Online Medical Fraud: New Tools for Old Scams

One of the most loathsome forms of online fraud is perpetrated against people struggling with serious illnesses who are eager for a cure from any quarter, no matter how unlikely. Rob’s efforts to combat elder fraud and broader Internet crimes unite in the  online fraud and the exploitation of seniors.

Internet health fraud is a growing problem. The FDA describes health fraud as offering “articles of unproven effectiveness that are promoted to improve health, well being, or appearance.”

Scammer’s products run the gamut – from miracle drugs to medical devices, foods, even cosmetics. Whether offered in the form of a fruit juice, a vitamin pill, salve, or inhalant, the companies that offer these products provide jargon and hype with amazing claims of success to particularly vulnerable people.

Martin Katz, an FDA compliance officer, said, “Most people who are taken in by health fraud will grasp at anything. They’re not going to do the research. They’re looking for a miracle.”

Health Fraud Goes Online

Health fraud has flourished for thousands of years – ever since the first peddler figured out he could make money offering a miracle elixir from the back of his cart. The Internet simply provides a new distribution method that offers a huge audience for these snake oil cures.

Gary Coody, national health fraud coordinator at the FDA, has outlined the challenge and one step to overcoming it. “Because of the sheer volume of fraudulent health products and their accessibility from foreign locations, the FDA has forged partnerships with many federal, state, and international enforcement agencies.”

Simple online searches reveal that the many victims of health fraud suffer from a variety of illnesses and conditions, including:


People with these and other conditions should be aware of several problems with online drugs and ‘cures’.

  1. These products may be contaminated, diluted, ineffective, out of date, or have harmful side effects. Any product, synthetic or natural, potent enough to work like a drug is going to be potent enough to cause side effects, and any treatments you use without a prescription can have adverse reactions with medications you’re already taking.
  2. Beyond these direct risks of damage from the spurious cures, there is an indirect risk: taking these instead of proven treatments could mean that patients get sicker and in extreme cases, die.
  3. The goal of these scams is to steal money by selling hope. At best, patients are purchasing placebos where only their pockets incur damage – some end up throwing their life’s savings, even incurring debt in their pursuit of health. Many are paying for products that abbreviate rather than prolong their lives.

How rampant is health fraud online? Consider the results for some health cures that I received on a Google search recently:

  • 44,800 results for “black salve” a cancer treatment which claims to draw cancer out through the skin but in reality burns healthy skin tissue and causes severe scarring.
  • 11,100 for Hoxsey cancer treatment, an unproven herbal remedy that the FDA has tried to get rid of since the 1950s.
  • 3,150,000 results for diabetes cures (diabetes can’t be cured, just managed).
  • Weight loss gets a whopping 70,300,000 results. Weight loss pills alone commands 2,120,000 links. There just isn’t a guaranteed weight loss supplement that the 6 o’clock news and your doctor missed, though there are several that can cause serious harm.

Though some search results on health cures lead to scholarly articles, a great many more lead to fraudulent sites. Online it is easy to pose as a medical practitioner and make wild claims that link to a variety of ‘supporting medical studies’.

Learn the Warning Signs

Health fraud con artists use the same tactics and phrases repeatedly. Learning to spot them can help you avoid scam sites and offers.

Health fraud red flags, according to the FTC, include:

  • Web sites that offer quick and dramatic cures for a variety of ailments. “Beneficial in treating cancer, ulcer, prostate problems, heart trouble, and more…”
  • Statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases. “Shrinks tumors, cures impotency…”
  • Promotions that use words like “scientific breakthrough,” “miraculous cure,” “secret ingredient,” and “ancient remedy.”
  • Text that uses impressive-sounding terms like: “hunger stimulation point” and “thermogenesis” for a weight loss product. These terms are sometimes plucked out of scientific journals, but they may have nothing to do with the disease or condition you have – let alone legitimize the ‘cure’ you’re being peddled
  • Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results. “After eating a teaspoon of this product each day, my pain is completely gone…” Most are made up, and others are hearsay. Some patients’ recoveries may be due to a remission of the disease from previous or concurrent treatments.
  • Limited availability and advance payment requirements. “Hurry! This offer will not last.”
  • Promises of no-risk money-back guarantees. “If after 30 days you have not lost at least four pounds each week, your uncashed check will be returned to you.”
  • Promises of an “easy” fix.  For many serious diseases there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them.
  • Paranoid accusations—suggesting that health-care providers and legitimate manufacturers are in league with each other to suppress this miracle cure.

Look closely at the vocabulary used by these Web sites:

  • The words “in days” can mean any amount of time.
  • The term “rapid” is ambiguous.
  • Don’t be fooled by the term “natural”—it doesn’t equate to safe. Many natural ingredients are extremely lethal –cyanide for example is found in many common plants. Conversely, 60 percent of over the counter drugs and 25 percent of prescription drugs are based on natural ingredients, alternative cures have no exclusivity on the use of natural ingredients.

Beware of products offered as a FREE TRIAL! – You pay only shipping and handling”.

  • In these cases, the charges levied for shipping and handling are the way they make their money. Think about it, if the ‘pills’ cost them $.45, and the mailing costs $2.00, but they charge $19.95 in shipping and handling, they still earn $17.50 cents from every customer.  If they can scam ten thousand consumers they’ve earned $175,000 dollars.

Resisting the Hype

Products that cure serious diseases, are widely reported in the media, not discovered on obscure Web sites. No matter how desperate you are for a cure, it doesn’t make sense to believe someone who claims to be the exclusive supplier of a miracle cure.

If you are older, you are at unique risk and so should be especially vigilant. Senior citizens are often targeted by sales pitches that play to emotions—“look younger,” “lose weight overnight,” or “cure cancer”.

To check out a health product you encounter online, the FDA suggests that you:

  • Check the source. Make sure the company is based in your country by calling it’s phone number and verifying it’s address. If you are a United States citizen, for example, you can file complaints against US companies but you are out of luck if you don’t get what was promised from a foreign-based company.
  • Talk to a doctor or other health professional who you trust, and then follow that advice.
  • Be mistrustful of treatments offered by people who tell you to avoid talking to others because “it’s a secret treatment or cure.”
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau or your attorney general’s office for complaints.
  • Check with a relevant professional medical group such as the American Heart Association or National Arthritis Foundation.
  • Contact your local FDA office (find the number in the blue pages of your phone book, or go to to find out if they’ve taken any action against the product or its marketer.
  • Report fraud to the service provider where the ad was posted, to the Better Business Bureau, and to the FDA


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