Back in 2013, I wrote about “junk followers” on WordPress, fake or empty or commercial accounts who use bots to follow every blog they possible can in hopes of more exposure for themselves.
Just in case you were wondering, this is a scummy thing to do, right up there with spam-bombing other people’s blogs with backlinks to your own scummy commercial blog.
I have over 1700 followers, and I’ll bet that I don’t have more than a couple of dozen who are really interested in my content. The rest are simply using tricks to improve their own rankings and drive web traffic to their sites. I don’t really care about numbers, since I have no intention of monetizing this blog, but a lot of my focus is trying to reduce spam, scams, and fraud, and warn people about how to avoid being taken advantage of. And this kind of thing is just like a burr under my saddle.
If you’re a blogger, don’t do this. Don’t use bots to “like” or “follow” everything in site in order to boost your own presence. It stinks, and it makes you look cheap and disreputable.
When I was 10 years old, my mom brought home a box of Life™, a new brand of cereal produced by Quaker Oats. I fell in love with it at once; it was sweet but not too sweet, crunchy but not too crunchy, with a little hint of softness to it, and it had a unique flavor that I found completely appealing.
Life is still out there, even though it has been reformulated a few times. But the worst change came in 1997 when Quaker introduced a “new, improved” Life, and then the world collapsed around their ears. I, like many other aficionados, wrote to Quaker screaming, “You’ve ruined my life!” It was completely different, nothing like the original, and it failed so spectacularly that the company went back to the original formulation and sent out an apology letter to those who had complained. Since then, except for the introduction or trial of a few additional flavors, their product has remained pretty much the same. But I wish I could have the original formula back.
Now we come to Tums™. I’ve suffered heartburn for a long, long time and always had to have a supply of something or other around to put out the fire (this was in the days before the beta-blockers and PPI’s.) Originally I used Rolaids (which absorbs 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid!) but always found it a bit too chalky for my taste, ultimately switching to Tums as an alternative.
I carry around this little jawn on my keyring that would hold 5 or 6 Tums of the 750mg variety, and was partial to the assorted berries flavor. I would buy them at WalMart, but for the last year or so they stopped selling these in favor of the 1000mg strength, which didn’t fit my keyring doodad.
So I was delighted to find a bunch of the 750 strength at RiteAid’s website, and bought 10 bottles, thinking that this would last me probably for the rest of my life. To my horror, they are nothing like the Tums I used to know. Chalky, bland, and with a flavor that made me think they had scooped up a bunch of the blue stuff you find in airplane toilets and turned it into tablets. The aftertaste was even worse.
Here’s a rundown of what changed:
So essentially they added crospovidone, dextrose, magnesium stearate and maltodextrin, and dropped the mineral oil and sodium polyphosphate. No way to tell what changed in the “flavors” category, because they never tell you such things. But in all honesty, the result is the abomination of desolation, and now I’m stuck with 10 bottles of a product that makes me want to gag. I’d rather go back to Rolaids than keep using these.
I called Glaxo Smith Kline at their customer service number, and politely expressed my unhappiness; I’m aware the agent has virtually nothing to do with such things, but I was gratified that the agent had the honesty to tell me I’m not the only one who has called in to express dissatisfaction with the new formula. So it’s not just me.
I am an inveterate honey lover. I’ve written about comb honey and chestnut honey, but one of my favorites is forest honey.
Unlike regular honeys which are manufactured by bees with collected nectar from flowers, forest honey is made from honeydew, excreted by sap-sucking insects. In short, aphid poop.
While it might be off-putting to think of eating the excrement of bugs, otherwise known as frass, honeydew is in a separate category. And are honey-lovers any more disgusted by the thought of eating bee vomit?
Wikipedia describes Forest Honey thus:
Instead of taking nectar, bees can take honeydew, the sweet secretions of aphids or other plant-sap-sucking insects. Honeydew honey is very dark brown, with a rich fragrance of stewed fruit or fig jam, and is not as sweet as nectar honeys. Germany’s Black Forest is a well-known source of honeydew-based honeys, as are some regions in Bulgaria, Tara in Serbia, and Northern California in the United States. In Greece pine honey, a type of honeydew honey, constitutes 60–65% of honey production. Honeydew honey is popular in some areas, but in other areas, beekeepers have difficulty selling honeydew honey, due to its stronger flavor.
I shouldn’t have to keeps saying this, but far too many people just don’t practice “safe computing’ and as a result end up getting their computers infected by malware, losing their data, having their information stolen by criminals, being robbed, or all of the above.
Red flag #1: This message is not from Venmo. The email address of the sender is “email@example.com” which is not a venmo address; the domain leads to an essentially empty storefront of a generic “church.” Either the domain was created for the purpose of scamming people, or an otherwise unrelated domain was hijacked to have malicious content injected into its directory structure, or the email address was simply spoofed. In any case, it’s a clear indication that this email is not from Venmo.
Red Flag #2: “Congratulation.” Uh, no. That’s not what a message written by English-speakers would say. We’re dealing with Nigerian scammers here, or something similar.
Red flag #3: The link on the “accept money” button looks like this:
If you hover your mouse over any button or link in an email, the actual address where you will be taken will be shown at the bottom of your browser (at least that’s where it is in Chrome.) However, most of these deceptive links will re-direct one or more times, so you really never know where you’ll end up. But if the original link is not a “venmo.com” address, then you know you’re being taken for a ride.
Red Flag #4: “Click her” I suspect she, whoever she might be, will not appreciate being clicked. Real emails from real corporations do not generally contain obvious typographical errors like this.
So, as is my wont, I clicked on the “Accept Money” link just to go down the rabbit hole and see where I ended up. Malwarebytes told me the page was malicious, but I’m pretty well protected so I advanced anyway.
Instead of getting any money through Venmo (which I didn’t expect), I ended up on a “survey” page.
Again, not from Venmo, but camouflaged to look as though it is. All of the “verified” comments are without doubt spurious. The questions below are carefully crafted to keep the illusion going that the survey is from Venmo. It ain’t.
So once you give your answers, you end up at a “reward” page with 26 different offers you can claim. But beware – every single one of these is as phony as Donald Trump’s tan, and if you claim any of them you will end up paying a lot of money for next to no value.
Limited Supply! Act fast, offer expiring! [These are the “scarcity” and “urgency” sales ploys.]
This is the first reward on the list. Check the “Terms and Conditions:”
By placing an order, you agree our special deal club and we will bill you $0.00 S&H + $6.98 = Total: $6.98 (one-time purchase, no auto-ship) plus tax where applicable for your initial order, and every thirty days thereafter we will send you a new product from our special deal club, and automatically bill you the low price of $0.00 S&H + $6.98 = Total: $6.98 (one-time purchase, no auto-ship) plus tax where applicable.
So you’re getting a really cheap fitness tracker for 7 bucks, and committing yourself to getting another piece of slum [that’s what the carnival hucksters call the cheapest prizes they hand out] for another 7 bucks every 30 days, until you catch on and cancel. Which will be hard to do, I can guarantee it. And, you’ve given your contact information and your credit card number to extremely disreputable people. I cannot count the number of ways that this is a bad idea.
A couple of rows down is an offer for an iPad Pro. But again, after you give them your information so that they can spam you forever, you read the “Terms and Conditions:”
Claim your chance now! Sign up for a 30-day trial to Best Tech Giveaways and get the chance to win a new iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard! This contest is not made by or in cooperation with Apple. The winner will be contacted directly by email. All new customers participate in the prize draw for the shown campaign product. If you are the lucky winner, you will be contacted directly by email. This special offer comes with a 30-day trial to an affiliated subscription service, after which the subscription fee (37.97 USD every 30 days) will be automatically deducted from your credit card. If, for any reason, you are not satisfied with the service, you may cancel your account within 30 days. The service will be renewed every 30 days until canceled. This campaign will expire on December 31, 2021. If you wish to participate without signing up for a 30-day trial to besttechgiveaways, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What you’ve “won” is a chance. Your odds of winning that iPad are about the same as hitting the Powerball. Don’t hold your breath.
You might end up at another similar website whose small-print terms are like this:
As a user of Blue Ice Group, you agree to a deeply discounted LIMITED user fee of nine dollars and ninety-five cents ($9.95), the LIMITED user price. If you’re happy in approximately 7 days you will receive an email offer to purchase 30 days for our low one-time price of eighty-six dollars and sixty-one cents ($86.61), the 30 day FULL PLAN. We will continue to send you offer to purchase upon expiration of your user terms via text or email (data rates may apply) approximately every 28 days simply reply N to postpone, please allow up to 10 days to process your payment. You can continue to view our Premium Content including exclusive games, beta games, motivational content, exercise videos, diet, nutrition and other VIP Benefits unless you choose to cancel. You may cancel your purchase anytime by contacting our customer support center by email, or toll-free telephone (877) 327-2393. THE WEBSITE IS ALLOWED TO COLLECT AND STORE DATA AND INFORMATION FOR THE PURPOSE OF THE USUAL OPERATIONS AND FUNCTIONS OF THE WEBSITE.
So you’re authorizing a ten-dollar charge for the privilege of being sent offers, and will likely be charged $81.61 every month until you raise the alarm.
No money from Venmo, just a lot of scammy, spammy malvertising and potentially dangerous websites.
I have written often and at length about fraudulent enterprises and scams, and I am sharing this one here because it deserves to be seen far and wide.
Full disclosure: I was part of a network marketing / MLM / Relationship Marketing firm for about 10 years. I cannot believe how hard I drank the Kool-Aid™. I am ashamed. But it just goes to show how seductive these things can be.
‘Magic dirt’: How the internet fueled, and defeated, the pandemic’s weirdest company
(From NBC News)
Thu, December 2, 2021, 7:49 AM•21 min readThe social media posts started in May: photos and videos of smiling people, mostly women, drinking Mason jars of black liquid, slathering black paste on their faces and feet, or dipping babies and dogs in tubs of the black water. They tagged the posts #BOO and linked to a website that sold a product called Black Oxygen Organics.
Black Oxygen Organics, or “BOO” for short, is difficult to classify. It was marketed as fulvic acid, a compound derived from decayed plants, that was dug up from an Ontario peat bog. The website of the Canadian company that sold it billed it as “the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter.”
Put more simply, the product is dirt — four-and-a-half ounces of it, sealed in a sleek black plastic baggie and sold for $110 plus shipping. Visitors to the Black Oxygen Organics website, recently taken offline, were greeted with a pair of white hands cradling cups of dirt like an offering. “A gift from the Ground,” it reads. “Drink it. Wear it. Bathe in it.”
BOO, which “can be taken by anyone at any age, as well as animals,” according to the company, claims many benefits and uses, including improved brain function and heart health, and ridding the body of so-called toxins that include heavy metals, pesticides and parasites.
By the end of the summer, online ads for BOO had made their way to millions of people within the internet subcultures that embrace fringe supplements, including the mixed martial arts community, anti-vaccine and Covid-denier groups, and finally more general alternative health and fake cure spaces.
And people seemed to be buying; parts of TikTok and Instagram were flooded with #BOO posts. The businessman behind Black Oxygen Organics has been selling mud in various forms for 25 years now, but BOO sold in amounts that surprised even its own executives, according to videos of company meetings viewed by NBC News.
The stars appeared aligned for it. A pandemic marked by unprecedented and politicized misinformation has spurred a revival in wonder cures. Well-connected Facebook groups of alternative health seekers and vaccine skeptics provided an audience and eager customer base for a new kind of medicine show. And the too-good-to-be-true testimonials posted to social media attracted a wave of direct sellers, many of them women dipping their toes into the often unprofitable world of multilevel marketing for the first time.
But success came at a price. Canadian and U.S. health regulators have cracked down on BOO in recent months, initiating recalls and product holds at the border, respectively. And just as an online army of fans powered BOO’s success, an oppositional force of online skeptics threatened to shut it down.
Just before Thanksgiving, the company announced in an email it was closing up shop for good. Sellers packed video calls mourning the death of their miracle cure, railing against executives who had taken their money and seemingly run, and wondering how they might recoup the thousands of dollars they paid for BOO that never arrived.
The announcement was the apparent end of one of the most haltingly successful companies to ride a wave of interest in online and directly sold alternative medicines — immunity-boosting oils, supplements, herbs, elixirs and so-called superfoods that, despite widespread concerns over their efficacy and safety, make up a lightly regulated, multibillion-dollar industry.
In a world where consumers flock to alternative health products, BOO seemed to provide an answer to the question: Just how far are people willing to dig to find their miracle cure?
What is BOO?
Monica Wong first learned about BOO in May. The 39-year-old was scrolling Facebook from her home in Brentwood, California, and saw a Facebook ad that caught her eye: A woman in a bright green shirt emblazoned with a marijuana leaf holding a sign that read, “F— Big Pharma!” alongside a kind of treatment that promised to “detox heavy metals.”
Wong had been looking for such a product, for her boyfriend and herself, and while the price was steep, a little internet research convinced her that the health effects would be worth it. Wong clicked on the ad and bought some BOO.
Wong said that for two months she dissolved a half-teaspoon of the black stuff in a glass of water and drank it every day. But unlike people in her new BOO Facebook group who posted miraculous testimonials of cured diseases, weight loss, clearer skin, whiter teeth, regrown hair, reclaimed energy, expelled worms and even changes in eye color (from brown to blue), Wong didn’t feel like any toxins were leaving her body. In fact, she started having stomach pains.
“I can’t say it was the BOO for sure,” Wong said she remembers wondering as she went to the hospital for tests, “but wasn’t it supposed to heal my gut?”
Wong quit taking BOO and told the head of her Facebook group, a higher-ranked seller who earned commission off Wong’s participation, about her new pains. When asked why she didn’t alert others, Wong said the group administrators, BOO sellers themselves, censored the comments to weed out anything negative. “They’d never let me post that,” she said.
These online groups are filled with true believers, acolytes who call it “magic dirt.” They post that they are drinking, cooking, soaking, snorting and slathering BOO on their bodies and giving it to their families, children and pets.
“Who would have thought drinking dirt would make me feel so so good?” one person in a 27,000-member private Facebook group posted, her face nuzzling a jar of black liquid.
Another user posted a photo of a baby sitting in a bathtub of water colored a deep caramel. In the caption, she shared that the baby had contracted hand, foot and mouth disease — a virus that mainly affects children and causes painful sores. “Tiny is enjoying his Boo bath!” she wrote. “We’re happy to say our bottom feels happier and we’re in a better mood!”
Many such posts are dedicated to tactics for getting kids and loved ones to take BOO.
“Boo brownies for the picky family,” one poster offered.
Testimonials like these make up the majority of posts in dozens of Facebook groups, set up and overseen by BOO sellers, with hundreds of thousands of collective members, where BOO is heralded as a miracle drug. Teams of sellers in these private Facebook groups claim that, beyond cosmetic applications, BOO can cure everything from autism to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Conveniently in these times, BOO proponents say it also protects against and treats Covid-19, and can be used to “detox” the newly vaccinated, according to posts viewed by NBC News.
None of the posters contacted by NBC News returned a request for comment. But there may be an incentive for the hyperbole.
The MLM boom
Black Oxygen Organics products can’t be bought in stores. Instead, the pills and powders are sold by individuals, who theoretically profit not only off their sales but off those of others they recruit. It’s the type of top-down and widening profit-modeled business, known as multilevel marketing or MLM, that has led critics to label BOO and products like it pyramid schemes.
Participation in MLMs boomed during the pandemic with 7.7 million Americans working for one in 2020, a 13 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Direct Selling Association, the trade and lobbying group for the MLM industry. Wellness products make up the majority of MLM products, and, as the Federal Trade Commission noted, some direct sellers took advantage of a rush toward so-called natural remedies during the pandemic to boost sales.
More than 99 percent of MLM sellers lose money, according to the Consumer Awareness Institute, an industry watchdog group. But according to social media posts, BOO’s business was booming. In selfies and videos posted to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, women lather BOO on their faces and soak their feet in sludge-filled pasta pots while, they claim, the money rolls in.
Black Oxygen Organics’ compensation plan, like most MLMs, is convoluted. According to their company handbook, sellers, called “brand partners,” can earn income in two distinct ways: through retail commissions on bags of BOO they sell, and through recruiting other sellers, from which they earn additional commission and bonuses. The more recruits a seller brings in, the more quickly the seller rises in the ranks — there are 10 titles in the company, from brand partner to director to CEO, with compensation packages growing along the way.
A common strategy for MLM participants, including BOO sellers, is to create Facebook groups to collaborate and attract new customers.
“I earned $21,000 in bonuses in my first 5 weeks!” one post read. “I am a single mom, 1 income family, this business was the best decision!!!”
Black Oxygen Organics’ vice president of business development, Ron Montaruli, described the craze in September, telling distributors on a Zoom call viewed by NBC News that the company had attracted 21,000 sellers and 38,000 new customers. Within the last six months, sales had rocketed from $200,000 a month to nearly $4 million, Montaruli said, referring to a chart that showed the same. (Attempts to reach Montaruli were unsuccessful.)
Facts around the company’s actual income are as hazy as the mud it sells, but the secret to dealing dirt seems to be Facebook, where sellers have created dozens of individual groups that have attracted a hodgepodge of hundreds of thousands of members.
The largest BOO Facebook groups, including one with over 97,000 members, are led mostly by MLM jumpers, the term for people who sell a range of MLM products. The groups have also attracted more general alternative health consumers, as well as people seemingly suffering from delusional parasitosis, a condition characterized by the misguided belief that one’s body is being overrun by parasites. Users in these groups mimic activity in anti-parasite internet groups by dosing according to phases of the moon and posting photos of dirty water from foot baths or human waste from toilets asking others to identify a mystery worm.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on the BOO groups or whether their claims violated the company’s content policies.
In the last several months, the groups have seen a rise in members from anti-vaccine and Covid-denial communities, including prominent activists who sell the product to raise funds for anti-vaccine efforts.
A profile of one top seller featured in BOO’s semiregular glossy magazine, “The Bog,” noted that Covid had drawn more people to the industry.
“It’s been kind of a blessing,” the seller said.
While it undoubtedly attracted sales and built teams, Facebook also created a unique problem for Black Oxygen Organics: Those testimonials might have violated federal law that requires efficacy claims be substantiated by “competent and reliable scientific evidence.” They also attracted attention, not only from customers, but from health professionals, regulatory agencies and a group BOO executives have dubbed “the haters.”
After a summer of unbridled success, the internet backlash began.
The rise of MLMs online prompted criticism from some people who have created informal activist groups to bring awareness to what they say are the predatory practices of MLM companies and organized campaigns to disrupt specific businesses. Many of the groups use the same social media techniques to organize their responses.
Online activists who oppose MLMs formed Facebook groups targeting BOO for its claims. Members of these groups infiltrated the BOO community, signing up as sellers, joining pro-BOO groups, and attending BOO sales meetings, then reporting back what they had seen to the group. They posted videos of the company meetings and screenshots from the private BOO sales groups and urged members to file official complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.
YouTube creators made videos debunking BOO peddlers’ most outrageous claims, ridiculing BOO executives and making public recordings of the private company meetings.
Ceara Manchester, a stay-at-home mother in Pompano Beach, Florida, helps run one of the largest anti-BOO Facebook groups, “Boo is Woo.” Manchester, 34, has spent the last four years monitoring predatory MLMs — or “cults,” in her view — and posting to multiple social media accounts and groups dedicated to “exposing” Black Oxygen Organics.
“The health claims, I had never seen them that bad,” Manchester said. “Just the sheer amount. Every single post was like, ‘cancer, Covid, diabetes, autism.’”
“I don’t feel like people are stupid,” Manchester said of the people who purchased and even sold BOO. “I think that they’re desperate or vulnerable, or they’ve been preyed upon, and you get somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this product that cures everything.’ You know when you’re desperate like that you might listen.”
Black Oxygen Organics is the brainchild of Marc Saint-Onge, a 59-year-old entrepreneur from Casselman, Ontario. Saint-Onge, BOO’s founder and CEO, did not respond to calls, texts, emails or direct messages.
But decades of interviews in local press and more recently on social media offer some details about Saint-Onge, or, as he likes to be called, “the mudman.”
Saint-Onge describes himself as an orthotherapist, naturopath, kinesitherapist, reiki master, holistic practitioner, herbalist and aromatherapist. As he said in a video posted to YouTube that has since been made private, his love of mud began as a child, chasing bullfrogs around Ontario bogs. Years later, he went on to practice orthotherapy, a kind of advanced massage technique, to treat pain. He said he packaged dirt from a local bog, branches and leaves included, in zip-lock baggies and gave them to his “patients,” who demanded the mud faster than he could scoop it.
Saint-Onge said he was charged by Canadian authorities with practicing medicine without a license in 1989 and fined $20,000.
“Then my clinic went underground,” he said on a recent podcast.
He has sold mud in some form since the early 1990s. Health Canada, the government regulator responsible for public health, forced him to pull an early version of his mud product, then called the “Anti-Rheuma Bath,” according to a 1996 article in The Calgary Herald, because Saint-Onge marketed it to treat arthritis and rheumatism without any proof to substantiate the claims. Saint-Onge also claimed his mud could heal wounds, telling an Ottawa Citizen reporter in 2012 that his mud compress healed the leg of a man who had suffered an accident with a power saw, saving it from amputation.
“The doctor said it was the antibiotics,” he said. “But we believe it was the mud.”
In the ‘90s Saint-Onge began selling his mud bath under the “Golden Moor” label, which he did until he realized a dream, “a way to do a secret little extraction,” in his words, that would make the dirt dissolve in water. In 2015, with the founding of his company NuWTR, which would later turn into Black Oxygen Organics, Saint-Onge said he finally invented a dirt people could drink.
In 2016, he began selling himself as a business coach, and his personal website boasted of his worth: “I sell mud in a bottle,” he wrote. “Let me teach you to sell anything.”
In September, Montaruli, BOO’s vice president, led a corporate call to address the Facebook groups and what he called “the compliance situation.”
“Right now, it’s scary,” Montaruli said in a Zoom call posted publicly, referring to the outlandish claims made by some of BOO’s sellers. “In 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. Never.”
“These outrageous claims, and I’m not even sure if outrageous is bad enough, are obviously attracting the haters, giving them more fuel for the fire, and potential government officials.”
Montaruli called for “a reset,” telling BOO sellers to delete the pages and groups and start over again.
One slide suggested alternatives for 14 popular BOO uses, including switching terms like ADHD to “trouble concentrating,” and “prevents heart attack” to “maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.”
And so in September, the Facebook groups evolved — many went private, most changed their names from BOO to “fulvic acid,” and the pinned testimonials from customers claiming miracle cures were wiped clean, tweaked or edited to add a disclaimer absolving the company from any liability.
But that wasn’t the end of the company’s troubles. While individual sellers navigated their new compliance waters, regulatory agencies cracked down.
Days after Montaruli’s call, Health Canada announced a recall of Black Oxygen Organics tablets and powders, citing “potential health risks which may be higher for children, adolescents, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.” Further, the regulatory agency noted, “The products are being promoted in ways and for uses that have not been evaluated and authorized by Health Canada.”
“Stop taking these products,” the announcement advised.
Inventory for U.S. customers had already been hard to come by. In private groups, sellers claimed the product had sold out, but in the company-wide call, Montaruli confirmed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was holding its products at the border.
Jeremy Kahn, an FDA spokesperson, declined to comment.
Saint-Onge did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News. Phone messages and emails sent by a reporter to the company, its executives and its legal counsel were not returned.
What’s in BOO?
BOO is not the only dirt-like health supplement on the market. Consumers have the option of dozens of products — in drops, tablets, powders and pastes — that claim to provide the healing power of fulvic and humic acid.
Fulvic and humic acids have been used in traditional and folk medicines for centuries, and do exhibit antibacterial qualities in large quantities. But there is little scientific evidence to support the kinds of claims made by BOO sellers, according to Brian Bennett, a professor of physics at Marquette University who has studied fulvic and humic acids as a biochemist.
“I would say it’s snake oil,” Bennett said. “There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that a pharmaceutical based on the characteristics of this material might actually work, but I think eating handfuls of soil probably doesn’t.”
Beyond the questions of the health benefits of fulvic acid, there’s the question of just what is in Black Oxygen Organics’ product.
The company’s most recent certificate of analysis, a document meant to show what a product is made of and in what amounts, was posted by sellers this year. Reporting the product makeup as mostly fulvic acid and Vitamin C, the report comes from 2017 and doesn’t list a lab, or even a specific test. NBC News spoke to six environmental scientists, each of whom expressed skepticism at the quality of BOO’s certificate.
Assuming the company-provided analysis was correct, two of the scientists confirmed that just two servings of BOO exceeded Health Canada’s daily limits for lead, and three servings — a dose recommended on the package — approached daily arsenic limits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no comparable daily guidelines.
In an effort to verify BOO’s analysis, NBC News procured a bag and sent it to Nicholas Basta, a professor of soil and environmental science at Ohio State University.
The BOO product was analyzed for the presence of heavy metals at Ohio State’s Trace Element Research Laboratory. Results from that test were similar to the company’s 2017 certificate, finding two doses per day exceeded Health Canada’s limit for lead, and three doses for daily arsenic amounts.
Growing concern among BOO sellers about the product — precipitated by an anti-MLM activist who noticed on Google Earth that the bog that sourced BOO’s peat appeared to share a border with a landfill — pushed several to take matters into their own hands, sending bags of BOO to labs for testing.
The results of three of these tests, viewed by NBC News and confirmed as seemingly reliable by two soil scientists at U.S. universities, again showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic.
Those results are the backbone of a federal lawsuit seeking class action status filed in November in Georgia’s Northern District court. The complaint, filed on behalf of four Georgia residents who purchased BOO, claims that the company negligently sold a product with “dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals,” which led to physical and economic harm.
Black Oxygen Organics did not respond to requests for comment concerning the complaint.
‘A heavy heart’
The lawsuit hit at an inopportune time, just as the company had “reformulated” its products and added a new label on the powder that now specifies the product is “not for human consumption.”
“Things are starting to settle a little bit,” BOO executive Montaruli said in a video meeting explaining a change from tablet to capsules and a relabeling of the powder.
The powder is “strictly for cosmetics,” Saint-Onge said on the call, a recording of which was shared with NBC News by an attendee.
In the BOO groups, the company’s sellers were undeterred.
“You can continue to use the powder as you choose in your own home,” the admin of one Facebook group wrote to members announcing the product update. “Know that it is the same powder.”
“We cannot TECHNICALLY tell customers to use the product internally,” Adam Ringham, a “Royal Diamond CEO” (BOO’s highest seller title), told his group. “WE CAN HOWEVER — tell them that the powder is THE EXACT SAME as before … ”
Ringham did not return requests for comment.
Just as the BOO sellers were planning their Black Friday sales, the rug was pulled out from them again, this time, seemingly, for good.
Two days before Thanksgiving, an email landed in the inboxes of BOO customers and sellers.
“It is with a heavy heart that we must announce the immediate closing of Black Oxygen Organics,” it read. Details in the note were sparse, but Black Oxygen executives and employees offered an explanation in company Zoom meetings that afternoon.
According to BOO President Carlo Garibaldi, they had weathered the FTC complaints, the FDA seizures, the Health Canada recalls and the online mob. But the “fatal blow” came when their online merchant dropped them as clients.
With no actual product in stock for the last two months, sellers had been urging customers to “preorder” BOO. Now, the throng of customers responding to the nonconsumable “reformulation” by asking for their money back had spooked their payment processor.
“This is our baby,” Garibaldi said, flashing his Black Oxygen elbow tattoo to the screen. “We needed this to go on forever.”
Saint-Onge appeared briefly, holding his head in his hands. “This was my limit,” he said.
Members of anti-BOO groups celebrated.
“WE DID IT!!!!!!” Manchester, the group administrator, posted to the “Boo is Woo” Facebook group. “I hope this is proof positive that if the anti-MLM community bans together we can take these companies down. We won’t stop with just BOO. A new age of anti-MLM activism has just begun.”
In a separate Zoom meeting unattended by executives and shared with NBC News, lower-rung sellers grappled with the sudden closure and the reality that they were out hundreds or thousands of dollars.
“I am three weeks to a month away from having a baby and I’ve been depending on this money to arrive in my bank account,” one seller said through tears. “It’s the only income we have.”
The future of BOO is uncertain. Tens of thousands of bags remain in warehouses, according to Black Oxygen executives. Sellers are unlikely to receive orders, refunds or commissions. The federal lawsuit will continue, Matt Wetherington, the Georgia lawyer behind the proposed class action lawsuit, said.
But in the land of MLMs, failure is just another opportunity. Saint-Onge may have walked away from this cohort of customers, but for those who sold it, BOO was more than just a product; it was a way of believing. Now, the thousands of BOO acolytes still convening in BOO Facebook groups are funneling into a new Facebook group, named “The Solution,” and turning their outstretched hands toward a new direct-sales company, one that BOO’s top sellers claim offers an even purer fulvic acid product and a colloidal silver as well.
“Thanks for all your continued support,” The Solution’s admins wrote in a welcome post. “Moving forward is all we can do.”