Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Vision Improvement Technologies, Inc., a Fairfield, Iowa, company that sells a so-called natural vision improvement kit called the "See Clearly Method."
"We allege that the company made dramatic claims for its product that it could not substantiate," Miller said, "including representations that consumers who used the method could quickly and easily free themselves of having to wear glasses or contact lenses."
The lawsuit described the "See Clearly Method" as a kit of manuals, charts, video-tapes and audio-tapes demonstrating eye exercises and other techniques. The company allegedly sold tens of thousands of the kits for about $350 apiece.
"We allege that Vision Improvement Technologies uses a combination of misleading and unfair marketing tactics to sell their kits," Miller said. "The alleged illegal tactics include exaggerated claims of effectiveness, false implications of scientific validity, and misleading consumer testimonials in advertising."
The lawsuit also alleges that a so-called "risk-free" 30-day trial period is deceptively presented and ends up obligating many consumers to pay hundreds of dollars apiece for a product that did not help them.
"Our suit asks the court to halt the unfair and deceptive practices, assess civil penalties, and provide appropriate reimbursement for consumers," Miller said.
The lawsuit alleges that Vision Improvement Technologies (VIT) has sold the "See Clearly Method" nationwide since 2001, through radio, television, and print ads, and a web site, www.seeclearlymethod.com. Advertisements invited consumers to call a toll-free number for a free informational video, but consumers who called were urged to order the entire kit, which retailed for about $350, on a 30-day trial basis.
According to the lawsuit, the company has shipped out as many as 5,000 to 10,000 kits a month. About half of the consumers who received the kit returned it within the 30 days and were not obligated to make the full payment, but many who did not return it within the 30 days still sought a refund for various reasons.
"See Clearly Method" eye exercises and "techniques" included, for example, focusing eyes using special charts or props, facing a bright light with eyes closed at a distance of a few inches, covering eyes with hands for sustained periods, and applying hot and cold wash cloths over closed eyes.
The lawsuit alleges that consumers have complained that they were misled about how well the "See Clearly Method" worked, the total price they would be charged, and how easy it would be to back out of the purchase.
The suit says that VIT had set up a refund system that required consumers to phone VIT representatives and get a specially assigned authorization number. However, the suit alleges, many consumers who tried to avoid a charge of about $350 to their credit card complained that they tried to call in and get the special number, but were forced to spend very long periods on hold (20 or 25 minutes or more), or left repeated messages that VIT staff never responded to.
"We allege that many consumers who sought to take advantage of the 30-day 'risk-free' trial period found that rejecting the product was no easy matter," Miller said.
The suit noted that the company says its "See Clearly Method" is based in part on the work of William H. Bates, who promoted similar ideas and techniques in the early 1900s. But the suit alleged that Bates's ideas have been dismissed by mainstream eye care professionals for decades.
"It is particularly important that a company be able to substantiate that its product works when there are so many challenges to the principles and techniques supposedly undergirding the claims," Miller said. "Iowa law requires a seller to be able to substantiate such ambitious claims, but we allege this company could not do so."
The lawsuit also alleges:
• Advertisements featured testimonials from people with undisclosed connections to the company, and ads continued using "no more glasses" testimonials, even after the people making such claims had quit using the product and were wearing glasses most of the time.
• The "See Clearly Method" was claimed to have a scientific foundation, but in fact the only study testing the Method was performed by people with an ownership interest in the Method and was not conducted in accordance with scientific standards.
• The company told consumers that their names and addresses would not be shared except for purposes considered by company doctors to be compatible with the "See Clearly Method," but, in fact, customer lists were rented out for unrelated marketing purposes.
• The See Clearly Method was advertised as safe, easy, and even fun, without disclosing that some of the primary eye exercises could produce headaches, and did in fact produce headaches in some users.
• VIT claimed that it received letters every day from satisfied consumers who had enjoyed tremendous improvement in their vision, but, in fact, positive letters were relatively scarce and were far outnumbered by letters from unhappy customers.
• Although the See Clearly Method was promoted as an easy and effective way to rid oneself of glasses or contacts, a number of VIT employees and their families continued to rely on corrective lenses, a fact which was not disclosed to potential customers.
The suit said the "See Clearly Method" materials have sold at different prices at different times, including for $379.89 during much of 2004, and $358.95 as of April 2005. The suit noted that 575 Iowans purchased the See Clearly Method between January 1 and August 27, 2004. About half of them apparently returned the product to the company.
Miller said: "Our fundamental allegation is that the defendants represent that the See Clearly Method is generally effective in improving eyesight, that many or most Method users can reasonably expect to discard corrective lenses, and that the Method is scientifically grounded. We allege these representations lack substantiation, and are false."