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Health Fraud

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. 

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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.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Warning Signs

  • A remedy, supplement or treatment is touted as a quick, sure-fire fix for a wide range of unrelated illnesses and health issues.
  • Ads, emails and other communications include testimonials from “doctors” or “real people” about the amazing results they’ve seen from the product.
  • Pitches include terms like “ancient remedy,” “natural cure,” “new discovery” or “scientific breakthrough.” They also might hint at government or health care industry conspiracies to prevent people from getting these miracle products.
  • The product comes with a “no risk” money-back guarantee.

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Do be skeptical. If claims made for an untested or little-known health product sound too good to be true, they probably are.
  • Do closely check email and web addresses in messages purporting to be from major health organizations like CDC and WHO.
  • Do go to the CDC and WHO websites for reliable, up-to-date information on disease outbreaks and other national and global health issues.
  • Do research unfamiliar treatments:
    • Search for the company name or treatment online with the word “scam,” and check the claims with trusted sources of medical news and information.
    • Check with the Better Business Bureau and your state’s attorney general to see if a product or its marketer has generated consumer complaints.
    • Check with the FDA to see if a product is federally approved.
    • Consult a doctor, pharmacist or other health care professional before trying a new medication or treatment.
  • Don’t let labels like “herbal” and “natural” sway you. Just because a remedy is natural does not mean it is safe or effective, especially in treating a serious illness.
  • Don’t give in to pressure to act quickly. Health fraudsters rely on scare tactics or short-term “special offers” to close deals.
  • Don’t try a product based on a money-back guarantee. Promised refunds don’t make an untested treatment any safer or more effective, and they often come with small-print strings that make it difficult to get your money back.
  • Don’t open attachments or click on links in unsolicited emails or texts about medical products or global health crises. They could unleash malware on your device.
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More Resources

  • Report health scams to the Federal Trade Commission. Call 877-382-4357 or file an online complaint.
  • The FDA website includes a section on health fraud with advisories on the latest scams and agency actions to combat them.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.