Feature Archive

Fight Back Against the Quacks

Don't Be Fooled

By Jed Nitzberg
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Jan. 21, 2002 -- Just as the saying goes: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." People take this advice all the time -- except when it comes to healthcare. The never-ending quest to look better or feel better leads people to spend millions on fake -- or downright dangerous -- potions, lotions, pills, and devices. Worst of all, quackery can keep people from seeking appropriate medical care, sometimes until it's too late and the damage is done.

The Victims

According to the National Institute on Aging, people of all ages are fair game for quackery, but older people form the largest group of victims. In fact, a federal study found that 60% of all victims of healthcare fraud are older people.

Most people who are taken in by a quack's worthless and often dangerous "treatments" are desperate for some offer of hope. Because older people as a group have more chronic illnesses than younger people, they are likely targets for fraud.

What Do Quacks Promise?

Anti-Aging. The normal processes of aging are a rich territory for medical quackery. In a youth-oriented society, quacks find it easy to promote a wide variety of products. They simply say their products can stop or reverse aging processes or relieve conditions associated with old age. While there are products that may reduce wrinkles or reverse baldness for some people, these products cannot slow the body's aging process

Arthritis Remedies. Arthritis "remedies" are especially easy to fall for because symptoms of arthritis tend to come and go. People with arthritis easily associate the remedy they are using with relief from symptoms. Arthritis sufferers have paid for bottled seawater, "extracts" from New Zealand green lipped mussels, and Chinese herbal medicines (which may not have herbs but may contain drugs that are dangerous). There is no cure for most forms of arthritis, but proven treatments can help reduce pain and enable greater movement.


Cancer Cures. Quacks prey on the older person's fear of cancer by offering "treatments" that have no proven value -- for example, a diet dangerously low in protein or drugs such as Laetrile. By using unproven methods, patients may lose valuable time and the chance to receive proven, effective therapy. This can reduce the chance for controlling or curing the disease.

Four Steps to Protecting Yourself

1) One way to protect yourself is to question carefully what you see or hear in ads. Although there are exceptions, the news media do not regularly screen their ads for truth or accuracy.

2) Find out about a product before you buy it. Check out products sold door to door through an agency such as the Better Business Bureau.

3) Know "the con." Is the seller:

  • promising a quick or painless cure?
  • promoting a product made from a "special" or "secret" formula, usually available through the mail and from only one sponsor?
  • presenting testimonials or case histories from anonymous "satisfied" patients? 
  • advertising a product as effective for a wide variety of ailments?
  • claiming to have the "secret" cure for a disease (such as arthritis or cancer) that is not yet understood by medical science?

4) If you suspect a scam is taking place, report it to:

Food and Drug Administration
HFE 88
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

U.S. Postal Service
Office of Criminal Investigation
Washington, DC 20260-2166

Council of Better Business Bureaus
4200 Wilson Boulevard
8th Floor
Arlington, VA 22209

Federal Trade Commission
Room 421
6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20580

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Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005 11:00:19 PM