AARP Eye Center
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t evaluate the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies, enzymes and probiotics, but that doesn’t stop people from consuming them in the hope of attaining smoother skin, stronger muscles, sharper minds or better health.
Supplements can have genuine health benefits — helping us meet changing nutritional needs as we age, for example. And older people are particularly enthusiastic consumers. Nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults age 60 and older take dietary supplements, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and more than half use two or more.
Unfortunately, the supplement trade also attracts plenty of scammers who spread disinformation in order to hype questionable products and entice the unwary with deceptive marketing schemes.
Makers and sellers of bogus supplements use direct mail and websites (often designed to mimic real news and magazine sites) to tout their products’ efficacy against all kinds of ills. Claims to improve memory, ease arthritis, even stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease may be accompanied by enthusiastic testimonials from satisfied users, impressive results from clinical studies and ringing endorsements from celebrities or medical specialists — all of them fabricated.
If you’re skeptical, scammers have another enticement — a free, no-risk trial offer. What have you got to lose? Money, and potentially a lot of it. You’ll probably be charged a nominal shipping fee, but that gives the fraudsters your credit card information. They may go ahead and bill you for the full price of the product, or enroll you in a long-term subscription costing hundreds of dollars a year, under terms that are undisclosed or buried deep in the fine print.
These scams can hurt more than your bank account. Supplements, even those described as “natural,” may pose health risks. Some interact harmfully with particular medications or alter their effectiveness. Worse yet, in recent years regulators have discovered hundreds of supplements tainted with prescription drugs, anabolic steroids and other potentially dangerous substances.
In one high-profile case, the co-founders of Florida-based sports nutrition company Blackstone Labs were each sentenced to 4½ years in prison and ordered to forfeit a combined $5.9 million after pleading guilty in late 2021 to selling anabolic steroids and other dangerous products as dietary supplements.
- Promises that a product will treat or prevent diseases, especially if the claim is that it can cure a whole range of ailments at once.
- Companies that urge you to hurry up and order a product because supplies may not last.