The Seedy Underbelly of Rehab Centers’ Online Marketing
Just over a year ago, I wrote about the curious marketing of addiction treatment centers online, which used what I believed to be deceptive marketing practices.
The email that arrived on Oct. 2, 2013 piqued my curiosity yet again. It was promoting a self-made infographic about “porn addicted” communities online. It came from a website called “Project Know.”
Sounds interesting, right?
The email started my second investigation into the seedy underbelly of the online marketing practices of rehab and addiction treatment centers. You know the ones, as you’ve probably seen at least one of their advertisements on TV, too.
For most people, recovering from addiction is a difficult and trying process — marked by failure as much as it is success. Lack of scientific evidence aside, residential treatment centers (also known as addiction recovery centers or rehab centers) purport to offer a safe, supportive treatment environment for a person to detox from their addiction, typically for up to 30 days away from home.
Because it’s such a lucrative business, it’s also highly competitive. Addiction treatment centers vie aggressively for new customers. While TV advertisements are one obvious form of their pushy marketing efforts, it pales in comparison to some treatment centers’ efforts online.
In a three-month investigation, I found companies utilizing anonymity in the creation of multiple seemingly-independent websites. One has even gone so far as to apparently create a non-profit organization in order to, at least in part, drive traffic to their own treatment services.
Project Know is Run by Recovery Brands
When I asked Sam, the person who emailed me about “Project Know,” he replied:
“ProjectKnow.com has been in operation since 1998 and is owned by Recovery Brands, a consumer addiction treatment information provider. I understand and respect your concern with the actual research side.”
Sam was at least forthcoming about who owns the domain today, because you won’t find the words “Recovery Brands” anywhere on the site itself. In fact, the website doesn’t even have an “About Us” page.
While the domain has indeed been registered since 1998, a quick visit to archive.org shows you the true history of this project. It was begun in 1998 as a government-sponsored website that hosted marketing materials for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The government funding for this website dried up in 2002, so the following year, the website was acquired by a domain squatter. In 2006, the domain was acquired by an SEO marketing firm that was apparently hoping to get some paid addiction treatment centers to advertise on the site.
Why would anyone want to advertise on a long-dead website that was once a resource for a government anti-drug campaign? Because a lot of people still linked to that government website and never updated their links after it went away. The website therefore continued to enjoy some traffic and Google ranking from those links.
Recovery Brands acquired the domain early in 2012, when it closed a seed funding round for $600,000. It also owns and operates rehabs.com and recovery.com, among many other unbranded sites.
At least Recovery Brands isn’t an addiction treatment center pretending to be an objective third party. They are simply a referral service, with a straightforward business model of connecting addicted consumers to a treatment center. The toll-free number that shows up their websites often is tailored to your geographic location and treatment needs.
“You may see a different phone number depending on what section of the site it is,” said Jeff Smith, the CEO of Recovery Brands, in an interview I had with him in October 2013. “From there, we match you with clients that are specific to the type of treatment [a person is looking for].”
Taking Fake Websites to An Art Form
But Recovery Brands can’t hold a candle to Dan Callahan, the CEO and owner of Solutions Recovery Center which apparently also operates the Paradise Recovery Center1 in South Florida. Caught between drinking and armed robbery, Callahan’s early adult life was headed in the wrong direction. But as he recounts here in a story he wrote for SAMHSA, he turned his life around, earning a Master’s degree from Fordham University and entering the human service field.
Since August 2012, he’s led Solutions. The rehab center appears to be a run-of-the-mill program offering the usual menu of residential addiction recovery services, with Callahan’s own unique twist.
But after digging a little below the surface, it appears that Callahan and his son Sean Callahan (yes, the same Sean Callahan I wrote about a year ago) are behind an intricate web of seemingly-independent websites and companies that support his South Florida recovery enterprise.
My interest in Callahan was ironically instigated by a slew of emails I’ve received over the past year from “Jeffrey Redd, Outreach Director.” The most recent one had the subject line, “Thanks for the Healthcare.gov mention.”
“I was doing some research about addiction, and noticed you mention HealthCare.gov on http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bipolar-life/2013/07/healthcare-reform-part-2/. . They are obviously one of the more important sites for people to visit due to current events.
It may also be important to mention the major change that is happening in the substance abuse, and mental health fields as it relates to these regulations. I helped create an article on QuitAlcohol.com you can see it here: http://www.quitalcohol.com/health-insurance-and-addiction.html”
Jeffrey Redd’s email address was firstname.lastname@example.org. Despite Jeff’s carefully-crafted email, it was immediately apparent he had no connection to Healthcare.gov (an official federal website). So why was he thanking me for our mention of it?
When I visited QuitAlcohol.com, a few red warning flags were immediately raised. It wasn’t long before I discovered it was one of nearly a dozen websites apparently operated or owned behind the scenes by Dan Callahan or his son Sean Callahan. These include:
None of these websites list their affiliation with Solutions Recovery Center directly. Yet despite attempts to hide their ownership (such as using domain privacy proxy services and creating web hosting accounts on different servers so they can’t readily be traced back to one owner), telltale signs start becoming apparent:
1. The About Us page either doesn’t exist, or exists but is populated with fictional information.
For example, this page at QuitAlcohol.com says “Kim Beveraly” is behind the site. But that’s the only Kim Beveraly online today, says Google. And Kim’s photo comes from Mailchimp’s staff page (Marti Wolf, HR manager). Only two of the websites identify Dan Callahan as the owner — addictionlibrary.org and drugless.org — but they both fail to mention he heads an recovery center.
It’s always fun to see people copy and paste boilerplate privacy policies, only to go and put their own unique twist on them that make them stand out.
These privacy policies also often share the exact same business address — 16145 State Road 7, Unit B, Delray Beach, FL 33446. This is the address of “Website Consultants,” a company headed by Dan’s son Sean Callahan and Sean’s friend, Richard (“Rick”) Glaser.
3. A non-profit has a phony About Us page & makes no mention of its affiliation with a treatment center.
The USA Addiction Treatment Partnership is a non-profit company incorporated in Florida. Its articles of incorporation show Dan Callahan as President, Sean Callahan as VP, and Richard Glaser as Treasurer. Yet you’ll see no mention of them on the Treatmentparternship.org’s About Us page:
Like the other About Us pages on these domains, it is populated by apparently three fictional staffers using stock photography headshots. Its telephone number rings to “Ira,” an admissions director at Solutions.
4. No matter what website you’re on, Ira Fox will help you.
While many of the websites will show a different toll-free telephone number to call, they all ring to the same person. When I called any of the different numbers on various days, they rang to “Ira Fox, Solutions Recovery Center” or, “It’s a great day. This is Ira, how many I help you?” or to his voicemail. (The one exception is withdrawal.org, which is showing a SAMHSA phone number — yet has absolutely zero affiliation with this government organization.2 )
5. The Google Analytics code in many of the websites track back to the same parent account.
The obvious conflict-of-interest problem with hosting so many seemingly-independent sites is that in addition to the different toll-free numbers all ringing into a Solutions Recovery staffer, they also publish editorial content such as, The Best Alcohol Rehab Centers (Top 10 List). Perhaps of surprise to no one, Solutions Recovery Center is No. 1 and Paradise Recovery Center is No. 3 — both ranking above such world-renowned mainstays as the Betty Ford Clinic and Hazelden.3
Dan Callahan initially agreed to be interviewed for this piece, but then bowed out at the last minute citing family priorities. When invited to reschedule the interview, he declined.
Recovering from an addiction is hard enough for most people to even consider undertaking treatment. The Internet offers a rich wealth of information to help a person learn more about a mental health concern like addiction, and make informed, empowering decisions.
But that process can be subverted by marketing efforts such as these. If you’re an addiction specialist or expert, there’s little legitimate reason to create nearly a dozen different websites to host your knowledge and to share your experiences. There’s even less reason to pretend these sites are independent, other than an effort to — in my opinion — apparently deceive the consumer into believing that one recovery center is better than all the rest.
While I singled out two such instances of these, in my opinion, deceptive online marketing behaviors, there are a dozen more companies doing similar things I haven’t (yet) cited. If this industry doesn’t clean up its online marketing practices, prepare to see more investigative articles of this nature in the future.
Residential addiction treatment centers sometimes have a less-than-stellar reputation among treatment professionals. Given what I’ve seen with some centers’ online marketing efforts, consumers have a good reason to be skeptical.
- Oddly, there is no active “Paradise Recovery Center” registered with the Florida Division of Corporations (even as a fictional name). But the website refers to Dan Callahan’s unmistakably unique story, “Paradise Recovery Center was started by a former alcoholic that turned his life around. Now with over 25 years sober, he is spreading the message of hope to everyone,” while the domain is registered to his son. Based upon a previous version of Solutions’ website, it appears that Paradise Recovery Center is simply one of Solution’s facilities. [↩]
- They appear to update this list every month, slightly changing the rankings and title of the article. But every month, Solutions and Paradise will occupy two of the top three spots. Beachway Therapy Center, the focus of my prior investigation, is also always on the list. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2014). The Seedy Underbelly of Rehab Centers’ Online Marketing. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 30, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/04/28/the-seedy-underbelly-of-rehab-centers-online-marketing/