We’ve all seen miracle health claims in magazines and Web banners. And if you happen to be suffering from one of these health conditions, it’s hard not to be drawn in by them. You can’t help but wonder: could this be true?
In a word, no. Ads with miracle health claims like these are almost always bogus. Yet they’re cleverly crafted to lure people in, wasting their money on cures that don’t work – and often, keeping them from seeking out the real care they need. To avoid falling for these “miracle cure” claims, you need to learn to recognize the telltale signs of a health scam and know where to turn for real, useful health info.
How Miracle Cures Waste Your Money
The only thing so-called miracle cures are really good for is wasting your money. Here’s how they do it:
- They Don’t Work. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Americans shell out billions of dollars each year on health products and treatments that don’t work. Here’s one example: In 2013, the FTC sent out nearly $6 million in refunds to customers who bought bogus products for weight loss and cancer prevention. It ruled that the company selling these products had lured customers in with misleading claims and fake endorsements from so-called customers.
- They’re Expensive. Miracle cures can be quite pricey. For instance, in 2015 the FTC sued a company for selling a “breakthrough nutritional formula” that promised to reverse age-related memory loss. Many older adults bought into these claims, spending anywhere from $40 to $80 per bottle for pills that had no proven effect. To make matters worse, insurance doesn’t cover these unapproved remedies – so every penny you pay for them comes out of your own pocket.
- They Can Hurt Your Health. Customers often think fake health treatments are safe to use because the ads describe them as “natural” products. However, “natural” clearly doesn’t mean harmless. Many of the deadliest poisons in the world come from plants, and some of them – such as cyanide – are found in fake remedies.
- They Interact With Other Drugs. Even products that aren’t harmful on their own can interact in dangerous ways with other drugs that you’re taking. Because these fake meds aren’t prescribed by a real doctor who knows your health history, there’s no way to catch these problems until they land you in the emergency room. Once that happens, you can count on walking out with a big medical bill – assuming you walk out at all.
- They Take the Place of Real Treatment. If you put your faith in these quack remedies, you’re unlikely to see a real doctor and get the proper treatment you need. Many people waste years trying to treat themselves with products that do nothing while their health problems get worse and worse. By the time they finally see a real doctor, their conditions have become much harder – and much more expensive – to treat effectively.
Types of Health Scams
If you had a health problem that was easy to treat, such as a rash, you’d probably just go to a doctor or pick up some medicine at the drugstore. However, if you’d been to several doctors already and no treatment had worked, you could start to feel a bit desperate. You’d probably be tempted to try anything that offered relief from your symptoms.
That’s why miracle health scams tend to target people who have conditions that are difficult to treat. Many of these are illnesses that medical science currently has no cure for, such as HIV, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. Others are problems for which the real treatments are difficult, painful, or not always effective, such as cancer.
Quack remedies offer people with these diseases hope that they can finally be free of their condition, once and for all. Unfortunately, that’s a problem they can’t deliver on.
Cancer Treatment Scams
Cancer is one of the most feared diseases in the country. In two surveys by Marist and Met Life, 33% to 41% of Americans said they feared cancer more than any other disease. By contrast, only 8% of respondents said they were most afraid of heart disease, even though it’s the number one cause of death in the country.
Cancer is frightening, not just because it can be deadly, but because the treatment process is so difficult. The most common treatments for cancer – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy – can be exhausting, costly, and often painful. Worse still, suffering through weeks of treatment gives no guarantee the cancer won’t come back. It’s no wonder people with this disease would much rather snatch at the false promise of an easy, painless cure.
Fake Cancer Treatments
There are many fake cancer treatments on the market. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out warning letters to 14 U.S. companies for distributing more than 65 products that falsely claimed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure cancer. Fake cancer remedies come in many forms, including pills, powders, herbs, ointments, syrups, and teas. Some well-known examples are:
- Laetrile. This substance, also known as amygdalin, is made from fruit pits, nuts, and other plants. In the body, it breaks down to form a poison called hydrogen cyanide. Lab studies have found that Laetrile has little, if any, benefit as a cancer treatment, and it causes side effects similar to cyanide poisoning.
- Black Salve. Products labeled as “black salve” are sometimes sold as a remedy for skin cancer. These products contain corrosive chemicals that damage the top layer of the skin, causing severe and sometimes permanent scars. However, they can leave the cancer behind in the deeper layers of the skin. There, it can continue to grow unseen, making it harder to treat and sometimes even deadly.
- Essiac Tea. This herbal tea contains a mixture of herbs, including burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm, and Turkish rhubarb. It’s widely sold as a cancer-fighting product, especially in Canada. Some people also take it to treat HIV or diabetes or to improve general immune function. However, there have been no reliable tests to show that it’s either effective or safe.
What Really Works
The truth is, there’s no such thing as a cancer cure that works for everyone. Each individual case of cancer is different, and the best course of treatment varies based on the type of cancer and the individual. Often, two people with exactly the same cancer still need different treatments. Seeing a doctor – or, often, a team of doctors – is the only way to find the course of treatment that has the best chance of working for you.
Of course, there are also new cancer remedies being developed all the time. If you want to try one of these experimental treatments, the best way to do it is to join a legitimate clinical trial. The FDA reviews these studies to make sure that they don’t pose any unreasonable risks for the patients. You can find a clinical trial by talking to your doctor or searching ClinicalTrials.gov.
HIV/AIDS Treatment Scams
AIDS is a rarity in the modern world: a deadly disease with no cure. That’s why people with HIV are particularly vulnerable to miracle health scams; they think they have nothing to lose.
But this isn’t true. Though HIV can’t be cured, there are drugs that can help HIV-positive people live longer and healthier lives – and fake miracle cures can interfere with these real remedies.
Fake HIV Treatments and Tests
An herb called St. John’s wort is sometimes touted as a safe way to fight viruses in general, including HIV. But there are no scientific studies showing that St. John’s wort has any effect against HIV, and at least one study shows that it can reduce the effects of drugs used to treat HIV. Taking St. John’s wort along with any antiretroviral drug could make the drug less effective and speed up the rate at which the virus becomes resistant to it. In other words, instead of helping HIV patients, it could actually shorten their lives.
Scammers also take advantage of people’s anxiety about HIV by peddling home test kits for the virus. Many people prefer the privacy of these at-home tests to going to a doctor or a clinic for testing. They hope these tests can give them a quick result without anyone else having to know about it.
However, most of these tests don’t work. Only one at-home test, the Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System, is actually approved by the FDA. People who use any other at-home test could get a result showing they’re HIV-free when it isn’t true. They won’t get the prompt treatment they need to prolong their lives, and in the meantime, they could pass the infection on to others.
What Really Works
While there’s no cure for HIV or AIDS, modern treatments can help many people with HIV live long and active lives. The FDA has approved more than two dozen antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV infection. For most patients, taking a “cocktail” of at least two of these drugs is the best way to keep HIV levels low and keep symptoms at bay. Patients should work with their doctors to figure out which combination of drugs will work best for them, with the fewest side effects.
Arthritis Treatment Scams
According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children in this country suffer from some form of arthritis. The symptoms are painful and often debilitating, and they tend to get worse over time. The disease has no cure, and treatments for it don’t always work and often have side effects.
This makes arthritis a great target for miracle health scams. There are a lot of people out there with the disease, and many of them aren’t happy with their current course of treatment. They’re ideal victims for scammers promising a painless, easy cure.
Fake Arthritis Treatments
There are countless supplements on the market that supposedly help fight the symptoms of arthritis. Some of these actually have some scientific evidence to back them up. The Arthritis Foundation reports that SAM-e, capsaicin, turmeric, cat’s claw, fish oil, ginger, and several other herbal remedies show promising results in studies. Others, such as flaxseed or MSM, a sulfur compound, have less evidence to support them, but are worthy of further study.
However, there are also some arthritis “cures” on the market that have no evidence at all to support them. These include:
- Cartilage Supplements. The most common type of arthritis, known as osteoarthritis, is caused by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions your joints. Some people believe that taking supplements of cartilage from sharks or cows can help your body repair or regrow its own cartilage. However, there’s no evidence that this works. Shark cartilage has also been sold as a remedy for other conditions, including cancer, psoriasis, and diabetes, and there’s no evidence to support these uses either.
- CMO. Cetyl myristoleate, or CMO, is a compound known as a fatty acid ester. A 1994 study in the Journal of Pharmacological Science found that it helped reduce symptoms of arthritis in rats, but a follow-up study in Inflammopharmacology in 1999 found no benefit. The FTC has concluded that CMO cannot legally be sold as a treatment for arthritis. In 2000, the agency took legal action against a company for claiming a course of its CMO product could completely clear up arthritis symptoms for one to two years.
- Magnets. The idea behind using magnets to treat arthritis is that putting magnets against your skin attracts the iron in your blood, helping it circulate better. As the Arthritis Foundation points out, this theory is “bunkum,” because blood iron isn’t even in a form that responds to magnets. A 2013 study in the online journal PLOS ONE found that a magnetic wrist wrap was no better than a placebo for treating arthritis pain, swelling, or physical function.
- Copper Bracelets. Copper bracelets are sold as an arthritis cure based on the idea that arthritis symptoms are caused by a lack of copper in the body. The sellers claim that placing copper against the skin will somehow cause it to be absorbed into the body, easing inflammation. This idea about treating disease with metal, which dates from the mid-1800s, has no basis in fact. Studies, including the PLOS ONE study, have consistently found that copper bracelets have no benefit for arthritis.
What Really Works
Arthritis is a complicated disease. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and finding the right treatment starts with figuring out which type you have. For osteoarthritis, treatments include opioids, other painkillers, and steroids. Other forms of arthritis can be treated with drugs called DMARDs, which slow or halt the process of inflammation in the joints.
Because all these treatments have side effects, it’s important to use them carefully. You need to work with your doctor to find a course of treatment that relieves your symptoms with as little risk as possible. Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can also help keep arthritis symptoms under control. With the right combination of drugs and lifestyle changes, you can live a pain-free, active life.
Weight Loss Scams
Today, more Americans are overweight than ever before. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than two out of three adults, and one in three children, in the U.S. are now considered overweight or obese.
As the number of overweight Americans rises, so does the amount of information about how harmful all that extra weight is. Article after article warns that carrying extra weight increases your risk of all kinds of health problems: high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, fatty liver, and even some kinds of cancer.
On top of that, anyone who’s overweight knows how it can affect your day-to-day life. It can hurt your romantic, social, and even professional prospects. Overweight kids are often harassed at school, while overweight adults have a harder time getting a job and receive lower earnings.
All this gives everyone who’s carrying extra pounds a powerful incentive to shed them. But the simple fact remains that for most people, gaining weight is easy, and losing it is hard. It’s a long, slow, and often unpleasant process. Any product that promises easy, painless weight loss is powerfully appealing, even if there’s no real evidence it works.
Fake Weight Loss Treatments
Fake weight loss cures come in countless forms. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of fad diets, pills, patches, creams, and exercise gadgets of all kinds. Here are just a few examples of phony weight-loss products that have cropped up in recent years:
- Double Shot. This two-pill supplement combo was sold with the outrageous claim that people who took it were guaranteed to lose at least 15 pounds per week while still eating as much as they wanted. In 2014, the makers paid a $500,000 settlement to the FTC for these false claims.
- Acai Berry Supplements. Many weight-loss supplements contain acai berry, an exotic fruit from South America. While the fruit is healthful – just like other kinds of berries – there’s no evidence it has special fat-burning powers. However, marketers of acai products aren’t letting this lack of evidence stop them. Instead, many of them have set up fake news sites, bearing the logos of legitimate news agencies, to spread false claims about the effectiveness of acai. Often, the “reporters” on these sites claim to have tried the product and lost a ridiculous amount of weight – say, 25 pounds in just a few weeks – with no change in eating habits.
- Electronic Muscle Stimulators. These products claim they can help you build muscle, shed pounds, and get “rock hard abs” with no work. However, according to the FDA, most of these claims just aren’t true. The devices can help tone or strengthen muscles temporarily, but they won’t magically give you a six-pack, and there’s no evidence they can affect your weight at all. Moreover, these gadgets can cause problems like skin irritation, shocks, bruising, and burns.
These phony remedies, and others like them, all have a few things in common. They all promise fast, easy weight loss, without exercise and without giving up or cutting back on favorite foods. Point for point, this is almost exactly the opposite of what doctors say is the best way to lose weight.
What Really Works
Pretty much everyone already knows what you really need to do to lose weight: eat less and exercise. Doctors agree that a safe, sensible goal for weight loss is to shed about one pound per week. You can do this by cutting about 500 calories per day from your diet, or by increasing your activity level by a corresponding amount without eating more.
However, there are many different ways to achieve this basic goal. A 2012 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which compared the results of 23 diet studies over a 45-year period, found that overall, people who followed low-carb diets lost about the same amount of weight as those on low-fat diets. The 2016 DIETFITS study, in which people were randomly assigned to follow either a low-carb or a low-fat diet, found a similar result.
All this suggests that there’s no single “right” way to lose weight. Instead, it’s most important to choose a plan that you can stick to. So if you need to lose weight, do some research into different plans, on your own or with your doctor’s help. Then choose one that you know you can stick with for the long term – because that’s what it will take.
How to Spot a Health Scam
These are some of the most common health scams, but by no means the only ones. There are all kinds of powders, pills, and potions on the market that claim to increase your energy level, improve memory, stop hair loss, and even reverse aging itself. Some snake-oil remedies even say they can cure dozens of ailments with one pill.
Here are some warning signs of a health scam:
- It’s Too Good to Be True. Read an ad for one of these miracle cures, and you’ll think it has absolutely no downside. It’s quick, it’s easy, it has no side effects! It doesn’t even require a prescription! By contrast, ads for real drugs always have a long section at the end full of small print, listing all the risks and side effects the treatment can have. The makers are required by law to include this information so people know all the facts. An ad that doesn’t include it is a sure sign of a fake remedy.
- There are Lots of Testimonials. Ads for miracle cures often feature testimonials from users talking about how this product has changed their lives. Unfortunately, stories like these aren’t a reliable way to judge a product. You have no way of knowing whether these people’s experiences are typical – or even whether they’re true at all. The company could just be making up a bunch of names and stories for satisfied customers. After all, how is anyone ever going to check?
- There’s a Lot of Technical Jargon. Another way health scammers try to make their products sound legit is to use a lot of technical-sounding language. They throw around terms like “toxins, “blood-brain barrier,” and “electromagnetic energy.” Since most consumers aren’t scientists, they don’t understand what these terms mean and can’t tell if they’re being used accurately. When you Google the terms, you often find they have nothing at all to do with the condition the remedy is supposed to treat.
- There’s No Hard Evidence. The best way to tell if a product is really effective is to look for serious, scientific studies that show it works. If an ad claims the product has been “proven to work” but doesn’t say how, do a quick search and try to find the studies online. If you can’t find them, they probably don’t exist.
- Doctors “Don’t Want You to Know” About It. Scammers know that anyone who checks will quickly find their remedies have no hard data to back them up. To explain this, they often claim the medical community is trying to cover up their discoveries. But if you think about it, this claim makes no sense. After all, doctors make their living by curing patients, not by keeping them sick. If there’s a new treatment that can help you, of course your doctor wants you to know about it. It’s only the harmful, fake remedies they want you to steer clear of.
- It’s an “Ancient” Remedy. Many snake-oil peddlers try to give their product legitimacy by saying it’s been known for centuries. There are two big problems with this claim. In the first place, it’s easy to say something like, “The ancient Egyptians treated cancer with crushed locusts,” whether it’s true or not. And in the second place, many things that were accepted as scientific facts hundreds or thousands of years ago are now known to be false. Physicians in the Middle Ages used to treat all kinds of diseases by bleeding people, but no one thinks that’s a good idea today.
- It’s a “Natural” Product. Health scammers often sell “natural” remedies, such as herbs, because they can sell them without FDA approval. Legally, they aren’t allowed to say these products can treat or cure any disease, but this rule is widely ignored. A 2012 report by the U.S. Inspector General found that 20% of all weight-loss and immune-boosting supplements made claims about their disease-fighting powers. Moreover, some of these products don’t meet even the most basic standards for safety or quality. In 2015, the New York Attorney General ordered four chain stores to remove herbal products from their shelves because they didn’t actually contain the herbs listed on their labels. This doesn’t mean that all herbal products are useless or unsafe – only that the word “natural” is no guarantee.
- There’s Only One Way to Get It. Most health scammers keep tight control over their products. Typically, there’s only one way to order the product – often through a website or a mail-order channel. Real drug companies, by contrast, go out of their way to get their products into stores or encourage doctors to prescribe them. If you can’t get a treatment from your doctor or buy it over the counter, that’s a good sign it’s not a real remedy.
- You Must Act Now. Sellers of fake remedies sometimes pressure you to sign up on the spot for a new treatment, without taking the time to talk to your doctor. Sellers of real health care products, by contrast, usually encourage you to talk to your doctor about them.
- It Involves Travel. Some of the most elaborate health care scams involve going to a clinic for treatment, often one that’s far from your home. Once you check in to one of these clinics, you’re under their control, and it can be hard to get out if you change your mind about the treatment. Of course, there are many legitimate clinics that offer useful procedures. However, others use untested and possibly dangerous remedies and have “doctors” on staff who aren’t licensed. Before going to any clinic for treatment, talk to your doctor about it. Also, check it out on your own by contacting the state or local health authorities in the area where the clinic is. Be especially cautious about clinics in foreign countries. Contact that country’s health agency to make sure the facility is properly licensed and equipped to provide the kind of care you’re seeking.
Basically, it comes down to this: Whenever you run across a new remedy, be skeptical. Look for scientific facts to back up the product’s claims, as well as info about what side effects it could cause. And if you decide it’s worth trying, check with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you.
What to Do if You’ve Fallen for a Health Scam
If you’ve already been taken in by a miracle health scam, don’t be embarrassed to admit it. Health scammers are clever, and they use every trick in the book to tempt consumers. You can be sure you’re not the first to fall for the phony product – and as long as the sellers stay in business, you won’t be the last.
Fortunately, you can help stop that from happening. First of all, report the scam to the FTC, using its online Complaint Assistant. You can also file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General. There’s even a chance you could get your money back if your complaint leads to a legal action.
Also, spread the word about the scam. Tell your friends, write to your local paper, put it on social media – do whatever you can to get the real facts out and counter the scammer’s fake information. The more warnings there are out there about a fake remedy, the less likely other people are to fall for it in future.
Miracle health scams work for a good reason: because real medical treatments have so many problems. They’re often costly or hard to use. Sometimes they cause undesirable side effects, and sometimes they don’t help enough with problems they’re supposed to treat. It’s no wonder many people feel legitimate medicine has failed them and grasp at alternatives.
But the sad truth is, no matter how unsatisfactory the real treatments are, these miracle cures are never going to do a better job. The real long-term solution is to find better remedies that work – and that means more research.
By donating to organizations that fund research into specific diseases – such as the American Cancer Society, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and the Arthritis Foundation – you can help make better treatments a reality. The U.S. government funds a lot of health research too, mostly through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Writing to your members of Congress to encourage them to preserve or increase funding for the NIH is another good way to help bring about better medicine in the future.
In the meantime, you can look for other ways to save on prescription drugs. Real medicine that you can afford will do you a lot more good than an unproven miracle cure.
Have you ever encountered a health scam?