As COVID-19 spreads, coronavirus scams spread, too, many of them plugging phony cures. The companies touting colloidol silver as a defense against the disease or selling bogus COVID-19 testing kits are part of a long and ignoble tradition of exploiting people’s health fears for profit.
The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines health fraud as the deceptive advertising, promotion or sale of unproven products claimed to be effective in preventing or treating a condition or illness. Scammers use ads in multiple media, bogus websites, direct mail, email and social media to push herbs, oils, pills, powders, supplements and teas with supposed properties to cure chronic diseases, ease pain, melt away pounds or ward off infection.
Health fraudsters follow the headlines, taking advantage when an outbreak like coronavirus, Ebola or swine flu makes global news. Testifying on COVID-19 fraud at a June 2020 Senate hearing, a high-ranking FBI official said that "the current atmosphere of fear and urgency aids criminals in taking advantage of the American public, particularly at-risk populations like older adults and people with underlying health conditions."
Along with peddling snake oil, scammers might offer actual medications without a prescription, or impersonate national and international agencies such the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in phishing emails designed to get your personal data.
But their business goes beyond periodic pandemics. Health scammers are always active with spurious pitches for miracle cures, preying on people with serious, chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer and diabetes.
These deceptions don’t only raise false hopes and lighten victims’ wallets. They can cause real harm, leading people to delay or stop proven courses of treatment or take substances that can have harmful unlisted ingredients or dangerous interactions with medications they’re already taking.