Old scams find new life on the Internet
Posted August 10, 2009
One of the most despicable forms of online fraud is perpetrated against people struggling with serious, even life threatening, illnesses who are eager for a cure from any quarter, no matter how unlikely.
Health fraud is a growing problem online. The FDA describes health fraud as offering "articles of unproven effectiveness that are promoted to improve health, well being, or appearance."
Scammers and quack products run the gamut from miracle drugs to medical devices, foods, even cosmetics. Whether offered in the form of a fruit juice, a vitamin pill, salve, or inhalant, the companies that offer these products provide jargon and hype with amazing claims of success to people at an especially vulnerable time.
Martin Katz, an FDA compliance officer, has said "Most people who are taken in by health fraud will grasp at anything. They're not going to do the research. They're looking for a miracle."
Government agencies are trying to get the message across, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. In an effort to catch health fraud crooks, the FDA and FTC work jointly; the FDA oversees safety, manufacturing, and product labeling while the FTC regulates product advertising. But they face formidable challenges as the volume of scams and fraudulent sites is overwhelming.
Health Fraud Goes Online
Health fraud has been around for thousands of years, ever since the first peddler figured out that he could make money offering a miracle elixir from the back of his cart. The Internet simply provides a new distribution method for medical fraud that offers a huge audience for these snake oil cures.
Gary Coody, national health fraud coordinator at the FDA, has outlined the challenge and one step to overcoming it. "Because of the sheer volume of fraudulent health products and their accessibility from foreign locations, the FDA has forged partnerships with many federal, state, and international enforcement agencies."
Simple online searches reveal that the many victims of health fraud suffer from a variety of illnesses and conditions, including:
• Heart disease
• Sexual dysfunction
People with these and other conditions should be aware of several problems with online drugs and miracle cures:
1. These products may be contaminated, diluted, ineffective, out of date, or have harmful side effects. Any product, synthetic or natural, potent enough to work like a drug is going to be potent enough to cause side effects, and any treatments you use without a prescription can have adverse reactions with medications you're already taking.
2. Beyond these direct risks of damage from taking the spurious cures, there is an indirect risk: taking them instead of proven treatments could mean that patients get sicker and in extreme cases, die.
3. Cost. The goal of these scams is to steal money by selling hope. At best patients are purchasing placebos where only their pockets incur damage—some end up throwing their life's savings, even incurring debt in their pursuit of health. Many are paying for products that abbreviate rather than prolong their lives.
How rampant is health fraud online? Consider the results for some health cures that I received on a Google search recently:
• 44,800 results for "black salve" a cancer treatment which claims to draw cancer out through the skin but in reality burns healthy skin tissue and causes severe scarring.
• 11,100 for Hoxsey cancer treatment, an unproven herbal remedy that the FDA has tried to get rid of since the 1950s.
• 3,150,000 results for diabetes cures (diabetes can't be cured, just managed).
• Weight loss gets a whopping 70,300,000 results. Weight loss pills alone commands 2,120,000 links. There just isn't a guaranteed weight loss supplement that the 6 o'clock news and your doctor missed, though there are several that can cause serious harm.
Though some search results lead you to scholarly articles, a great many more lead to fraudulent sites. Online it is easy to pose as a medical practitioner and make wild claims that link to a variety of "supporting medical studies."
Learn the Warning Signs
Health fraud con artists use the same tactics and phrases repeatedly. Learning to spot them can help you avoid scam sites and offers.
Health fraud red flags, according to the FTC, include:
• Web sites that offer quick and dramatic cures for a variety of ailments. "Beneficial in treating cancer, ulcer, prostate problems, heart trouble, and more…"
• Statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases. "Shrinks tumors, cures impotency…"
• Promotions that use words like "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient," and "ancient remedy."
• Text that uses impressive-sounding terms like: "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis" for a weight loss product. These terms are sometimes plucked out of scientific journals, but they may have nothing to do with the disease or condition you have—let alone legitimize the "cure" you're being peddled.
• Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results. "After eating a teaspoon of this product each day, my pain is completely gone…" Most are made up, and others are hearsay. Some patients' recoveries may be due to a remission of the disease from previous or concurrent treatments.
• Limited availability and advance payment requirements. "Hurry! This offer will not last."
• Promises of no-risk money-back guarantees. "If after 30 days you have not lost at least four pounds each week, your uncashed check will be returned to you."
• Promises of an "easy" fix. For many serious diseases there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them.
• Paranoid accusations—suggesting that health-care providers and legitimate manufacturers are in league with each other to suppress this miracle cure.
Look closely at the vocabulary used by these Web sites:
• The words "in days" can mean any amount of time.
• The term "rapid" is ambiguous.
• Don't be fooled by the term "natural"—it doesn't equate to safe. Many natural ingredients are extremely lethal—cyanide, for example, is found in many common plants. Conversely, 60 percent of over the counter drugs and 25 percent of prescription drugs are based on natural ingredients, alternative cures having no exclusivity on the use of natural ingredients.
Beware of products offered as a "FREE TRIAL!—You pay only shipping and handling."
• In these cases, the charges levied for shipping and handling are the way they make their money. Think about it, if the "pills" cost them 45 cents, and the mailing costs $2.00, but they charge $19.95 in shipping and handling, they still earn $17.50 from every customer. If they can scam ten thousand consumers they've earned $175,000 dollars.
Resisting the Hype
Products that cure serious diseases are widely reported in the media, not discovered on obscure Web sites. No matter how desperate you are for a cure, it doesn't make sense to believe someone who claims to be the exclusive supplier of a miracle cure.
If you are older, you are at unique risk and so should be especially vigilant. Senior citizens are often targeted by sales pitches that play to emotions—"look younger," "lose weight overnight," or "cure cancer."
To check out a health product you encounter online, the FDA suggests that you:
• Check the source. Make sure the company is based in your country by calling its phone number and verifying its address. If you are a United States citizen, for example, you can file complaints against US companies but you are out of luck if you don't get what was promised from a foreign-based company.
• Talk to a doctor or other health professional whom you trust, and then follow that advice.
• Be mistrustful of treatments offered by people who tell you to avoid talking to others because "it's a secret treatment or cure."
• Check with the Better Business Bureau or your attorney general's office for complaints.
• Check with a relevant professional medical group such as the American Heart Association or National Arthritis Foundation.
• Contact your local FDA office (find the number in the blue pages of your phone book, or go to FDA.gov) to find out if they've taken any action against the product or its marketer.
• Report fraud to the service provider where the ad was posted, to the Better Business Bureau, and to the FDA.
Visit my company's site at ILookBothWays.com to learn more about spotting online fraud and scams.
Nancy Muir is the VP of Content and Curriculum for Look Both Ways, an Internet safety company (ilookbothways.com) and the author of over 50 books on computers and the Internet. Nancy has taught technical writing and Internet safety at the university level, holds a certificate in Distance Learning Design, and has been a senior manager in both the software and computer publishing industries.