BUSINESS

The Too-Good-To-Be-True Little Ring That Made $460,000 Disappear

The BioRing raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on Indiegogo by promising what seemed impossible. And then it disappeared.

BUSINESS
Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Dec 05, 2016 at 8:00 AM ET

When Telly Lau saw the ad for BioRing on her Facebook timeline, it seemed like exactly what she was looking for: a waterproof, wearable fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor that she could wear on her finger. It also said it could detect her calorie intake using technology that even medical researchers had yet to perfect. And Lau could get all this for just $219. She wouldn’t even have to pay for shipping from the company’s Stockholm headquarters.

If that sounds too good to be true, well, perhaps you can guess how this all turns out.

“Everything I was reading seemed to check out,” says Lau, a graphic designer in New York City. So, she bought the ring. Later, BioRing offered an extended warranty and 14-day full refund for $35. She bought that, too. She had never backed a crowdfunded product before and admits she was wary of backing a product with no reviews that she’d have to wait until November to receive. But she did think she would receive something.

BioRing started raising money through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo last June, and went on to raise nearly three-quarters of a million dollars before the campaign was mysteriously and suddenly closed by Indiegogo at the end of October. Over a month later and now past the promised delivery date, the product still hasn’t materialized and most of that money has disappeared — leaving thousands of backers like Lau in the lurch.

“I thought, worst case scenario: even if the movement tracking was off or the calorie intake capabilities were inaccurate, I could still benefit from having a compact waterproof heart rate sensor,” Lau says.

The worst case scenario is that Lau won’t get a ring at all. And around the time she gave BioRing her money, it began seeming that scenario is also the most likely.

Crowdfunded projects are always a bit of a tricky proposition — often, they are started by would-be entrepreneurs with good intentions but no track record or business experience, raising money for a dream idea. And they’ve failed before. The Coolest cooler raised more than ten million dollars on Kickstarter, but still hasn’t shipped all of its orders several years later. In 2014, Indiegogo ran another campaign for a fitness tracker called Healbe Gobe that made claims similar to BioRing’s, including that it could determine the wearer’s calorie intake. It raised over a million dollars before being released to reviews that said it didn’t do much of what it promised.

But BioRing looks like something entirely different. What if instead of a product that over-promised or hit some hurdles in the production process, the product never existed at all? 

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“It started off really, really well,” says Corey Herscu, the president of Herscu & Goldsilver, a marketing firm based in Toronto. H&G is part of a burgeoning cottage industry of companies that help crowdfunding campaigns get off the ground in exchange for a portion of the money those campaigns then raise. Indiegogo says H&G has helped raise nearly $3 million for seven other campaigns. When BioRing expressed interest in some marketing help, Indiegogo connected the two.

“It seemed too good to be true,” Herscu admits. But he spoke with a few people in the wearables industry who told him that what BioRing was proposing wasn’t impossible and decided the concept could do well on Indiegogo’s platform. H&G agreed to work on BioRing’s campaign in return for 10 percent of the money raised.

Meanwhile, Funded Today, which has helped raise nearly $35 million for 62 Indiegogo campaigns, also entered into an agreement with BioRing, for 25 percent of the money raised. That’s more than most PR firms ask for, but Funded Today pays out of pocket to place digital ads like the one Lau saw on her Facebook timeline. This allows cash-strapped campaigns to afford ads, which in turn helps them raise more money. (A third Indiegogo partner, Command Partners, was also in the mix, according to both H&G and Funded Today, but it did not respond to request for comment.)

As the campaign went live, BioRing’s PR companies went about pitching the product to the press, building BioRing’s social media presence, creating and placing digital ads, and making slick YouTube videos to show off the product and simulate how it would work. The campaign met its initial $50,000 goal very quickly, and it looked like everyone involved had a winner on their hands.

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But not everyone was convinced the product was legit. Guy Raz, a mechanical engineer and self-professed “compulsive crowdfunder,” came across BioRing’s campaign and was suspicious.

“After about five minutes of skimming it, my head exploded because I thought immediately this was an impossible product,” Raz says. The 3-D rendering of the inside of the BioRing, in his experience, “looked like someone who’d maybe seen a circuit and tried to copy it from memory and put wires all over the place where they shouldn’t be.” Not only that, but, Raz says, some of the components BioRing claimed it could pack in just 3.55 millimeters of space don’t exist in such small scales.

John Lewis, a freelance writer and editor, came across the BioRing campaign in July and wrote a blog post on LinkedIn warning that BioRing was promising a lot with no evidence that it could deliver on any of it. Raz saw Lewis’s post and invited him to co-moderate a Facebook group he runs dedicated to exposing possible crowdfunding scams. They tried to get the word out about BioRing. Raz even gave the campaign one dollar so he could post warnings in the comments section. (He says his dollar was promptly refunded, restricting his access.)

They found some more red flags: BioRing’s updates were frequent but usually offered more ways for backers to spend more money on product upgrades, rather than saying much about the progress of actually manufacturing the ring. The press write-ups featured prominently the campaign page that helped give the product legitimacy in the eyes of people like Lau simply recapped the company’s promises without questioning them. A Forbes article — perhaps the most recognizable name that wrote about BioRing — was posted on its contributor blogging platform, which means it wasn’t written by Forbes’ staff.

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And then there was BioRing’s most incredible claim: that it could detect how many calories its wearer consumed, and even which of those calories came from fat, protein, or carbohydrates. It said it could do all of this by detecting glucose levels in the wearer’s cells — a feat diabetes researchers have been trying to perfect for years, even decades. How had BioRing figured it out sooner? One co-founder, Michael Johnson, seemed to have some kind of medical technology experience, saying he worked was an “algorithm developer” at Elekta, which creates medical devices and software for cancer treatments. (This claim is dubious: Elekta tells Vocativ that it has no record of Johnson’s employment.) When Vocativ asked BioRing in September how it beat diabetes researchers to the punch, the response was brief and jargon-filled.

“BioRing doesn’t measure you [sic] blood glucose levels directly,” Johnson said. “It is equipped with a bio-impedance sensor that measures the flow of liquids in and out of your cells and our algorithms analyze the data to measure your glucose curve. We analyze your glucose curve and its properties to determine your calorie intake automatically. We don’t measure you [sic] blood glucose, we measure the dynamics of the changing fluid levels in your cells.”

The initial campaign ended in August. As per Indiegogo’s policies, the money raised was disbursed to BioRing two weeks later, around the beginning of September. But BioRing continued to raise money through Indiegogo’s “InDemand” program, which allows campaigners to keep getting contributions even after the campaign successfully concludes.

This would also have been the time to pay the marketing companies the tens of thousands of dollars they were owed. But H&G and Funded Today say that when they asked Johnson for the money (there are two other men named as BioRing’s co-founders, one of whom— James Lee — appeared in a video to describe how the ring worked, but Johnson appears to be the only person anyone had contact with), he kept putting them off. Funded Today’s co-founder, chairman, and in-house attorney, Thomas Alvord, says that when they got more aggressive in their attempts to collect and accused Johnson of fraud, he let loose with a profane screed on Skype that said they would never get the money, could never trace him to try to collect it or sue him, and that it was all being held in offshore accounts anyway. Johnson, who was now calling himself “Big Mike,” also threatened physical violence. “We had a great launch at your expense, you son of a bitch,” Big Mike concluded.

“He obviously has some serious issues going on,” Alvord says.

Soon after, Funded Today filed for arbitration, as per the terms of their agreement with BioRing, and Johnson exited the Skype chatroom. This was in mid-September. They haven’t heard from him since.

“No point in proceeding and getting an [arbitration] award if you don’t even know where the other party is so you can collect,” Alvord says. If anyone ever does manage to find Johnson, Alvord says Funded Today will sue both him and BioRing. In the meantime, he suggests that backers who were scammed report it to the Federal Trade Commission. The more who do, he says, the better the chances are that the FTC will launch an investigation.

As for H&G, Herscu says they gave up on ever getting paid by BioRing once they heard what Johnson said to Funded Today. They appealed to Indiegogo for help or at least to pause BioRing’s campaign. They say Indiegogo said there was nothing it could or would do. Indiegogo confirmed that it was alerted that BioRing was refusing to pay these third parties, but says that it does not act as a go-between between campaigns and backers or vendors.

In the meantime, the campaign stayed open. With little recourse, H&G turned to the one part of BioRing’s campaign it still had some control over: the social media accounts. Lewis and Raz had been a constant thorn in H&G’s side with their attempts to let the world know BioRing was a scam. Now, H&G turned BioRing’s official Facebook page over to them.

In mid-October, BioRing’s Facebook page, now under Lewis and Raz’s command, started warning backers that it was a scam and giving them instructions on how to get their money back. Lewis and Raz also set up an Indiegogo campaign of their own: “BioRing Scam — Get A Refund NOW!” It isn’t trying to raise any money; it basically just serves as another source of information for frustrated BioRing backers.

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At the end of October, Indiegogo finally closed the campaign for violating its terms of service. More than $200,000 was immediately refunded to backers — money raised that hadn’t been given to BioRing yet, Indiegogo says. The crowdfunding site refuses to say exactly which terms BioRing violated, just that whatever BioRing did wrong has nothing to do with the product itself.

Indiegogo maintains BioRing has a working prototype that it verified in video chats and emails, but the company said it wouldn’t speculate on whether the ring will ever see the light of day. BioRing said on its campaign page that rings would start being shipped in November. So far, no one reports having received one.

Most surprisingly, Indiegogo says it is still in contact with BioRing. If true, it may be the only one. Backers have been complaining for weeks that their comments and emails to BioRing have not been responded to. Funded Today and H&G haven’t heard from them in over a month. Other than the initial email sent months ago, BioRing has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

When Lau, one of the ring’s purchasers, saw BioRing’s Facebook page’s new posts claiming that it is a scam, she assumed it had been hacked. When BioRing didn’t take its page back after several days, she got suspicious.

“For a new company to sit idly by as their flagship product was being defamed on social media would mean they don’t care about their product,” Lau says. “Which, in turn, means there may not be a product at all.”

But by the time Lau realized something was wrong, the time Indiegogo gives to request a refund — 10 days for product purchased through InDemand — had long since expired. She is currently disputing the charges with her credit card company.

“If it works out for me, great,” she says. “Dodged a bullet. My money lives to see another day. If it’s gone, I just have to suck it up as stupid tax and know not to buy things that don’t exist (yet) ever again.”

The PR companies’ lesson has been much more expensive. They expected to be paid tens of thousands of dollars, and Funded Today spent its own money on the campaign. While Funded Today has the resources to absorb the cost, H&G is a much smaller operation. Herscu says BioRing nearly put it out of business.

“If it wasn’t for a project coming through with a check that helped us pay our rent, we would have had to close our doors,” Herscu says. He’s not sure he wants to work on a crowdfunded campaign ever again.

Indiegogo did tell Vocativ it will continue to improve its protocols for how it evaluates campaigns, though not exactly how. One way it could do this is to follow its rival Kickstarter’s lead. In 2012, Kickstarter announced that campaigns had to have a working, physical product before they are allowed to begin. Renderings and simulations were not enough.

“Indiegogo is basically fertile ground for every scammer who can fake a campaign,” Raz alleges. “And they take no legal responsibility for it.”

Raz and Lewis believe there are more Indiegogo scams out there, and they will continue as long anyone who can talk a good enough game can start a campaign on that platform for a product that can do something revolutionary and looks cool to boot.

“These [scam campaigns] are based on either pseudoscience or … pseudotechnology,” Raz says. “It’s enough to fool laypeople and technologically illiterate people and people who love buying tech but don’t understand how it works.”

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At the end of the day, Indiegogo — which kept BioRing’s campaign open for several weeks after its partners expressed concerns — made five cents off every dollar pledged to BioRing’s product. As of press time, BioRing has raised about $460,000, netting Indiegogo $23,000.

Lau may well get her money back through her credit card company, but she says her crowdfunding days are over.

“It was my first Indiegogo crowdfunding purchase and I felt good about investing in an idea from ‘the little guy,'” she says. She doesn’t have such warm feelings about those “little guys” now: “I want to punch them in the face.”

She’ll have to find them first.