In December 2018, around the same time she was diagnosed with endometriosis, Lindsey Lavender noticed a new set of seemingly targeted ads on her Facebook and Instagram feeds. They were for a period cramp management system called Livia: a little square-shaped device, no bigger than a colorful iPod mini, that claimed to use a minimal electric current to stimulate the skin and muscles, and block the pain from cramps. Sick of taking a bunch of medication every month to get through her extremely painful periods, Lavender, 28, asked her gynecologist if the Livia might be a good option. Though her doctor had never heard of it, she told Lavender that if she thought it might help, she should give it a try.
And for a while, the Livia did help. It wasn’t the total “off switch for menstrual pain” that it billed itself as, but Lavender tells VICE that it more-or-less did what it was supposed to do, which was make her cramps less bad. But about a month later, Lavender and her gyno agreed that she needed to stop having her period altogether. Which would mean no more cramps, and no more use for the Livia. Lavender reached out to Livia to ask about returning her device within the advertised 120-day window; she was paying for nursing school, facing new expenses related to managing her endometriosis, and wanted to recoup the $150 she spent on her now-unnecessary device.
A customer service rep responded that Lavender was well within Livia’s promised “120-day, money-back guarantee” window and they’d accept her device. A few weeks later, she packed it up, paid the $8 shipping with tracking to send it to an address in Georgia, and waited for the money to hit her account. And then she continued to wait for seven months, as various customer service employees representing Livia dodged Lavender’s repeated requests for information on when she’d get her “guaranteed” money back.
Scores of complaints on basically every online forum available—Trustpilot, the Better Business Bureau website, and Livia’s Facebook page—document an almost identical experience. Despite Livia’s promises of a “risk-free” trial and “money-back guarantee,” dozens of women say they ordered the device, returned it after communicating with a customer service rep, and months later, are still waiting to get their money back.
In an email statement sent to VICE, Chen Nachun, Livia’s CEO, writes that the company is proactively looking into the issue, and adds that Livia “was founded with a desire to help women who often cannot find safe, drug-free relief from menstrual pain elsewhere; our company was founded to help women.” But women who are waiting upwards of six months to get their money back say they feel duped, not helped.
“Maybe they just really don’t have their stuff together—but if this is a predatory model, then they’re preying on young women who are in pain and looking for a solution,” Monica*, who’s been waiting for her own Livia refund since early March 2019, tells VICE. “That’s what makes me really angry.”
Livia became available in 2016, after crowdfunding more than $1.7 million through Indiegogo. The small device, which is just a little box and two wires with sticky pads that attach to the skin, advertised itself as a way to stop period cramps without taking any medication. It’s meant to do this using something the company refers to as “gate control theory,” which is an idea that a non-pain sensation can distract the body from feeling a nearby painful one. As Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN and author of The Vagina Bible, wrote back in May 2016 on her personal website, the Livia is, essentially, a cute TENS unit; a common medical device that manages pain by pulsing electricity through the muscles.
“This is not new technology and it isn’t new for period pain. I have been prescribing them for well over 10 years,” Gunter wrote. “As TENS technology for period pain has been around for a long time it seems rather disingenuous to call it ‘new.’ And then there is the $85 cost—you can get a decent one on Amazon for $30.”
The Livia now costs more than double its originally advertised $85. At full-price, it’s $200, though the women VICE spoke with all got their devices at a discounted price of $150 (Livia often runs promotions). Monica, 26, initially thought she’d order her Livia through Amazon, but was drawn to the promotion and 120-day return window on Livia’s website, since she was concerned about a skin sensitivity. In an email shared with VICE, a Livia customer service rep assured Monica that if she ordered “through the Livia website, [she’d] get a 120-day money back period.”
The words “TRY LIVIA RISK-FREE” and “100% Money Back Guarantee” are plastered across the Livia homepage, promises that eased the sticker shock of a $150 device. “It took me a couple months to get on board with purchasing something of that amount without really being able to touch it,” Morgan Stueckler, 20, tells VICE.
Stueckler has endometriosis and runs a support group for it online; she was ultimately convinced to buy the Livia after another woman in her group said it’d worked for her. “It doesn’t necessarily work on the worst days possible, but it helps with the mild to moderate cramping,” she says. She’s had her Livia since June 2018, and last month, the small plastic clip that’s meant to keep the device attached to a waistband broke. Stueckler tried to use Livia’s two-year warranty, and a rep told her she had to pay to ship it to an address in Savannah, Georgia.
“To clarify: That would mean that I have to pay to ship back a device that has broken before the warranty is up, not have the device for upwards of months because it takes so long for you to ship the new one here, and I must have the original packing ship from over a year ago?” Stueckler wrote in response. “That seems like a scam and also a terrible way to do business.”
The company replied this was its policy, “and we should follow it.” But during this exchange, Stueckler started reading reviews on Livia’s Facebook page. A few positive reviews that read like ad copy were sprinkled in among negative reviews that admonish Livia’s customer service, and mention waiting months for promised refunds.
“I've read that a lot of people have sent it back and then not gotten another device or a refund,” Stueckler says. “I'm an endometriosis patient, the device is really helpful for me; going a couple months without anything would be really difficult. I would be more worried about sending it back and then nothing.” She decided to keep the partially functional device rather than risk losing it, and her money.
Comments still trickle in on Livia’s ultra-successful Indiegogo page every few months, and almost every one from the past several years is a complaint related to customer service:
“Do not buy this. I bought one, it took over a year to arrive. Then only worked for 4 months before it no longer charged. Now I’m being told if I want a new one I have to ship the old one at my own expense to Israel,” reads one comment, posted about a year ago. “As an original Indiegogo funder I'm frustrated I didn't pay more attention to the problems people were having with the company before we finally got the Livias. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and basically had my money stolen from me. This company is a sham for substandard Tens machines.”
The best year for the company seems to have been 2018, when the device received a Gold Edison Award in the Women’s Wellbeing category, as well as a Femtech award from Women’s Health magazine. These awards are posted on the Livia website, just above a button that reads, “Try it risk-free.”
In an emailed statement, Nachum wrote that the company is “deeply apologetic for any inconvenience caused,” and that Livia is tracking each case closely and has been in contact with each customer who has requested a refund. After posting negative reviews about her experience on Facebook, Twitter, and Trustpilot, Monica was told to contact a customer service rep named Adi directly, and on Thursday morning, finally heard that she was being issued a refund.
Lavender had a similar experience. She’d given up on trying to get her money back, even though, as a nursing student, she could really use her $150 back. She posted a negative review on the Livia Facebook page in June of this year, and two months later, someone within the company got in touch after seeing her post and said she’d like to give her the refund she was long overdue. “I received it in the beginning of September,” Lavender says. “It took me seven months to get my refund of 150 bucks.”
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