Watch Out for Health Quacks

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Health quacks are people who sell useless or even harmful unproven remedies for everything ranging from A to Z. Offering false hope to those affected by myriad conditions, quacks pocket millions of dollars from unsuspecting consumers each year.

The elderly and those with chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, HIV, and multiple sclerosis are the most common targets for unscrupulous "cure-all" promoters. Many health quacks go after people who are overweight, promising fast painless weight-loss systems or products.

You can take steps to ensure that you do not fall victim to health quacks. The Federal Trade Commission and the National Institutes of Health offer the following tips for recognizing suspicious products and services. In general, you should be wary of:

  1. Products that claim to provide relief or cures for a number of different conditions.
  2. Special, ancient, or "secret" formulas, sometimes only available from one company.
  3. Promises of quick and easy weight loss without diet or exercise.
  4. Products that advertise prompt and painless cures.
  5. Products that promise cures for diseases with no known cure.
  6. Testimonials about miracles or breakthroughs that have not been documented in the medical literature.
  7. Products that require advance payments, offer a "free" bonus or extra product with purchase, or suppliers who claim limited availability of their product.
  8. Offers using terminology such as "scientific breakthrough," "miracle cure" and other superlatives or vague, scientific-sounding terms.
  9. "Money-back" guarantees if success is not achieved.

Be very skeptical of any offer that sounds too good to be true. Never make a snap judgment to purchase a product if you are unsure of its effectiveness or have doubts about its reliability. Legitimate, valid treatment options will still be available after you have had time to gather more information..

Companies that promote legitimate products should not urge you to make fast decisions and will not discourage you from asking an expert for advice. Discuss your concerns with your health care provider or pharmacist and ask their opinion of any products or services you may be considering.

If you have cancer, HIV, or another serious condition and wish to try an experimental treatment, your doctor can direct you to clinical trials carried out by licensed physicians and regulated by health care agencies. Remember, quacks not only promote useless therapies, but also products and treatments that can harm you, or even worsen your condition.

To report a health product that you believe is being advertised falsely, contact:

  • The FTC by phone, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TDD (for the hearing impaired): 1-866-653-4261; by mail to Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; or online at Click on "File a Complaint Online."
  • Your state Attorney General's office, state department of health, or local consumer protection agency. These offices are listed in the blue pages of your telephone book.

References: "Miracle Health Claims," Federal Trade Commission online publication, Sept. 2001; National Institute on Aging, "Age Page," Department of Health and Human Services, September 2002

Last Editorial Review: 11/7/2006