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Avoiding Health Scams

Unethical companies and scammers are increasingly willing to make false claims about products and treatments for profit to cheat people out of their money, time and, possibly, health. Scammers use stressful times to take our money and personal information.

Dishonest companies often make a wide range of false health claims, but they tend to follow a few common patterns. Here are ways to spot and avoid common health scams.

General False Claims

  • Claiming one product does it all and cures a wide variety of diseases and health problems, from rheumatism, arthritis, infections, prostate problems, impotency, ulcers, cancer, heart trouble, hardening of the arteries and more.
  • Undocumented testimonials from patients and/or doctors claiming miraculous results. For example: “My husband has Alzheimer’s disease. He began taking a teaspoonful of this product each day. And now, in just 22 days, he mowed the grass, cleaned out the garage, weeded the flower beds and we take our morning walk again.”
  • A false assurance of “results in 30 days or we’ll send your money back.”
  • Bogus phrases like “scientific breakthrough,” “miraculous cure,” “secret ingredient,” “exclusive product,” or “ancient remedy,” that provide a misleading impression, or are simply untrue.
  • A sense of urgency: “Act now!” or “Hurry. This offer will not last. Order now.”
  • Phony, scientific-sounding terms or reference to prestigious prizes. Phrases like “molecule multiplicity,” “glucose metabolism,” “thermogenesis,” “insulin receptor sites,” “Nobel Prize-winning technology” or “developed by two Nobel prize winners” are used intentionally to imply a false sense of legitimacy.

Identifying Health Scams. If you’re considering a health product or service to treat an illness or ailment, here are some best practices.

  1. Research. Search for the name of the treatment or product online, plus the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
  2. Discuss with your physician. Unproven products and treatments may be dangerous. If you’re curious about a treatment, talk to your health care provider about it. See a list of questions to ask the practitioner later in this article.
  3. Remember, “natural” doesn’t mean safe or effective. Although federal law states sellers must possess scientific proof to back their claims, no government agency approves ads before they are shared with the public.

The Most Common Scams

  • Addiction treatments, chemical and alcohol dependence and withdrawal
  • Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and memory loss
  • Anti-aging products (such as human growth hormone [HGH])
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
    • Important: No single device, remedy, or treatment can treat all types of cancer. No one treatment works for everybody or for every cancer. Even two people with the same diagnosis may need different treatments.
  • Chronic pain
  • Diabetes

If you or a loved one face health issues, you may feel anxious and overwhelmed as you sort through information and make decisions about treatment options. Scammers know this and often take advantage of these stressful times to manipulate you to part with your money and personal information.

Scammers promote dietary supplements, teas, powders, herbs, etc., that have not been scientifically proven and promise amazing cures or fast results. These products can cost precious time and money, lead to relapse, and could even be dangerous. They might also keep you from making important dietary and lifestyle changes to help your condition.

Learn More About the Vast Selection of Dietary Supplements
Vitamins and dietary supplements can indeed offer health benefits—but claims that they treat or cure diseases are unproven and not allowed under federal law. Dietary supplements are largely unregulated, so some companies make unsupported claims about the effectiveness of their products.

While dietary supplements might seem similar to drugs, and some even have drug-like effects, there are big differences. Here are some things to know about supplements.

  • Unlike drugs, dietary supplements are not evaluated or reviewed by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and effectiveness.
  • Even “natural” supplements can be risky. In fact, natural can mean both harmful and ineffective. And some natural products could interfere with proven treatments recommended by your doctor.
  • Talk with your doctor or health provider—your best and most important source of information on whether a supplement is safe for you—and ask questions like:
    • Does this product or treatment actually work?
    • What’s the scientific evidence?
    • Are you familiar with this brand?
    • Can you tell me about the ingredients in this product?
    • How will it interact with other supplements or drugs I take?
    • What are the side effects?
    • If it’s safe to take, what’s the right amount?

Safety Concerns about Dietary Supplements
Increasingly, many so-called dietary supplements contain hidden substances that could cause serious harm. This is especially true for weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding supplements which can possibly lead to strokes, acute liver injury, kidney failure, pulmonary embolisms or death. To recognize dangerous products, look for:

  • Products claiming to be alternatives to FDA-approved drugs or claiming to have effects similar to prescription drugs.
  • Products claiming to be legal alternatives to anabolic steroids.
  • Products with ads or product packaging and marketing information primarily in a foreign language.
  • Products that promise rapid effects or results.

Reliable Sources of Information about Diseases and Treatments
To find reliable sources of information about diseases and their treatments, visit MedlinePlus.gov, a site operated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Healthfinder.gov. Information about alternative and complementary medicine is available through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Report Health Scams
If you think you’ve spotted a scam, tell your friends and family about it so they can protect themselves. Then report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at reportfraud.ftc.gov. Your reports help the FTC and law enforcement build cases and stop scammers.

To report side effects, bad reactions or illnesses related to the use of a supplement or other health care product, call a doctor or other health care provider immediately. Then, report it to the FDA’s MedWatch site or call 1-800-FDA-1088 (1-800-332-1088). Patients’ names are kept confidential.

In Short, Recognize the Red Flags
The bottom line is don’t take their word for it; research it for yourself. Discuss options with a medical health professional. And to protect yourself, recognize the red flags:

  • Miracle cure
  • Quick fix
  • Ancient remedy
  • Secret ingredient
  • Scientific breakthrough

If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.

Resources: aarp.com, ftc.gov, medlineplus.gov

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