber sent keyboards and parts that are useless without the computer itself, says the FTC. To get the complete computer, buyers had to send in more money, and those who did so, says the FTC, ended up with computers that didn't work.

Donna and Perfecto Rodriguez, of Richmond, Va., said they ended up paying Unicyber more than $700 for what turned out to be a 13-inch monitor.

The computer they finally received several months later lacked its motherboard.

"We were frustrated because the computer was supposed to be a present for the children," said Donna Rodriguez, a stay-at-home mother of six.

Last week, a California federal court froze Unicyber's business assets and ordered the company to stop making misleading statements to consumers. The case is ongoing.