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How To Spot A Phony (Fraudulent) Treatment

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You have no doubt seen advertisements touting treatments as "miracle cures," "amazing breakthroughs," and "secret formulas," among other descriptions. These ads can be found daily in newspapers and magazine, on television "infomercials," in mail-order catalogs, and on the internet. In addition to taking your money, some of these treatments and products can pose a real threat to your health.

Keep in mind the old adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true."

Because of limited funding, the FDA can't successfully regulate all fraudulent treatments, and treatments may linger on the market before they are discovered or dealt with.

There are three steps to avoid fraudulent products or treatments.

Step 1. Speak with your doctor. If you don't have an upcoming appointment, fax or e mail your doctor. If necessary, schedule a special appointment.

Step 2. Do your own research, or ask someone to do it for you.  Medical research is easy on the internet. If you or a family/member/friend aren't up to doing the research, there are services you can hire to do it for you.

  • For information about doing medical research, click here.
  • For information about services to do the research for you, click here

To avoid getting suckered, if you come across a new cure that interests you, in addition to speaking with your doctor, check to see if there is information about it on www.quackwatch.com offsite link Also check:National Council Against Fraud at www.ncahf.org offsite link

Step 3. Watch for red flags such as a warning not to trust your doctor or claims based only on testimonials.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the public responds by spending 30 billion dollars each year on fraudulent health treatments and products.

Although product manufacturers continue to become more sophisticated in the marketing of their products, there are a number of phrases and gimmicks that are used to gain consumers attention and trust.

According to the FDA the following phrases and wording are red flags to watch for:

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 and diabetes. No product can treat every disease and condition. For many serious diseases there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them.

Personal Testimonials (and no clinical trials): 

  • Personal testimonies can tip you off to health fraud because they are difficult to prove or disprove. Often testimonials are personal case histories that have been passed on by word of mouth, or may be made up altogether.
  • Personal testimonials are the weakest form of scientific validity. In fact, some patient's favorable experiences with a fraudulent treatment may not be due to the treatment at all. They may have moved into a remission of their disease from previous or concurrent use of approved medical treatments.
  • No matter how many people have used a treatment, unless it is subjected to rigorous scientific investigation, there is no way to know if the treatment  is safe and effective.

Quick Fixes: Be wary of wording that suggests a product can bring quick relief or provide a quick cure, especially if your condition is serious. Even with proven treatments, few diseases can be treated or cured quickly. Often an ad will use the words "in days," which when you think about it can actually refer to any length of time. Fraudulent promoters like to use this type of ambiguous language, making it easier to avoid legal action.

All Natural: Don't be fooled by the word "natural." "Natural" is often used in health fraud as an attention-grabber. It implies that a product or treatment is safer than conventional treatments. In fact, among legitimate drug products, 60% of over-the-counter drugs and 25% of prescription drugs are based on natural ingredients.

  • The term "natural" does not necessarily equate with safety. For example, many plants are highly toxic.
  • Any product, synthetic or natural, that is potent enough to work like a drug, is also going to be potent enough to cause side effects. It may even interfere with treatments you may already be using.

New-Found Treatment: Claims of an "innovation," "miracle cure," "secret formula," "new discovery," or "amazing breakthrough," are highly suspect. If a treatment were truly a cure for a serious condition, it would be widely reported in medical journals and the media -- not hidden in a magazine or newspaper ad, late-night television show, or website promotion. Miracle cures rarely happen. When they do, scientists do not refer to them as "miracles."

Time Tested: In addition to "time tested, you're likely to see words like "ancient remedies," "time honored," or "tradition," among others. The claims may suggest that their longevity proves these types of treatments or products are safe and effective. However, some herbs reportedly used for many years for medicinal purposes carry risks that have only recently been identified. For example, it wasn't that long ago that it was discovered that St. Johns Wort can interfere with the effectiveness of some prescription medications, such as anti-viral medications used to treat HIV/AIDS.

Satisfaction Guaranteed:  

  • Claims of "money back guarantees, no questions asked," should always raise a red flag. Even proven medical treatments can't offer guaranteed effectiveness for everyone.
  • If you think you have nothing to lose, good luck trying to get your money back. The marketers of fraudulent products and treatments rarely stay in one place for long. Because customers can't find them, the marketers can afford to be generous with their claimed guarantees.

Paranoid Accusations: These types of claims suggest that doctors and other health care providers, and legitimate manufacturers such as pharmaceutical companies, are conspiring with each other to prevent you from knowing about, or purchasing their product or treatment. It is interesting to note that these companies spend their money complaining to their consumers in advertisements rather than confronting the so-called conspirators in court. 

Other red flags to watch for:

  • Terms such as "miracle" "cure" "new discovery" or "breakthrough"
  • The person sells the products that you need.
  • You are discouraged from talking about the treatment with your doctor
    • It is essential that your doctor knows everything that you put into your body - especially when undergoing a treatment or taking a drug.
  • You are discouraged from using traditional medicines
  • Secret ingredients or methods that cannot be discussed
    • There is no reason why ingredients or methods need to be secret. 
    • Reputable researchers are usually eager to publish their findings so that other people can review their work and duplicate their findings.
  • Claims that patients create their own health
    • The flip side of any claim that patients create their own health is that it is due to the patient if the treatment fails.
  • You have to travel to another country to use the therapy
  • Methods that are only discussed in the popular media and not in scientific journals.
    • Information in scientific journals is peer reviewed. Informaiton in all other media is generally not.
  • You are asked to be a sales person or a distributor.
  • The promoters attack mainstream medicine and doctors.

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