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Protect Yourself From Health Scams

Fraudulent schemes can rob you of your money and your health


National Institutes of Health

Based on content from the NIH/National Institute on Aging AgePage "Name of publication."

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 one 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 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 in which 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, like a 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 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.

What You Can Do

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 health care provider first.

Remember the old stories about snake oil salesmen who traveled from town to town making wild claims for various products? Well, chances are that today’s scam artists are using the same sales tricks. Look for red flags in ads or promotional material that:

  •     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 (like 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.

Two federal government agencies work to protect you from health scams. The Federal Trade Commission can help you spot fraud. The Food and Drug Administration protects the public by assuring the safety of prescription drugs, biological products, medical devices, food, cosmetics and radiation-emitting products. If you have questions about a product, talk to your doctor. Getting the facts about health care products can help protect you from health scams.

For more information:

Council of Better Business Bureaus

Federal Trade Commission

Food and Drug Administration

Quackwatch, Inc.
 

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