SF, US Craigslist awash in fallacious Scientology depression counseling ads

Summary:Hundreds of new Craigslist ads in San Francisco and other US cities target people seeking help and counseling for depression and panic attacks. The ads do not reveal they are for Scientology. UPDATED: Counter ads informing the public are the result of an Anonymous campaign.

craigslist

Across the US, Craigslist is being flooded with hundreds of postings that advertise counseling services for depression, anxiety and more - but the unnamed "non profit organization" posting the ads is not licensed for counseling.

The ads posted by the dozen in San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere do not say the word "Scientology" or "Dianetics" anywhere on them.

All of the ads have a Dianetics Hotline number for contact, and many provide an address for each city's local Dianetics Foundation.

The ads leading to local Dianetics Foundations look like they're from counselors, therapists, mental health support groups, networking clubs, and even detox programs.

In San Francisco, dozens of the ads were posted on October 1st.

Update October 2, 2:20pm PST: ZDNet has learned that counter posts on Craigslist across the US are coming from the entity Anonymous, based on research and discussion in this Anonymous Activism thread. They have also posted an alleged Church of Scientology how-to document on successful covert Craisgslist spamming.

Search San Francisco Craisglist in the "community" section using the Dianetics Foundation phone number for a sample selection.

A September 30th San Francisco Financial District ad "Help for People With Anxiety" reads:

Do you have anxiety, stress, or depression? Come to our group. We have free workshops and lectures as well as counseling available. Call (800) 801-3944 and ask for Dana.

We are a non-profit organization and we care. 701 Montgomery St San Francisco, CA 94111

The clandestine Scientology ad headlines in San Francisco offer Panic Attacks ReliefDepression Assistance, a Group for Depression, Anxiety, and StressHelp for People With Anxiety and Relationship Support and Classes - and much more.

All of the postings lead to the Church of Scientology.

The ads claim to be from "a group" or a "non profit organization."

Most of the ads point out that the counseling and range of help is free. Some of the ads promise free life coaches.

If anything is well known about the classic personal challenges in Bay Area startup, tech and hacking arenas, it's that techies are acutely prone to depression and anxiety - and that boot-strappers typically can't afford health insurance.

Promising free mental health help for depression and anxiety (with counseling) conveniently preys on the Bay Area's tech population, many of whom can't afford a psychiatrist or medications.

The bait-and-switch Craigslist ads may not be specifically targeting tech professionals, but the population's predisposition toward depression and anxiety is certainly more vulnerable than most to Scientology's specious marketing.

Someone has noticed Scientology's sneaky ads and in the past few days have been posting prank ads which point out that Scientology is behind the mental health counseling ad campaign.

The prank ads have obvious headlines such as San Francisco's "Do you have imaginary friends" Are they from other planets?"

One anti-Dianetics headline says, "Free life coaches are worth every penny you spend on them!" and lists the various phone numbers and addresses for Dianetics foundations that have been used as contact information in the problematic Craigslist ads.

The concentration of the deceptive ads is in the San Francisco Bay Area, and appear to have started around September 27.

Two other big targets have been Austin and Houston, Texas - incidentally also technology and startup hubs.

Some response ads for Austin Craigslist have been very direct warnings. Using the same headline as one of the cloaked Scientology ads, one warning states:

Did you know that this ad is ONE OF over 100 ads currently posted by Scientology on this board? These ads promise to resolve all of your problems, whether they be: depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, divorced, self esteem, fears, etc. . ...but they never identify who they are, or what their professional credentials are.

What you need to know is this - these ads are posted by Scientology people who lack any professional credentials for counseling.

(…) Beware of them - all ads with these phone numbers: (512) 474-6631 and (512) 626-0588 (sometimes mis-typed as: (512)6260588).

Business Insider reported yesterday that the Craigslist ads outing Scientology's tricky postings are coming from hacktivist entity Anonymous, but so far none of the response ads state that Anonymous is directly taking credit.

A few of the covert Austin Craigslist ads from Dianetics claim something not seen in the San Francisco Scientology ads, "Detoxification Program Now Being Delivered."

Many of the Scientology ads in targeted cities across the US have similar mistypings in the local Dianetics Foundation phone number included on the ads.

On Houston Craigslist currently around 100 of the Scientology ads remain.

The sneaky Houston Craigslist Dianetics Foundation ads offer the same as San Francisco - panic attack relief, depression counseling - for as far back as early September, and continue up to the present.

Only for five days in September (23-28) did the Dianetics Houston Craigslist ads identify that the postings were actually for Scientology.

Laws around advertising as a therapist are strict when it comes to misleading a reader. In California a psychotherapist - licensed or unlicensed - must "... avoid any advertising that is, or can be reasonably construed as false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive. The omission of important information, as well as the inclusion of certain words and phrases, can render an advertisement false, misleading, or deceptive."

But the Scientology ads don't claim to be from psychotherapists or offer psychotherapy.

The Scientology ads also do not claim to offer accredited counseling - just counseling.

If they did, they might fall under the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) advertising rules and Code of Ethics, which state:

Mental health counselors advertise the following: highest counseling-related degree, type and level of certification or license, and type and/or description of services or other relevant information concerning areas of clinical competence.

These statements will not be false, inaccurate, misleading, or out of context.

The Craigslist Terms of Use forbid "False or fraudulent content" but it remains to be seen whether or not the disguised Scientology ads offering mental health care would fall into that realm.

Like with anything - perhaps especially when Xenu is involved - this is definitely an instance of 'buyer beware.'

Topics: Health, Legal

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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