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Tips for Recognizing Health Scams

July 10th, 2013 Healthy Living

Usually, when something seems too good to be true, it is. People should especially keep that in mind when they're choosing health products and services.

Fraudulent schemes have been around for hundreds of years, and were the reason why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came into being with the passage of the Food and Drugs Act in 1906. Patent medicines with outrageous claims of curing every ill were rampant at the time.

Today, some of those early claims continue with phrases like "miracle cure" or "revolutionary scientific breakthrough."

Simply put, a health product is fraudulent when it's promoted in a deceptive way, claims to be effective against a health condition and hasn't been scientifically proven to be either effective or safe.

Gary Coody, the FDA's coordinator for national health fraud, said that drugs not approved by the FDA not only may not work, but they can also delay patients from seeking legitimate treatments. In addition, they may contain undisclosed ingredients that can harm people.

Common false claims
The health areas in which the FDA has found that most fraudulent claims are made pertain to weight loss, sexual performance, memory loss and serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

For instance, the drug regulator reports finding more than 100 weight-loss products that contain the substance sibutramine, the same active ingredient in the diet drug Meridia that was found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Meridia was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2010.

Many suspect claims are made about medical devices as well as drugs. If the FDA hasn't approved the products and cleared them for marketing to the general public, it's illegal.

Case in point
When the flu season was claiming record numbers of victims in recent years, products emerged in many stores and online that claimed to prevent or cure the virus. Frequently, they came in the form of teas and supplements that were not tested or approved by the FDA, but were promoted as alternatives to the flu vaccine.

NBC News reported that the FDA sent out warning letters to companies that the agency said were guilty of deceptive labeling. The firms were given 15 days to end their claims and stop marketing products that were presented as generic versions of a prescription flu treatment.

The agency also warned the public that no over-the-counter drugs are able to prevent or treat the flu, although some may be effective in treating symptoms such as fever and congestion.

Words to beware
If a product is intended for a wide range of ailments, it's cause for suspicion. Personal testimonials may be presented as success stories, but there's really no way to corroborate them.

When something is touted as a "quick fix" or a "miracle cure," buyer beware. Most health problems need an appropriate time for responding to medication and then a healing period.

Products may be presented as "all natural," but the FDA points out that not every natural ingredient is safe. If they're included in high doses or are not fully tested, such ingredients are a major cause for concern.

If a company puts pressure on consumers by insisting they "act now" or lose a good deal, people should think twice before buying. Likewise, when offered a money-back guarantee, there may be fine print about exclusions that negate virtually all claims for a refund.

Companies selling fraudulent products may sometimes prey on people's skepticism about government or the pharmaceutical industry by claiming that the two are conspiring to keep a product off the market. But the FDA warns that may be a diversion to dissuade any questions about the product's effectiveness.