In a previous post I raised questions about China Sky One Medical Inc. (Nasdaq GM: CSKI), including an unusual insider stock transaction, past accounting irregularity, use of dubious auditors, frequent changes of auditors, and the appointment of a non-financial graduate student as a director and “audit committee financial expert.”
Here I’m trying to unveil China Sky One’s despicable, fraudulent business practices with hard facts. (Note: some of the links provided below can be slow or not functioning occasionally. If that occurs to you, just try again at a later time. In some cases, I provided double links. Note also that many of the links given here had their origin in government or quasi-government websites.)
A “Flagship Product” that Rips Off Consumers
Weight-loss products account for 24.3% of CSKI’s total revenue in the first nine months of 2008. And most of the weight-loss revenue came from company’s flagship product: Sumei Slim Patch.
CSKI’s operating company Harbin TDR (short for Harbin Tian Di Ren) promotes Sumei Slim Patch as an effortless, fast-track “Sleep & Slim” weight-loss panacea. The Sleep & Slim patch (“Shui-shui Shou” or 睡睡瘦速美减肥贴) was widely promoted in TV Shopping channels throughout China.
These programs advertised the “Sleep & Slim” patch as a product that enables the consumer to “paste, sleep and slim”, “paste at night and slim in the morning”, “reduce waist size by more than 1 Chun (3.33 centimeter, or 1.3 inch) by next morning”, “lose 1 Jin (0.5 kg or 17.6 oz) by next morning”, and so on, and so forth.
Consumers who bought into this type of ads have found the product to be totally ineffective and cause a lot of side effects (allergy, inflammation, swelling, ulcer, etc.) Complaint about this product was widespread.
[Story 1] “Harbin TDR Defrauds Consumers” (appears in Consumer Complaint & Consumer Rights Network) “Their ad for Sleep & Slim claimed to cut weight by 1 Jin by the next morning. I have used it for one month and have seen absolutely no effect. What a scam!”
[Story 2] ”Sumei Sleep & Slim Patch Did Not Make Her Slim but Instead Caused Ulcer to Her Belly Button” (appears in Jiangxi Consumer Rights Protection Network. See also here) Ad claimed that Sleep & Slim reduces weight by 2 Jin, or 1 kilogram, per day. Ms. Yu spent 1180 Yuan on the product as a gift to her mother. After one month of usage, Ms. Yu’s mother did not lose any weight. Instead, the product caused intolerable itches and ulcer around the belly button area (where Sleep & Slim patch was applied.) Ms. Yu requested refund. But the TV shopping hotline told her that, to get refund, she needed doctor’s proof that the skin problem was caused by Harbin TDR’s Sleep & Slim Patch. It didn’t take long for Ms. Yu to find out that no doctors would provide such “proof.” She realized she was just swindled.
[Story 3] “Sleep & Slim Caused Inflammation” (appears in 315 Consumer Complaints Network, which was sponsored by CECC, China Electronic Chamber of Commerce) “I used it for 20 days without any weight loss. Instead it caused inflammation to my belly button. Now there is no way for me to obtain refund for the remaining five boxes.”
[Story 4] “Sleep & Slim Caused Ulcer; Consumer Rights Committee Helped Refund” (report by Leshan City Bureau of Industry & Commerce on China 315 Consumer Protection Network) Gong bought 5 boxes for 298 Yuan. After only 5 pastes, rashes an ulcer occurred. City Consumer Rights Committee had to intervene to get 177 Yuan (59% of original cost) back for Gong.
[Story 5] “Thousand Yuan Wasted on Sleep & Slim without Weight Loss” (appears in Consumer Product Quality Weekly, a publication of Sichun Province’s official newspaper Sichun Daily) Ad offered money-back guarantee if product is not effective after 15 days of usage. Ms. Zhang spent 996 Yuan for 4 packs of Sleep & Slim, and found it to be ineffective after 15 days of use. She called in for advice and ended up spending another 198 Yuan for another product to help “boost” the absorption of Sleep & Slim. That obviously did not help either. So she called again and was advised to spend another 5000 Yuan for an extra-strength type of “product” before resuming the use of the regular Sleep & Slim patch. Ms. Zhang now realized she was dealing with a bunch of swindlers. She demanded refund but without luck. The press had to help her on the refund eventually.
[Story 6] “Sleep & Slim is Indeed a Scam. Stop Being Swindled” - Dozens of consumers bashing Sleep & Slim Here are a series of about 60 posts (including follow-ups) in which Chinese consumers shared their angry experience with Sleep & Slim. Buyers of Sleep & Slim patch shared a common experience: only effect is the side effect: allergy, rashness, or ulcer. Those who had not bought in felt lucky to have witnessed these complaints in time.
[Story 7] ”Sleep & Slim: No Weight Loss, No Refund” (report by “Zhejiang Consumer Rights Protection Top Platform”, which is co-sponsored by Zhejiang Province’s Consumer Rights Protection Committee, Consumer Education Center and Zhejiang News Online. Zhejiang is one of the most affluent provinces on the east coast) Ms. Li spent 700 Yuan on Sleep & Slim. After one month of use, the product did not help her lose any weight but instead caused allergy. Ms. Li wanted her money back; but the “consultative center” of the TV shopping program insisted it was Ms. Li’s own physical condition to blame and no refund would be made.
[Story 8] Two more instances of harm caused by Sleep & Slim (report by “Zhejiang Consumer Rights Protection Top Platform”/Zhejiang News Online) Ms. Yao had to seek treatment on the inflammation and ulcer caused by Sleep & Slim. The ad promised complete refund. However, she was only able to get half of her money back (sadly that seemed much better than many others who failed to get anything back.) In another instance, the side effect showed up in breast affecting user’s sexual life.
[Story 9] Sleep & Slim: the Most Complained TV-Shopping Product in Zhejiang Province That was the finding by this special report that exposed how TV Shopping programs ripped off consumers. This special report was co-produced by Zhejiang Consumer Rights Protection Committee, Zhejiang New Consumer Channel, and Zhejiang Economics (NYSE:TV) Network.
Part III of the special report also revealed that Harbin TDR did not seem to have the desire to address consumer complaints, with different departments “kicking the ball” around themselves. It took reporters a lot of effort to obtain refund for consumers who had fallen victim to the TV shopping scams.
[Story 10] (Zhejiang Province’s) Consumers Protection Committee alerts consumers of Sleep & Slim and Other TV-Shopping Products (report by Sichuan News Network’s Managers Daily) The title has said it all.
By now, you might have been bored by the amazingly similar story line. I do not blame you. As you have noticed, all these TV “Sleep & Slim” promotions worked the same way: promise of overnight weight loss, false money-back guarantees, and little or no post-sale services.
In short, consumers were lured into buying the product and left dangling once payments were made. Talking about a mind-boggling, brazen rip-off!
Constant and Top Violator of Advertising Regulation and Manufacturer of Shoddy Products
Harbin TDR has turned out to be a constant violator of government’s advertising regulation on healthcare products.
According to report, China’s SARFT (State Administration of Radio Film & Television) and SAIC (State Administration for Industry & Commerce) banned the broadcast of TV shopping programs related to weight-loss products in July 2006.
All of the complaints above were originated from Harbin TDR’s “TV promotion” campaigns in 2008. So, Harbin TDR was apparently violating government regulations when they allowed those ads to be aired.
According to statistics from Beijing Consumers Association (BCA), “Sleep & Slim” tops the list of broadcasts of banned illegal TV ads nationwide during the two-week period from August 25 through September 7, 2008. During that period, “Sleep & Slim” promotion was aired 437 times.
Following this finding, BCA requested SARFT to order all TV networks concerned to suspend airing “Sleep & Slim” TV promotion programs immediately and prosecute violators accordingly. (See also this link.) SARFT promptly approved BCA’ request and forced the TV promotions to stop in November of last year. See here also.
Harbin TDR’s false ads and regulatory violation do not just stop on its flagship product, Sumei Slim Patch.
In 2008, Hefei Bureau of Health found company’s Jieyinling genital cleaning spray to have carried false claims regarding its capability to treat certain diseases and symptoms.
In 2007, Qingdao Bureau of Health found company's Jieyinling genital cleaning spray to have carried label illegally implying certain medical treatment effect.
Here and here you can also see a consumer sharing his experience with this product. He/she wrote on January 9th this year: "The American Kangxi hemorrhoid magnetic ointment is a scam. I was swindled 600 Yuan. After I used it for a month, not only didn't it cure my illness, it actually has made it worse. ... ... Hope everybody learns a lesson from me, and not get swindled again."
(Harbin TDR promoted its products as American products in China because its holding company CSKI is registered and traded in U.S. Some other U.S.-registered Chinese companies also have this practice. Sometimes this caused confusion among consumers, like this consumer also complained: "I found it to be produced by Harbin TDR; not an American product at all.")
In 2004, seven of the company’s Kangxi brand products (covering genital cleaning, skin care, throat care, and nasal care) showed up in a banned list of illegal products which were linked with exaggerated ads.
In 2003, Tianjin Bureau of Health included company's foot care product Kangxi Jiaoshuangling in its blacklist of 68 illegal products.
In 2003, Qingdao Wanbao (Evening News) counted Harbin TDR’s skin care product Kangxi Fushuangling in one of the city’s top 10 cases of violation of national food & healthcare law. It charged the product as exaggerating treatment effectiveness.
Master in Exploring the "Gray Area"
The management’s “creativeness” in marketing strategies lies in its bold exploration of the "gray area" of TV shopping, a relatively young and loosely regulated area in China.
TV shopping programs usually do not have a public address. Products are sold via telephone hotlines, delivered to consumers’ doorsteps, and often without receipts. Post-sale services are virtually nonexistent, with service numbers constantly busy or not answering.
Sometimes consumers are required to contact manufacturers directly for post-sale problems. A lot of consumers simply do not have the time and/or knowledge to pursue manufacturers. This creates an ideal condition for sales with extra low product return rate.
In such shoddy marketing setups, marketers are often willing to bear the major share of blame when regulators show up. This way, the manufacturers can continue its business almost as usual.
To a short-sighted management team, the only loser in this game seems to be the consumer. Now that regulators do not force them out of business, this same strategy always has the hope of revival in the future.
Indeed, if you know Chinese and have read this report carefully, the top sales representative of the Sumei Sleep & Slim Patch Ms. Lin has made it clear that similar TV promotion is going to resume in 2009.
Why were the fraudsters so confident about their comeback? Simply put, they are familiar with China’s regulatory environment. Policy enforcement comes in pockets and waves. Tight periods are followed by loose ones. Even during periods of enforcement, punishment is often little more than forced suspension of the shoddy marketing programs. There can be fines. But often the punishment is "worth the while."
Besides, local governments often race to promote and protect businesses in their own jurisdictions. So, even though an officer of Heilongjiang’s provincial FDA told reporters that any promotion of Sumei Slim Patch is illegal beyond its registered indication of Simple Obesity, there do not seem to be reports on any disciplinary action from Harbin TDR’s provincial or municipal government.
(Some observers have questioned if Sumei Slim Patch qualifies as a weight-loss product at all. As some of the reports above, e.g., this and this, pointed out, the patch actually has to be used in combination with weight-loss medicines to be “effective.”)
Then, there also comes the Chinese business culture of "Guanxi" (connection). If a management has good Guanxi in the government, it becomes relatively easy for them to survive regulatory troubles.
As the ultimate victims, Chinese consumers apparently might not agree to this lenient regulatory environment for enterprises. But it is hard to blindly blame the government. Recall all the actions mentioned previously that the various government organizations have taken in this Sleep & Slim scam?
Apparently Chinese government is trying to strike a balance between protecting consumers and having too rigid and restrictive rules that might stifle entrepreneurial creativity altogether. For Sleep & Slim, authorities in several provinces have issued consumer alerts, launched consumer education campaigns, and solicited consumer complaints actively.
It appears that the government prefers these soft measures over hard ones. After all, if consumers know what products to avoid, perpetrators will have received some punishment through loss of sales and tainted brands. Many violators will also have learned a lesson and be given a chance to take corrective measures and seek lasting prosperity by remaking themselves.
Sadly this inevitably leaves plenty of opportunities for recidivists. They constantly tweak their skills of deception and test government and consumers’ limits. They aim to get “stronger” after each cycle, much like how viruses work.
However, no matter how handy they can hide behind marketers and lenient regulatory environment, it is unlikely that fraudulent business practices can thrive over the long term.
Consumers always wake up and revolt, particularly in this information age when bad news can travel by the speed of light. When the time of reckoning comes, investors would be the ones to pick up the bill.
Or maybe that is of the least concern to this management? Anyhow, if a "clarification" ever needs to be given to the investors, it would be "the company does not have control over how our marketers behave." Are you feeling sympathetic already?
Questionable Financial Control
Asensio, a trading firm specializing in short-selling, has published a report about CSKI’s auditors. It has found that all four (previous and current) auditors were investigated or sanctioned by SEC, PCAOB, or other regulators. CSKI’s current auditor, MSPC, was at the center of a scandal and was sanctioned by SEC in 1999.
Aside from Asensio's findings, on November 30th 2005, PCAOB issued an inspection report on MSPC. PCAOB found six areas of audit deficiencies and concluded that “the deficiencies identified in three of the audits reviewed included deficiencies of such significance that it appeared to the inspection team that the Firm did not obtain sufficient competent evidential matter to support its opinion on the issuer's financial statements.”
As an update to my last post, Mr. Jiang Qi Feng, a young graduate student (now 26) with no prior financial background, is still serving (as of April 15th) as an “independent” director and “financial expert” on company’s Audit Committee, Compensation Committee, Executive Committee, and Finance Committee.
Some investors have also been highly skeptical about CSKI's reported gross margin. In a highly competitive industry, CSKI has been able to report markedly higher gross margin (in the high 70s) than competitors. Its reported gross margin also stayed amazingly steady even as its product mix and in particular, average selling prices (NYSE:ASP) for key segments, changed significantly (sometimes wildly) from quarter to quarter.
When so many scandals and questions surround a single company, chances are there is a major credibility crisis hidden somewhere.
Disclosure: Author is short CSKI as of this writing.