According to this consumer update from the FDA a health product is fraudulent if it is deceptively promoted as being effective against a disease or health condition but has not been scientifically proven safe and effective for that purpose.
"The snake oil salesmen of old have morphed into the deceptive, high-tech marketers of today. They prey on people’s desires for easy solutions to difficult health problems—from losing weight to curing serious diseases like cancer," the FDA writes. "Scammers promote their products through newspapers, magazines, TV infomercials and cyberspace. You can find health fraud scams in retail stores and on countless websites, in popup ads and spam, and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter."
They're easy to spot because they use grandiose language such as "miracle cure" or "revolutionary scientific breakthrough" and are often referring to products used for weight loss, sexual performance, memory loss, or any one of a number of serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes and heart disease.
These products can do a lot more than just waste your money, says Gary Coody, R.Ph., FDA's national health fraud coordinator. They can also cause serious injury and even death.
“Using unproven treatments can delay getting a potentially life-saving diagnosis and medication that actually works," Coody says. "Also, fraudulent products sometimes contain hidden drug ingredients that can be harmful when unknowingly taken by consumers.”
For instance, more than 100 weight-loss products were caught by the FDA in recent years that contained the active ingredient in the prescription drug Meridia, a drug that was withdrawn from the U.S. market after being associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are also many fraudulent gadgets being sold as cure-alls, such as an expensive light therapy device that claimed to be able to treat Alzheimers, skin cancer, concussions, etc.
Making any health claim about a medical device without FDA approval is illegal in the U.S.
“Health fraud is a pervasive problem,” says Coody, “especially when scammers sell online. It’s difficult to track down the responsible parties. When we do find them and tell them their products are illegal, some will shut down their website. Unfortunately, however, these same products may reappear later on a different website, and sometimes may reappear with a different name.”
So how do you protect yourself from scammers? The FDA offers the following tips:
• One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases. A New York firm claimed its products marketed as dietary supplements could treat or cure senile dementia, brain atrophy, atherosclerosis, kidney dysfunction, gangrene, depression, osteoarthritis, dysuria, and lung, cervical and prostate cancer. In October 2012, at FDA’s request, U.S. marshals seized these products.
• Personal testimonials. Success stories, such as, “It cured my diabetes” or “My tumors are gone,” are easy to make up and are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
• Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products. Beware of language such as, “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days” or “eliminates skin cancer in days.”
• “All natural.” Some plants found in nature (such as poisonous mushrooms) can kill when consumed. Moreover, FDA has found numerous products promoted as “all natural” but that contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients or even untested active artificial ingredients.
• “Miracle cure.” Alarms should go off when you see this claim or others like it such as, “new discovery,” “scientific breakthrough” or “secret ingredient.” If a real cure for a serious disease were discovered, it would be widely reported through the media and prescribed by health professionals—not buried in print ads, TV infomercials or on Internet sites.
• Conspiracy theories. Claims like “The pharmaceutical industry and the government are working together to hide information about a miracle cure” are always untrue and unfounded. These statements are used to distract consumers from the obvious, common-sense questions about the so-called miracle cure.
Always ask your doctor or other health care professional before trying an unproven product!