As health hacks moved from the labs of Silicon Valley into mainstream America, more consumers started hydrating with hydrogen-infused water. Fans say it can help treat inflammation and a variety of diseases. Maybe it could even slow the process of aging.
Trusii, based in southern Florida, is among a bevy of hydrogen water vendors capitalizing on the trend. With a home fountain starting at over $6,700, the company claims to offer "access to the most powerful and therapeutic antioxidant-rich water on earth." It's been propped up by influencers like Anthony DiClementi, author of "The Biohacker's Guide," along with Ben Greenfield and fitness model Crosby Tailor, who calls it essential to workout recovery and motivation.
Earlier this year, Trusii bought a booth at the Bulletproof Conference hosted by Dave Asprey, who is often referred to as the father of biohacking. On social sites, you can find thousands of promotional posts under the hashtags #Trusii and #Trusiilife, which describe the water as helping with cardiovascular health, muscle pain, autism, concussion, depression, lupus and other ailments.
The company says it's on a mission "to profoundly impact and improve the lives of those suffering from illness and injury." However, more than a dozen customers told CNBC that they were roped into what they say is a scam that bilked them out of thousands of dollars for a product that didn't work. Allegations of moldy systems, leaks and unwanted high-interest loans have pushed away big names from associating themselves with the brand and forced Trusii to defend itself in a lawsuit filed by a former financial partner. At the same time, one of the company's owners faces criminal charges from a previous venture and is currently free on bail.
Most of the two-dozen Trusii customers who shared their stories allowed CNBC to use their names, but some asked to remain anonymous to protect their privacy or because they say Trusii threatened to sue if they spoke out publicly. Trusii's owners defend the products and the benefits of hydrogen water, and claim the criticisms are coming from a coordinated group of ex-customers who are working to compete with the company.
Trusii operates in the largely unregulated $40 billion-a-year U.S. market for dietary supplements, where pseudoscience and bogus assertions are rampant. The claims and promises can spread virally to millions of people on social networks, the same way that anti-vaxxers have advanced baseless notions about the dangers of vaccinating children. Start-ups selling things like meal replacement shakes and caffeine pills have even gotten the stamp of approval from top venture capital firms, who carry greater influence than scientists and regulators across much of the biohacking world.
Meanwhile, consumers are largely left to their own devices when it comes to determining a product's legitimacy and the potential risks involved.
Margaux Gunning, a 27-year-old trained nutritionist and yoga instructor in San Diego, tells a story that CNBC heard, in some form, from numerous customers.
Diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2018, Gunning decided to try out Trusii earlier this year after seeing an intriguing Instagram post from DiClementi, who described molecular hydrogen as "therapeutic medical gas." Gunning thought it might help her with her condition, and there appeared to be scientific studies showing potential for molecular hydrogen, though they were mostly limited to rats and mice.
In researching the product online, Gunning learned about a "case study" program designed to analyze "the effects of H2 water therapy." Those admitted into the study would get a Trusii water system at no cost.
Gunning, who's been struggling to work since she got sick, filled out an application and was told to wait 48 hours for a response. She was asked for her contact information and medical history. In the electronic correspondence, she was told the field of "molecular hydrogen is rapidly developing," so this kind of three-year study could have a big impact.
Days later a Trusii representative told her she was accepted into the program. But there was a catch. She would need to take out a $10,000 loan from a financial partner, like GreenSky or LendingPoint, to pay for a Trusii system, and would then be paid back about $275 a month for 36 months for fulfilling certain requirements, such as filling out a questionnaire or posting positive reviews on social media.
In other words, if she stuck with the program for three years, her loan would be settled and she would've paid nothing out of pocket.
Right away, Gunning says things started going awry. When the machine arrived in April, it was broken. The dosage button was defective and a hose that was needed to connect the machine to her water source wasn't included in the package.
She called the company but couldn't get an adequate response about how or when her fountain would be fixed. Then she waited for her reimbursement checks. They never arrived.
As it stands today, Gunning's loan payments are still due to GreenSky and are collecting interest, all while she's fighting to keep up with her medical bills. Gunning filed a sworn statement to GreenSky about her case to try and get the debt canceled and is in ongoing discussions with the lender. She still sends messages to Trusii, including on Instagram, and will get an occasional response promising a resolution. But then radio silence ensues. She said she's called the company at least 50 times in the past few weeks and left at least 10 "please call me" messages.
"They're taking advantage of people who are sick, who are so broke from trying to help themselves," Gunning said in an interview.
Here's a copy of the email that several Trusii customers sent to CNBC:
More than 300 Trusii users, many in the same situation as Gunning, have joined a private Facebook group called "How to save yourself from Trusii," where they discuss tips to get their loans forgiven and share communications they've had with company representatives. Some users told CNBC that after getting admitted into the program and taking out a loan, they got paid for a month or two before the checks stopped arriving.
The borrowers said they agreed to terms in writing but never signed a legal contract.
Heather Anderson, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, said she was told to publish a "boast" video online to promote the product, even after her machine started to develop mold. She got three repayment checks totaling $600 and that was it. A financial technology specialist in Virginia, Anderson said she got out of the loan after providing evidence to her lender of the mold, which she said presented a potential health hazard.
Karen Wondergem, an educator in Arizona with a thyroid-related health issue, said her machine stopped working two months after she received it. A company representative told her over Skype to fix the power supply connection with duct tape. In August, she said, her water started tasting funny and the bottles she filled up had a musty smell. She stopped getting responses from the company.
The next month, with complaints evidently mounting, Trusii sent an email to customers, which CNBC viewed, denying that the machine develops mold but acknowledging that an "unpleasant smell" can develop from people using the wrong type of water. Trusii says that for the machines to work correctly, customers must use either "distilled water or reverse osmosis water with no added minerals," meaning they can't just fill up the machine with ordinary tap water.
Soon after Micah Curtis's Trusii machine arrived in June, it flooded her kitchen. Curtis, who works as a credit specialist in New York, said that experience made her uncomfortable promoting the product to her audience of more than 3,000 Instagram followers.
"I felt that the only way to get paid was to promote them in a review," said Curtis, who now owes $12,000 on a high-interest loan to LendingPoint. Curtis said she's trying to get the loan nullified so it won't impact her credit.
Mark Lorimer, LendingPoint's chief communications and public affairs officer, said the company stopped doing business with Trusii months ago after learning of problems with the study.
"Any LendingPoint customer who used our financing program to acquire their Trusii product and was enrolled in the Trusii Case Study program or received a defective product should call us," Lorimer said.
GreenSky is now suing Trusii in Georgia, where the lender is based, according to court documents. In the lawsuit, Greensky claims that Trusii provided faulty systems to consumers and neglected to pay refunds and has ignored the lender's efforts to communicate with the company. Gerry Benjamin, GreenSky's vice chairman, told CNBC that, "under the GreenSky Program, consumers are not economically responsible for merchant fraud" and that the loan provider is doing what it can to "protect and advocate for the consumer."
Trusii's co-owners, Jeffrey Taraday and Christopher Kennedy, blame the swarm of complaints on a "hysterical mob." In a phone interview last week, they called GreenSky's lawsuit an "overreaction," and, in their legal response to the suit, they said the Georgia court doesn't have jurisdiction over the Florida-based company. They also claimed there was no enforceable contract with GreenSky.
Taraday and Kennedy brushed off the Facebook group, claiming that some of the members are attacking Trusii because they want to create a competitive product and "we are the leaders in hydrogen therapy right now."
The reason many of the customers in the study didn't get paid is that they failed to fulfill the program's requirements, the owners said. They did concede that there have been some problems with the hardware, which they chalked up to "growing pains." As for the case study, they said Trusii didn't make any money from the program and had actually overpaid clients $2.5 million because of an accounting error. Customers who took out loans are still responsible for their monthly payments, Taraday said in a followup email.
On the website for the study, Trusii says the program is "closed to future applicants" though the water "systems are still available for purchase." The company said it is working to fix issues with the machines and other glitches.
Neither owner has his name or contact information on the site. Kennedy, who's the CEO, recently deleted his social media profiles from Facebook and Instagram. His legal predicament may help explain why.
According to court records from Broward County, Florida, where Trusii is based, Kennedy was arrested in February on five criminal charges — one for second-degree organized fraud and four for third-degree grand theft — related to alleged offenses from 2014. They involve actions separate from his ownership of Trusii. The complaint affidavit says Kennedy had a used vehicle business called Command Customs and, in several instances, had agreements to sell a Jeep or truck to another party. The customers paid for the vehicle and then waited as Kennedy was supposedly making repairs or applying a new paint job. But after weeks of waiting, they never got the truck or a refund.
"The victims would eventually no longer be able to reach Christopher Kennedy and never received the vehicle, a refund, or an explanation as to what happened to their funds," the affidavit says.
Kennedy pleaded not guilty and is currently out on a $14,000 bond, with a court date scheduled for Oct. 7, according to the filings.
He told CNBC that he will soon be "vindicated in court," and that the case had no bearing on his work at Trusii. He said he removed his social media profiles because he is being "harassed by people who are out for blood."
It's not just former customers and lenders voicing their complaints about Trusii. William Kuo was a part owner of the company and said he lost $70,000, investing in the business and maxing out his credit card without making a salary for four years. Kuo, who's in the personal health space and helps clients with a specialized stretching technique, said in the past he would do whatever he could to help the company grow, including providing his therapy services to clients for free.
Kuo left Trusii this year.
"Trusii has a habit of not paying people, including me," said Kuo.
Taraday said in an email that Kuo was a former partner who is now working with Trusii competitors, in part through the Facebook group, to "spread lies and deploy bullying tactics to create an environment of mistrust, hysteria, and confusion." He said Kuo was engaged in an unauthorized side business involving Trusii's clients, and that he was removed from his role as the head of the company's servicing department after he told customers to take their machines apart.
Kuo called the explanation laughable and said there was no services department. It was just him volunteering to fix customers' systems and chat with clients who had problems.
DiClementi, the one-time Trusii promoter, is no longer on board. As an evangelist, he posted on his Instagram feed in July a video featuring a black square box that shot out water with a few taps of a button. The Trusii system "helps our cells and the little energy powerhouses of those cells make more energy so that you recover faster from your workouts and have enhanced mental clarity," DiClementi wrote at the time.
He has since taken the post down. DiClementi, who said he remains optimistic about the potential of molecular hydrogen, acknowledged in an interview that he, his parents and others in the community got wrapped up in the Trusii situation, which "created a financial and emotional strain on all of them."
Another influencer who publicly distanced himself from Trusii is human optimization enthusiast Kyle Kingsbury. In a podcast, Kingsbury expressed his concerns about the number of people who say, "I think it's a scam." He said he's still on the hook for a $10,000 machine.
Trusii continues to sell its products online. The H2ProElite System costs $6,720 and the higher-end H2Elite sells for $9,770. The company also makes molecular hydrogen tablets — 60 per bottle — which dissolve in eight to 10 ounces of water.
Taraday said hydrogen therapy is a "paradigm shifting product."
But public health researchers remind consumers that the health claims from hydrogen water enthusiasts aren't yet backed up by scientific research.
"These companies use science-y language to give their product legitimacy and intuitive appeal," said Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law at the University of Alberta in Canada, and research director of its Health Law Institute. "But the evidence is far from convincing. As far as I can tell there isn't any robust data to support the claims made by these companies."
Some of the customers who voiced complaints said their loans were forgiven, allowing them to move on with their lives. Others, like Rachel Smith, are still in limbo. Smith, who's about to start medical school in Florida, is worried that bad credit could hurt her ability to find housing while she's studying. She was told by Trusii she'd get paid $400 a month, but she says her machine wasn't working so she tried to return it within the given 30-day window.
Nobody at Trusii is returning calls, and she's currently on the hook for a loan from LendingPoint. Smith has Hashimoto's disease, which damages the thyroid and currently has no cure.
"In retrospect, sometimes I think I should have known," Smith said. "But if you have health issues, you'll do anything."