You've probably seen them.


For the last two years, Sandra Bullock and Ellen DeGeneres have been elbows-deep in a legal battle over online pop-ups. You know them: companies that you've never heard of using celebrity faces and fake endorsements to sell things via online pop-ups. The New York Timesreports that Bullock and DeGeneres finally went public with their efforts, filing an official lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court. They're fighting for "right of publicity," which "protects the use of their names and likenesses to endorse products." There's a long fight ahead, because the Times notes that the stars' legal teams don't actually know who to sue. The defendants are simply listed as John Does Nos. 1 through 100.

"These companies change names frequently, merge in and out of entities formed in states that allow for secrecy, operate websites that pop up and disappear overnight, and generally do everything possible to 'stay one step ahead of the sheriff,'" the complaint reads. Now that the initial complaint has been filed, Bullock’s lawyer, Michael J. Kump, and DeGeneres's, Michael E. Weinsten, can issue subpoenas to find the identities of the individuals behind the scam.

Sandra Bullock 2019 MTV Movie And TV Awards
Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The Times adds that the practice of using a celebrity's face without their permission is more commonly known as "celebrity endorsement theft." The easiest way for scammers to do it is to set up a fake news site that looks similar to something such as Men's Health or Good Housekeeping, use a photo of the celebrity, and then link to a product that claims to be something the star endorses, even though it's not. Examples presented to the court include "Sandra Bullock Talks About Her New Skin Care Line" and "Sandra even admitted that plastic surgeons are furious with her after noticing a large decline in patients." Between DeGeneres and Bullock, more than 40 beauty products were named in the lawsuit.

"The celebrity endorsement-theft business model is based on a scheme to trick consumers into disclosing their credit card and/or debit card information in order to enroll them in costly programs with undisclosed, or poorly disclosed, recurring charges," the suit continues. The documents add that the products "typically include unsubstantiated claims that the products will lead to dramatic results."

DeGeneres and Bullock's suit adds that the faux ads could make them lose any credibility if they were to pursue legitimate partnerships. Oprah Winfrey, Sally Field, Kelly Ripa, and even Denzel Washington have also fallen victim to endorsement theft.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that shoppers have fallen prey to the scams and have paid more than $179 million over the last five years. In addition to beauty products, scammers use celebrities to promote weight-loss, muscle-building, and erectile dysfunction aids.

"It's hard to track down the perpetrators of this kind of fraud," Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America explained. "All of this subterfuge is necessary in order to extend the scam for as long as possible."