Company behind Hayley Holt face cream scam exposed

It boasts offices in several countries, with a headquarters in Malta. Its call centre staff are polite and well-spoken, claiming the company's operations are totally legitimate. But it's leaving a trail of furious customers, and has celebrities the world over crying foul play.

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We take a look at a con involving TVNZ 1 Breakfast presenter Hayley Holt. Source: Fair Go

Welcome to the world of Idratherapy and Essence of Argan. Warnings about signing up to free trials of these beauty products have been circling for years.

Yet when Hayley Holt became one of the latest celebrities whose image was falsely used to advertise the beauty products, dozens – maybe hundreds, or even thousands – of Kiwis fell for the line about a free trial.

They handed over their account details believing that they were just paying for postage and packing, only to find themselves forking out hundreds of dollars for products they didn't want.

In Masterton, Mary Freeman saw the advert on her Facebook page.

It claimed Hayley Holt was leaving Breakfast to give more time to her face cream products, and was offering viewers free samples. Not one to spend big on cosmetics, she thought she'd give the free samples a go. She didn't think it was a scam for a single minute.

Her samples came, and so did a big shock. When she looked at her visa bill at the end of the month, about $350 had been deducted by Essence of Argan.

Mary rang the company and complained. They explained that when she received a confirmation email with her free samples, she was automatically accepting their terms and conditions, which outlined that she'd receive further samples every month at a cost of about $350 if she didn't send back the original samples within 15 days.

Mary was outraged, and asked them to cancel her order. They complied, yet a week later, she received more samples and her bill escalated to over $700. She rang again, and they said no more payments would be taken.

As Mary says: "that's nice of them, after taking $700!"

It wasn't long before Mary found out her friend Caroline had fallen for the scam too, and two more friends of theirs had as well.

So we asked the New Zealand online safety organisation Netsafe why so many people are being duped.

CEO Martin Cocker said, "it's because celebrities are used for real product endorsements. It's hard to tell which are real and which are fake."

He has some good advice for anyone about to respond to online advertisements. For a start, be wary if the terms and conditions are long and complex particularly for a simple product like a face cream. Another good check is to "type in the name of the product (on your computer) and write 'scam' on the end and see what the internet returns".

If you do this with Idratherapy or Essence of Argan, there are numerous warnings about the company and their ways of working. Seeing so many complaints, we rang the company and asked for their response.

They said "they're welcome to their opinion but we have plenty of people happy with our products".

We presume they were referring to the testimonials on their own website. So, Fair Go checked them out.

There are six, very glowing reports, from glamorous women, all giving the products five stars. But we can confirm that every one is a fake.

We used the Google photo detection programme and found that the photos had been ripped from other sites.

One was from a Panasonic advert, another used an image of a well-known Israeli model – which the website has listed with a different name – and yet another was taken from what looked like a Russian porn site.

The false use of people's identities doesn't stop there. The company's use of celebrities to lure people in is also fraudulent – like the profile photo snatched of Hayley Holt.

When Hayley first became aware of the adverts, she thought they were hilarious. She assumed the TVNZ legal team would be able to take the advert down, but as she said, it's like "whack-a-mole .. you take one down and another pops up at a different web address".

Soon, viewers' messages began to pour in, and Hayley realised that the scam was "robbing actual people out there of their hard-earned cash".

We took this issue of wrongly using celebrities' profiles back to the company, who surprised us with their response. They said "we have that under investigation right now ma'am, we have resellers and we gave them the freedom to advertise as long as it's not false advertisement".

But this has been going on for years now, with different celebrities in different countries, and Fair Go believes if the investigation was genuine they would have been able to clamp down on it by now.

As far as taking the companies on, Martin Cocker feels there are few options. He says their actions are illegal: "they're cyber criminals deliberately using identities and breaching the law, but they're not locally based so we can't use New Zealand law to enforce action."

There may be one way to get a refund though, and that's to contact your bank and ask for a charge-back from your credit card. This should be possible, given the confirmation email with the terms and conditions is only received after payment details are given.

In the meantime, Hayley Holt is doing her own damage control. On Breakfast and Fair Go she has sent out this message: "I am not leaving Breakfast and I absolutely do not have a skin care cream". She hopes this will help prevent others from falling for the scam.