Health Fraud - How To Spot It
You don't have to look far to find a health product that's totally bogus--or a consumer who's totally unsuspecting. Promotions for fraudulent products show up daily in newspaper and magazine ads and TV "infomercials." They accompany products sold in stores, on the Internet, and through mail-order catalogs. They're passed along by word-of-mouth.
And consumers respond, spending billions of dollars a year on fraudulent health products, according to Stephen Barrett, M.D., head of Quackwatch Inc., a nonprofit corporation that combats health fraud. Hoping to find a cure for what ails them, improve their well-being, or just look better, consumers often fall victim to products and devices that do nothing more than cheat them out of their money, steer them away from useful, proven treatments, and possibly do more bodily harm than good.
"There's a lot of money to be made," says Bob Gatling, director of the program operations staff in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. "People want to believe there's something that can cure them."
FDA describes health fraud as "articles of unproven effectiveness that are promoted to improve health, well being or appearance." The articles can be drugs, devices, foods, or cosmetics for human or animal use.
How can you avoid being scammed by a worthless product? Though health fraud marketers have become more sophisticated about selling their products, Aronson says, these charlatans often use the same old phrases and gimmicks to gain consumers' attention--and trust. You can protect yourself by learning some of their techniques.
Beware of the following claims:
Cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and other serious diseases are big draws because people with these diseases are often desperate for a cure and willing to try just about anything.
Personal Testimonials. Personal testimonies can tip you off to health fraud because they are difficult to prove. Often, says Reynaldo Rodriguez, a compliance officer and health fraud coordinator for FDA's Dallas district office, testimonials are personal case histories that have been passed on from person to person. Or, the testimony can be completely made up.
"This is the weakest form of scientific validity," Rodriguez says. "It's just compounded hearsay."
Some patients' favorable experiences with a fraudulent product may be due more to a remission in their disease or from earlier or concurrent use of approved medical treatments, rather than use of the fraudulent product itself.
"Quick Fixes." Be wary of talk that suggests a product can bring quick relief or provide a quick cure, especially if the disease or condition is serious. Even with proven treatments, few diseases can be treated quickly. Note also that the words "in days" can really refer to any length of time. Fraud promoters like to use ambiguous language like this to make it easier to finagle their way out of any legal action that may result.
Product is "Natural." Don't be fooled by the term
"natural." It's often used in health fraud as an attention-grabber; it
suggests a product is safer than conventional treatments. But the term doesn't
necessarily equate to safety because some plants--for example, poisonous
mushrooms--can kill when ingested. And among legitimate drug products, says
Shelly Maifarth, a compliance officer and health fraud coordinator for FDA's
Denver district office, 60 percent of over-the-counter drugs and 25 percent of
prescription drugs are based on natural ingredients.
Time-Tested or New-Found Treatment. Usually it's one or the other, but
this claim manages to suggest it's both a breakthrough and a decades-old remedy.
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