Better Health Nutritionals promised customers that its miracle supplements could quickly reduce joint pain, rebuild damaged cartilage and rejuvenate the mind.

But the products were marketed and sold through false promises, deceptive advertisements and phony experts, according to a consumer fraud lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court by the Maine Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission.

According to the AG’s office, six of the nine defendants named in the lawsuit have agreed to settle the case for a combined $500,000 – a fraction of the $6.5 million they reportedly made from the alleged scam.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said in a news release that the scheme misled consumers into thinking they were getting medically proven products to improve their memory and joint health. There’s no indication in the filing of how many consumers were allegedly defrauded.

“The defendants’ products appealed to vulnerable populations who had memory issues and pain and who were taken advantage of by fine print that was not fully disclosed,” Mills said. “Consumers also were misled about the true costs of the products and how they could get their money back. These products offered false promises based on false advertising. These companies fleeced Americans of millions of dollars.”

According to the release, six of the defendants – including a corporation that used a South Portland address – agreed to settlements that will result in over $500,000 in monetary judgments and injunctions that include “a 20-year ban on marketing or selling dietary supplements directly to consumers” for some of the defendants. The judgment was based on the settling defendants’ ability to pay, the release said.

COMPANY USED S. PORTLAND ADDRESS

According to the lawsuit, Better Health was the marketing name for a company called XXL Impressions LLC, owned by co-defendant Jeffrey Powlowsky, that was incorporated in Wyoming but used an address in South Portland as its primary business address. Other defendants named in the complaint include North Dakota-based J2 Response LLC and its owners Justin Bumann and Justin Steinle, Massachusetts-based Synergixx LLC and its owner Charlie Fusco, Illinois-based naturopathic physician Ronald Jahner, and Arizona resident Brazos Minshew, who appeared in Better Health advertisements as “brain scientist” Samuel Brant.

Starting in late 2010, the defendants “employed unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in the advertising, marketing, distribution and sale of two products called FlexiPrin and CogniPrin, the complaint says. The products were sold primarily through radio and print advertising in the U.S. and Canada, resulting in sales of more than $6.5 million, it says.

The complaint said FlexiPrin was advertised as a product to relieve joint pain and rebuild cartilage, and CogniPrin was supposed to “prevent, treat or mitigate cognitive decline.” Both products were sold for prices ranging from $32 to $65 for a bottle containing 60 tablets.

FlexiPrin was marketed in part through a 30-minute radio advertisement disguised as a “cutting-edge health and wellness news” program, according to the complaint. The interviewer and the “pain expert” featured in the program actually were defendants Fusco and Jahner, and the toll-free number given out during the program was to a call center owned by Fusco.

Jahner and Fusco never mentioned during the program that it was an advertisement, or that they were being paid a percentage of FlexiPrin sales revenue, the complaint says.

FALSE CLAIMS OF CLINICAL STUDIES

Print ads for FlexiPrin contained references to “multiple clinical studies” that found FlexiPrin “can improve joint comfort and flexibility in as little as two hours,” the complaint says. However, there were no such clinical studies. The defendants also trained their call center employees to repeat the claims about clinical studies, the complaint says.

CogniPrin was marketed through the same means, except with defendant Minshew playing the role of Samuel Brant, a “brain scientist” and “past director of the Neurological Treatment Center for Tiena Health,” it says.

The complaint alleges that XXL Impressions listed its headquarters as the South Portland address of its shipping vendor, Ship-Right Solutions, but Ship-Right’s owners said XXL Impressions was never actually located there.

Ship-Right’s address also was used as the mailing address for Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, another supplements maker that was sued by the Maine AG’s office in 2016 for $16 million. Ship-Right was not a named defendant in either lawsuit.

Ship-Right co-owners Drew Graham and Todd Flaherty said it is common for companies that ship products to place the address of their order-fulfillment provider on product labels, and that Ship-Right merely handled product shipments for XXL Impressions and Direct Alternatives.

LOCAL SHIPPER HALTED BUSINESS

Graham, Ship-Right’s president, said the company serves about 80 clients across a wide variety of product sectors, including Goodwill Industries and sauce-maker Schlotterbeck & Foss. Ship-Right stopped doing business with XXL Impressions in 2015, he said.

“We don’t own the products; we don’t advertise the products,” Graham said. “We never give anybody permission to use our address as their business address.”

The complaint against XXL Impressions mentions another Maine company, customer service provider Argo Marketing Group, but it is not listed as a defendant.

Argo Marketing CEO Jason Levesque said his company did have a contract with XXL from 2014 to 2015, but he said Argo did not do any sales or marketing work.

“We provided customer service support for people who already had ordered the product through other avenues, and we terminated the relationship in 2015,” Levesque said. “We took the step to terminate the relationship.”

Levesque declined to explain why Argo Marketing terminated the contract and said he was contractually prohibited from talking about the number of product complaints it received about FlexiPrin and CogniPrin. He said Argo Marketing cooperated fully with the AG’s office and FTC during their investigation.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 24 to clarify the relationship between Argo Marketing and XXL Impressions.