Claims on the Internet: Buyer Beware
former healthcare practitioner from Seattle
had several reasons for complaining to the Arizona
Attorney General about a website touting an
AIDS cure. He knew that the claim was
bogus: Scientists have yet to discover a cure
for AIDS. And he knew that the $1,100
charge for a six-week "treatment"
to cure the disease was tantamount to stealing.
But the "clincher" was the claim that
the product was "100-percent guaranteed."
man, who asked that his name not be used, said
the guarantee could lead people who used the
product to think they had been cured when they
hadn't, a fact that could cause them to put
others at risk for HIV infection.
promotions like this have the Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) concerned, too. "These
bogus claims put consumers' health at risk,"
says Howard Beales, Director of the FTC's Bureau
of Consumer Protection. "And with
millions of Americans going to the Internet
for health information, it's doubly troubling."
recent years, the FTC and other law enforcement
agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent
the proliferation of false health claims on
the Internet: They're using the latest
technology to track down fraudulent marketers
quickly and efficiently and bringing enforcement
actions when appropriate. But Internet
health scams are still too common, so the FTC
also is educating consumers on how to shop safely
online for health products and encouraging them
to talk to their doctor or other healthcare
provider about the safe use of supplements and
other alternative health products. They're
also encouraging the public to report suspicious
health claims to government fraud fighters.
complaint the Seattle man filed, for example,
prompted the Arizona Attorney General to charge
a local marketer with peddling a bogus AIDS
treatment. The claims were removed from
Lure of the Internet
Internet offers health product hucksters low-cost
access to a huge market. A recent study
found that more than 90 million Americans use
the Internet to find health-related information.
marketers - legitimate as well as fraudulent
- market their products through websites, spam
and chat rooms. The cost is reasonable.
"A marketer can design and post a website
for a lot less money than it takes to buy ad
space in traditional media," FTC senior
attorney Richard Cleland says.
also place misleading metatags on their Internet
sites to increase the likelihood that their
product will turn up on search engines.
This is among the charges the FTC brought against
an Internet marketer of a shark cartilage product
promoted as a cancer treatment without adequate
substantiation. The FTC charged that the
marketer had embedded the terms "non-toxic
cancer therapy," "cancer treatment"
and "cancer survivor" in the site's
metatags to improve the chances of online users
seeing the website.
made on- or offline, fraudulent health claims
typically deal with serious diseases, such as
AIDS, cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis,
diabetes and arthritis, as well as chronic medical
conditions like headaches and back pain.
Often, exaggerated claims are used to promote
products like DHEA (a hormone supplement), Cat's
Claw (an herbal product), and colloidal silver,
as well as diagnostic tests, such as electrical
"zappers." Cases investigated
by the FTC and state law enforcement agencies
have involved unsubstantiated claims for the
health benefits of shark cartilage, Essiac herbal
tea, colloidal silver and electrical therapy
health fraudster's stock technique is to exaggerate
the science," Cleland says. "Legitimate
marketers know they need appropriate substantiation
to show that a product will do what it claims."
the concern about health fraud? Like other
fraud, it cheats consumers out of their money
and harms legitimate marketers striving to compete
fairly. Health fraud often targets the
very sick and even desperate consumers who may
even be lured away from treatments that have
proven benefits. It can mislead people
who use an advertised "cure-all" product
into thinking they're disease-free. As
a result, they may not seek or continue medical
care, receive the drugs or legitimate treatment
that could keep them healthier longer, or take
precautions to prevent the spread of their disease.
Some products can interact with medicines, causing
serious side effects or reducing the medicine's
ability to work as it should. And some
products may contain harmful substances.
In one case, reported in the Annals of Internal
Medicine in 2000, a 52-year-old man died from
kidney and liver failure, which his doctors
attributed to his use of hydrazine sulfate,
an unapproved product that had been touted on
the Internet for treating cancer.
combat health fraud on the Internet, the FTC
launched Operation Cure.All in 1999.
It is an ongoing federal and state law enforcement
and consumer education campaign. The
FTC has since brought 13 law enforcement actions
against Internet marketers for unsubstantiated
health claims. One case resulted in a
$1 million settlement with the maker of the
shark cartilage product promoted as a cure for
cancer. Two other settlements stopped
companies from claiming that St. John's Wort
was a safe and effective treatment for HIV/AIDS
and required warnings about the serious drug
interaction risks associated with St. John's
Wort. Another settlement required consumer
refunds for electronic devices and herbal remedies
that were sold as cures for cancer, AIDS, Gulf
War Syndrome and many other diseases.
All were required to remove their bogus claims
from the Web. In addition, the FTC estimates
that more than 100 other websites have taken
down their sites or removed their claims after
the FTC contacted them.
marketers apparently forgot the first rule of
advertising law," the FTC's Cleland says.
"If you're going to make a claim, you better
have solid evidence to back it up."
Food and Drug Administration's efforts to curtail
online marketing of unapproved drugs have resulted
in at least 12 product seizures, 11 product
recalls, 43 arrests and 22 convictions.
The FDA continues to investigate more than 80
incidences of Internet health fraud and unapproved
efforts - also key in fighting fraud - target
consumers, as well as law enforcement.
Last year, the FTC launched a program to teach
state, local and foreign law enforcers how to
investigate Internet-related fraud.
for consumers aims to help them learn how to
determine the legitimacy of health claims.
Two websites can help: the FTC's Virtual
Health Treatments website at www.ftc.gov/cureall
and the FDA's Buying Medicines and Medical Products
Online website at www.fda.gov/oc/buyonline/default.htm.
The sites give tips on how to spot health
fraud and where to report suspicious claims.
public is important in the fight against health
fraud," the FTC's Cleland says. "If
consumers and businesses tell us about problems,
we can investigate and take action. Using
consumer complaints, we can identify and stop
the promotion of fraudulent health claims on
FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent,
deceptive and unfair business practices in the
marketplace and to provide information to help
consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To
file a complaint, or to get free information
on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free,
1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the
complaint form at www.ftc.gov.
The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity
theft and other fraud-related complaints into
Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database
available to hundreds of civil and criminal
law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
of fraudulent health products
often use similar claims
and practices to trick consumers
into buying their products.
Be suspicious when you see:
that a product is a scientific
ingredient or ancient
that the product is an
effective cure for a wide
range of ailments.
No product can cure multiple
conditions or diseases.
that use impressive-sounding
Theyre often covering
up a lack of good science.
case histories of people
whove had amazing
too easy to make them
up. And even if
true, they cant
be generalized to the
Anecdotes are not a substitute
for valid science.
that the product is available
from only one source,
and payment is required
of a money-back
that fail to list the
companys name, physical
address, phone number
or other contact information.
the fact that most dietary
supplements are advertised
and marketed widely, and
many are promoted as natural
they shouldnt be taken
are potent products that
may cause harm and have
dangerous interactions with
Consumers should be very
careful about when and how
to use supplements.
They always should discuss
the risks and benefits with
their health care professional.
example, some traditional
Chinese herbal products
have been found to contain
aristolochic acid, which
has been linked to severe
kidney damage. The
herb comfrey contains certain
toxic alkaloids that, if
ingested, can cause serious
liver damage and may increase
interactions also can present
a risk to consumers who
combine these products without
Some online marketers have
promoted St. Johns
Wort as a treatment for
HIV/AIDS. But in February
2000, the Food and Drug
Administration issued a
public health advisory that
St. Johns Wort interacts
with certain medicines,
including those used to
treat HIV infection, making
the drugs less effective.
Johns Wort is not
a bad product, says
Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman,
an assistant clinical professor
of health care sciences
at George Washington University
School of Medicine.
It can be used safely
for specific conditions,
like mild depression.
But in patients taking medicines
everyday, its use has to
be monitored by a healthcare
best advice for patients
who take prescription medicines:
If youre considering
an herbal product, talk
to your doctor, pharmacist
or other healthcare professional.
They have the resources
and medical knowledge to
give you the most current