Maybe you're one of the internet-savvy folks who have seen one of those ubiquitous "tiny belly" ads but never bothered to click one. You sensed that the "weird tip" was probably bullshit. If so, you were right… and lucky: the Federal Trade Commission claims the ads are part of a three-step scheme. And unfortunately, the scam was very successful.

The Washington Post reports:

The "1 Tip" ads are the work of armies of "affiliates," independent promoters who place them on behalf of small diet-product sellers with names such as HCG Ultra Lean Plus. The promoters profit each time someone clicks through to the product seller's site and orders a free sample. The sample, however, isn't always so free.

Basically, people who click through often ended up buying products — acai berry supplements, "colon cleansers" or "African mango diets" — the result of false advertising and marketing based on misrepresentation. Sometimes, people unknowingly hand over their credit card information and agree to pay an additional $79.99 for another shipment of the product two weeks later, and another $79.99 six weeks after that. The charges and the product keep coming; the toll-free number to cancel leads nowhere.

People get tricked into believing the ads are legit since they use media logos and an official-looking lady reporter:

All [the ads] use what the FTC contends are fake articles. Several used the photo of the reporter supposedly investigating the diet. The woman identified as "reporter Julia Miller" on some of the sites is actually a French newscaster, Melissa Theuriau, who has said she was unaware that her image was being used this way. The endorsements from the real news organizations, such as CNN or ABC, are a sham, too, the government says.

A sham that paid off: One of the companies being sued by the government spent more than $1.3 million on "flat belly" ads last year. The ads generated more than a billion impressions and more than a million people clicked on the ad. Even though you might be able to spot an internet scam a mile away, many people cannot. Steve Wernikoff, a government lawyer, says: "Consumers start off believing they're getting objective news reports about these products when, in fact, it's all fake. People really were confused."

To make matters worse, the ads have showed up on major media websites… including the one for the Washington Post!

A spokeswoman for The Post, which has run the ad on its Web site after it was distributed by the ad network, said the newspaper is "reviewing the situation."

Ubiquitous ‘Tiny Belly' Online Ad Part Of Scheme, Government Says [WaPo]