Crowdfunders beware: Indiegogo caught in crossfire of campaign’s dubious claims

3 Apr 2014

The allegedly miraculous GoBe device

Every now and then, a revolutionary product arises that seems too good to be true. For the GoBe wearable health-tracker, that might be exactly the case – and, if so, what happens to its Indiegogo funders?

The GoBe gadget is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Healbe, the company behind it, initially sought US$100,000, but the desire for an effortless calorie counter has far surpassed this target and the campaign is approaching US$1m in funding.

There’s one big, dark cloud hanging over this miracle device, though: it could be complete codswallop.

Too good to be true

Reporter James Robinson of PandoDaily has been following the story closely, consulting experts along the way, and at every turn has called into question the legitimacy of HealBe’s claims, and the company itself.

Even without Robinson’s analysis, just a cursory glance at the GoBe funding page should raise red flags. The elevator pitch-style graphic below would make more sense if it had been published on 1 April, but this is no April Fool’s joke.

Healbe GoBe

Image via Indiegogo

According to Healbe, the GoBe requires zero input from users and, still, this simple wristband will know how many calories you’ve consumed and burned, how much sleep you need, how much water you need to drink, your stress levels and heart rate. Admittedly, there are a number of products and services making similar claims on the market – wearable tech equipped with accelerometers and heart-rate monitors do a good job of tracking activity and stress levels, and there are smartphone apps built to wake you at the best point in your sleep cycle.

The biggest hole in GoBe’s claims is automatic calorie counting. Dr David Ahn, an endocrinology fellow in California, cautions against passive nutrition tracking in an article for iMedicalApps. Ahn is concerned by the absence of medical professionals associated with the device and advises funders to invest at their own risk.

Suspect device

GoBe’s ability to effortlessly track calories relies on an impedance sensor which can measure glucose levels in cells non-invasively. First off, this means the device is limited in its ability to track other nutrients in the body, such as carbohydrates, protein and fat, and it relies on algorithms to deduce their intake from the glucose reading.

The question of algorithms advanced enough to perform such calculations for every possible body type aside, the impedance sensor itself could be an unreliable source of information. As Ahn explains, “Several previous companies (such as C8 Medisensors) have tried and ultimately failed to bring such a device to market. While not impossible, it’s difficult to take seriously a crowdfunding campaign asking for money upfront for an unreleased product by a company with no track record.”

GoBe app

The GoBe app and online platform. Image via Indiegogo

Considering the value a product like GoBe would have on the market, the fact it needs to raise funds on Indiegogo alone is surprising. This could be because traditional marketing wouldn’t be permitted by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) due to a lack of objective evidence to back up its claims.

Further adding suspicion is Healbe’s constant back-tracking. The company asserts what the device can do when, actually, it’s still undergoing internal testing. It promises it will be delivered by June, but external tests are only scheduled to start in mid-May – and the crowdfunding campaign ends in less than two weeks.

Indiegogo complicit in the con?

Despite calls for the campaign to be blocked by Indiegogo, the crowdfunding continues unchecked.

Indiegogo’s terms of use could be summed up in two words: caveat emptor. The onus is on the campaigner not to post false claims, addressed only by the warning: “If you know that your campaign is claiming to do the impossible or it’s just plain phony, don’t post it.”

If funders have a problem, all that Indiegogo will do is provide contact details for them to work it out with the campaigner themselves. The platform’s middle-man duties cease as soon as an issue arises, it seems.

This is not the first questionable campaign to be supported on Indiegogo. A product called Spy Cam Peek-I was promoted on the basis of its ability to take upskirt and down-shirt shots of women – an act that is illegal in some countries and, therefore, a violation of Indiegogo’s terms.

Spy Cam Peek-I

One of the original images from Spy Cam Peek-I’s Indiegogo campaign page. Image via CNET Australia

This campaign is still live despite complaints, but with one difference: it has removed images of men taking surreptitious photos up women’s skirts an down their tops and replaced them with new images, like a woman secretly photographing her partner’s computer screen – a pathetic, misguided attempt at a more female-friendly appearance.

In this case, Indiegogo has failed to stop a campaign that violates its terms, while the key question for the GoBe campaign is how it ever passed the site’s fraud checks. Browsing the site’s information pages and help centre, ‘fraud’ appears to be largely preoccupied with payment security for both funders and campaigners – but what about the scammers that offer a false product?

It seems that, as long as the campaign is seen through to its end-date, Indiegogo can wash its hands of it and walk away with its fee of 4pc of the money raised.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.