he developer of the wildly popular Lumosity “brain training” games has agreed to pay $2 million in refunds to settle federal charges that it deceived customers about the cognitive and health benefits of its apps and online products.
The agreement, announced Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission, marks the highest profile — and most costly — crackdown so far on a burgeoning industry that’s increasingly come under fire from scientists and regulators in recent months.
Regulators accused San Francisco-based Lumos Labs of making unfounded claims about what its games could do to delay the symptoms of and protect against conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and to reduce cognitive impairment from stroke and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The company built up a dedicated following of 70 million users by marketing Lumosity products directly to consumers for $15 per month, or $300 for a lifetime membership.
“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
The company said in a statement that the FTC’s charges and the resulting settlement stem from “marketing language that has been discontinued” and that the company’s focus “has not and will not change.”
The FTC’s documentation of Lumosity’s online, radio, and TV ads before the settlement paint a vivid portrait of marketing campaigns targeted to those worried about specific diseases and health conditions.
Users signing up for a subscription on Lumosity’s website were greeted with several testimonials under the heading “Benefits Everyone” — including one from a woman who said she joined Lumosity at first for her mother, who had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. A 2009 blog post on the site offered the testimonial of a man who suffered from a stroke “and now uses Lumosity to regain lost mental function.”
Other Lumosity ads suggested the company’s online games could help stop the normal effects of aging. The website claimed as recently as 2013 that people have “used brain training to sharpen their daily lives and ward off cognitive decline.” And an ad on the online radio service Pandora asked listeners if they could remember the song that just played — before telling them that “Most people find that memory declines with age. But your memory doesn’t have to.”
“Brain training” games like those marketed by Lumosity have drawn criticism from scientists as well as federal regulators. In October 2014, more than 70 psychologists and other scientists signed an open letter criticizing the industry for creating false hope among aging baby-boomers with shoddy science and implausible claims.
The FTC, meanwhile, has been looking more closely at online health products. Last year, the FTC hashed out small settlements, involving modest payments or none at all, with the marketers of two apps that claimed to detect melanoma, an app that purported to improve vision, and a brain-training computer game for children with ADHD and other learning impairments. FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz wouldn’t comment on any ongoing cases related to brain-training or health apps, but said it’s an area of interest for the agency.
Katz said the agency hasn’t determined how much refund money customers will receive from the Lumosity settlement. As part of the deal, Lumos Labs is also required to contact customers with a recurring Lumosity membership to give them an easy way to cancel.