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How to Spot a Health Fraud

If it sounds too good to be true...


How can consumers avoid being scammed by a worthless health product? Though health fraud marketers have become more sophisticated about selling their products, the FDA warns that these charlatans often use the same old phrases and gimmicks to gain consumers' attention--and trust. You can protect yourself by learning some of their techniques.

The following claims and phrases are "red flags" the FDA advises consumers to look out for when deciding whether to try an unknown or unproven health product.

One Product Does It All
Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases--particularly serious diseases, such as cancer, AIDS and diabetes. No product can treat every disease and condition, and for many serious diseases, there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them.

Personal Testimonials
Personal testimonies can tip you off to health fraud because they are difficult to prove. Testimonials may be 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," says the FDA. "It's just compounded hearsay."

Quick Fixes, Cures
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.

The term "natural" is 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. FDA says that 60 percent of approved over-the-counter drugs and 25 percent of prescription drugs are based on natural ingredients.

Time-Tested or New-Found Treatment
Wait a minute, how can it be 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, newspaper or Website.

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

Paranoid Accusations
"Drug companies make it nearly impossible for doctors to resist prescribing their expensive pills for what ails you ... ." These claims suggest that health-care providers and legitimate manufacturers are in cahoots with each other, promoting only the drug companies' and medical device manufacturers' products for financial gain. Think about this: Would the vast number of people in the health-care field block treatments that could help millions of sick, suffering patients, many of whom could be their own family and friends?

Meaningless Medical Jargon
"... thermogenesis, which converts stored fats into soluble lipids ..." 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," says the FDA. Fanciful terms, he says, generally cover up a lack of scientific proof.

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.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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