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Tip-Offs to Rip-Offs

How To Spot Health Fraud

Personal Testimonials

"Alzheimer's Disease!!! My husband has Alzheimer. On September 2, 1998 he began eating 1 teaspoon full of Pure Emu Oil each day. Now (in just 22 days) he mowed the grass, cleaned out the garage, weeded the flower beds, and we take our morning walk again."

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

"... eliminates skin cancer in days! ..."

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.


"Healthy, simple and natural-way to help you lose and control your weight."

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.

And, any product--synthetic or natural--potent enough to work like a drug is going to be potent enough to cause side effects.

Time-Tested or New-Found Treatment

"This revolutionary innovation is formulated by using proven principles of natural health based upon 200 years of medical science."

Usually it's one or the other, but this claim manages to suggest it's both a breakthrough and a decades-old remedy.

Claims of an "innovation," "miracle cure," "exclusive product," or "new discovery" or "magical" are highly suspect. If a product was a cure for a serious disease, it would be widely reported in the media and regularly prescribed by health professionals--not hidden in an obscure magazine or newspaper ad, late-night television show, or Website promotion, where the marketers are of unknown, questionable or nonscientific backgrounds.

The same applies to products purported to be "ancient remedies" or based on "folklore" or "tradition." These claims suggest that these products' longevity proves they are safe and effective. But some herbs reportedly used in ancient times for medicinal purposes carry risks identified only recently.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

"... Guarantee: If after 30 days ... you have not lost at least 4 pounds each week, ... your uncashed check will be returned to you ... ."

Here's another red flag: money-back guarantees, no questions asked.

Good luck getting your money back. Marketers of fraudulent products rarely stay in the same place for long. Because customers won't be able to find them, the marketers can afford to be generous with their guarantees.

Promises of Easy Weight Loss

"Finally, rapid weight loss without dieting!"

For most people, there is only one way to lose weight: Eat less food (or fewer high-calorie foods) and increase activity.

Note the ambiguity of the term "rapid." A reasonable and healthy weight loss is about 1 to 2 pounds a week.

Meaningless Medical Jargon

"One of the many natural ingredients is inolitol hexanicontinate."

Terms and scientific explanations such as these may sound impressive and may have an element of truth to them, but the public "has no way of discerning fact from fiction," Aronson says. Fanciful terms, he says, generally cover up a lack of scientific proof.

"Most people who are taken in by health fraud will grasp at anything," he says. "They're not going to do the research. They're looking for a miracle."

Truth or Dare

The underlying rule when deciding whether a product is authentic or not is to ask yourself: "Does it sound too good to be true?" If it does, it probably isn't true.

If you're still not sure, check it out: "Look into it--before you put it in your body or on your skin," says Reynaldo Rodriguez, a compliance officer and health fraud coordinator for FDA's Dallas district office.

Provided by the FDA Consumer magazine.