63 Health Fraud

You have probably seen ads for miracle cures—a supplement to cure cancer, a diet to cure diabetes. But remember—if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Health fraud involves selling drugs, devices, foods or cosmetics that have not been proven effective. At best, these scams don’t work. At worst, they’re dangerous. They also waste money, and they might keep you from getting the treatment you really need. Health scams often target older people. Most victims in the United States are older than 65.

To protect yourself,

  • Question claims of miracle cures or breakthroughs
  • Know that newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations do not have to make sure that the ads they run are true
  • Find out about products before you buy them
  • Don’t let salespeople force you into making snap decisions
  • Check with your doctor before taking products

Learning Activity

Watch these short videos by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

What are the red flags that should make you suspicious about health product or treatment claims?

Miracle Health Claims: Add a Dose of Skepticism

People spend billions of dollars a year on health-related products and treatments that not only are unproven and often useless, but also sometimes are dangerous. The products promise quick cures and easy solutions for a variety of problems, from obesity and arthritis to cancer and AIDS. But the “cures” don’t deliver, and people who buy them are cheated out of their money, their time, and even their health. That’s why it’s important to learn how to evaluate claims for products related to your health.

Are You a Target for Health Fraudsters?

You’ve seen miracle claims for products related to health. It’s no wonder. People spend billions of dollars a year on fraudulently marketed health-related products and treatments that not only are unproven and often useless, but sometimes also are dangerous.

Health fraud trades on false hope. It promises quick cures and easy solutions for a variety of problems, from obesity and arthritis to cancer and AIDS. But the “cures” don’t deliver. Instead, people who buy them are cheated out of their money, their time, and even their health. Fraudulently marketed health products can have dangerous interactions with medicines people are already taking, and can keep them from getting a proper diagnosis and treatment from their own health care professional. Many unapproved treatments are expensive, too, and rarely covered by health insurance.

Health fraudsters often target people who are overweight, have serious conditions like cancer, or conditions without a cure, like:

  • multiple sclerosis
  • diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • arthritis

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say it’s important to learn how to evaluate health claims, especially if you have a serious condition.


If you or someone you love has cancer, you may be curious about supposed “miracle” cancer-fighting products —like pills, powders, and herbs—that you’ve seen advertised or heard about from family and friends. Scammers take advantage of the feelings that can accompany a diagnosis of cancer. They promote unproven—and potentially dangerous—substances like black salve, essiac tea, or laetrile with claims that the products are both “natural” and effective. But “natural” doesn’t mean either safe or effective, especially when it comes to using these products for cancer. In fact, a product that is labeled “natural” can be more than ineffective: it can be downright harmful. What’s more, stopping or delaying proven treatment can have serious consequences.

The truth is that no single device, remedy, or treatment can treat all types of cancer. All cancers are different, and no one treatment works for every cancer or every body. Even two people with the same diagnosis may need different treatments. That’s one more reason to be skeptical of websites, magazines, and brochures with ads for products that claim to treat cancer, and to decide on treatments with your health professional.

People with cancer who want to try an experimental treatment should enroll in a legitimate clinical study. The FDA reviews clinical study designs to help ensure that patients are not subjected to unreasonable risks.

Optional Learning Activity

CURE-ious? Ask. Cancer Treatment Scams

Microsite with important information about cancer treatment scams. Includes tips on questions to ask, how to spot a scam, how to file a complaint and resources for patients and their families. Includes a 90 second video, “Anatomy of a Cancer Treatment Scam.”


Although proven treatments can extend and improve the quality of life for people with AIDS, so far there is no cure for the disease. If you’ve been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, you may be tempted to try untested drugs or treatments. But trying unproven products or treatments—like electrical and magnetic devices and so-called herbal cures—can be dangerous, especially if it means a delay in seeking medical care.

For example, the herb St. John’s Wort has been promoted as a safe treatment for HIV. But there’s no evidence that it is effective in treating HIV; in fact, studies have shown that it interferes with medicines prescribed for HIV.

You also may have considered home test kits. But claims for these products could be misleading. Safe, reliable HIV testing can be done only through a medical professional or a clinic, or through the Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System, the only FDA-approved system for home use.


There’s no shortage of people selling unproven arthritis remedies, which include thousands of dietary supplements and so-called natural cures like mussel extract, desiccated liver pills, shark cartilage, CMO (cetylmyristoleate), honey and vinegar mixtures, and gimmicks like magnets and copper bracelets. But these remedies aren’t backed adequately by science to demonstrate relief.

Avoiding Shady Sellers and Practitioners

It’s easy to see why some people believe product claims, especially when successful treatments seem elusive. But pressure to decide on-the-spot about trying an untested product or treatment is a sure sign of a fraud. Ask for more information and consult a knowledgeable doctor, pharmacist, or other health care professional. Promoters of legitimate health care products don’t object to your seeking additional information—in fact, most welcome it.

The same goes if you’re considering a clinic that requires you to travel and stay far from home for treatment: check it out with your regular doctor. Although some clinics offer effective treatments, others:

  • Prescribe untested, unapproved, ineffective, and possibly dangerous “cures”
  • Employ health care providers that may not be licensed or have other appropriate credentials

For information about a particular hospital, clinic, or treatment center contact the state or local health authorities where the facility is located. If the facility is in a foreign country, contact that government’s health authority to see that the facility is properly licensed and equipped to handle the procedures involved.

The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them.

Beware of Health Scams

You see the ads everywhere these days—“Smart Drugs” for long life or “Arthritis Aches and Pains Disappear Like Magic!” or even statements claiming, “This treatment cured my cancer in 1 week.” It’s easy to understand the appeal of these promises. But there is still plenty of truth to the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”

Health scams and the marketing of unproven cures have been around for many years. Today, there are more ways than ever to sell these untested products. In addition to TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, infomercials, mail, telemarketing, and even word-of-mouth, these products are now offered over the Internet—with websites describing miracle cures and emails telling stories of overnight magic. Sadly, older people are often the target of such scams.

The problem is serious. Untested remedies may be harmful. They may get in the way of medicines prescribed by your doctor. They may also waste money. And, sometimes, using these products keeps people from getting the medical treatment they need.

False Hopes

Why do people fall for these sales pitches? Unproven remedies promise false hope. They offer cures that appear to be painless or quick. At best, these treatments are worthless. At worst, they are dangerous. Health scams prey on people who are frightened or in pain. Living with a chronic health problem is hard. It’s easy to see why people might fall for a false promise of a quick and painless cure. The best way for scientists to find out if a treatment works is through a clinical trial.

These scams usually target diseases that have no cures, like diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

You may see ads for:

  • Anti-aging medications.
    • Our culture places great value on staying young, but aging is normal. Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatments have been proven to slow or reverse the aging process. Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and not smoking are proven ways to help prevent some of the diseases that occur with age. In other words, making healthy lifestyle choices offers you the best chance of aging well.
  • Arthritis remedies.
    • Unproven arthritis remedies can be easy to fall for because symptoms of arthritis tend to come and go. You may believe the remedy you are using is making you feel better when, in fact, it is just the normal ebb and flow of your symptoms. You may see claims that so-called treatments with magnets, copper bracelets, chemicals, special diets, radiation, and other products cure arthritis. This is highly unlikely. Ads where people say they have been cured do not prove that a product works. Some of these products could hurt you, aren’t likely to help, and are often costly. There is no cure for most forms of arthritis. Rest, exercise, heat, and some drugs help many people control their symptoms. Don’t trust ads where people say they have been cured. This kind of statement probably doesn’t tell the whole story. If you are thinking about any new treatment, such as diet, a device, or another arthritis product, talk with your doctor first.
  • Cancer cures.
    • Scam artists prey on a fear of cancer. They promote treatments with no proven value—for example, a diet dangerously low in protein or drugs such as laetrile. Remember: there is no one treatment that cures all types of cancer. By using unproven methods, people with cancer may lose valuable time and the chance to benefit from a proven, effective treatment. This delay may lessen the chance of controlling or curing the disease.
  • Memory aids.
    • Many people worry about losing their memory as they age. They may wrongly believe false promises that unproven treatments can help them keep or improve their memory. So-called smart pills, removal of amalgam dental fillings, and certain brain retraining exercises are some examples of untested approaches.
  • Dietary supplements.
    • Americans spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements. These supplements are sold over-the-counter and include vitamins and minerals, amino acids, herbs, and enzymes. Most dietary supplements do not undergo government testing or review before they are put on the market. While some vitamins may be helpful, supplements may be bad for people taking certain medicines or with some medical conditions. Be wary of claims that a supplement can shrink tumors, solve impotence, or cure Alzheimer’s disease. Talk to your doctor before starting any supplement.
  • Health insurance.
    • Some companies target people who are unable to get health insurance. They offer coverage that promises more than it intends to deliver. When you think about buying health insurance, remember to find out if the company and agent are licensed in your State.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Health Scams?

Be wary. Question what you see or hear in ads or on the Internet. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations do not always check to make sure the claims in their ads are true. Find out about a product before you buy. Don’t let a salesperson talk you into making a snap decision. Check with your healthcare provider first.

  • Promise a quick or painless cure
  • Claim the product is made from a special, secret, or ancient formula
  • Offer products and services only by mail or from one company
  • Use statements or unproven case histories from so-called satisfied patients
  • Claim to be a cure for a wide range of ailments
  • Claim to cure a disease (such as arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease) that hasn’t been cured by medical science
  • Promise a no-risk, money-back guarantee
  • Offer an additional “free” gift or a larger amount of the product as a “special promotion”
  • Require advance payment and claim there is a limited supply of the product

Learning Activity

Watch this video: Navigate Safely—A Video Guide by the Health On the Net Foundation (HON)

Show Sources


Source: Health Fraud, NLM, NIH, MedlinePlus, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthfraud.html

Miracle Health Claims: Add a Dose of Skepticism: Medical Health Claims, FTC, http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/health/hea07.shtm

Beware of Health Scams: Beware of Health Scams, NIA, http://www.nia.nih.gov/print/health/publication/beware-health-scams


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