En español | In an unprecedented crackdown, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent warning letters to almost 300 firms selling or advertising fake cures, treatments and preventive therapies for COVID-19.
"If anybody says they have something that prevents, treats or cures coronavirus, you should not believe it,” says Christine DeLorme, an attorney with the FTC, a consumer-protection agency.
Altogether, the agency has sent warnings to 281 firms about their dubious over-the-counter products, supplements and therapies since the pandemic began. That figure was of Aug. 10, when COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. surpassed 160,000.
Older Americans targeted
Many of the products and services are aimed at older Americans, since they are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and more likely to have underlying medical conditions that put them at risk of a severe case, DeLorme says.
At issue are phony medical claims relating to:
- Products including cannabinol, colloidal silver, traditional Chinese remedies, homeopathic and naturopathic treatments, intravenous vitamin C therapies and nasal sprays.
- Services including acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, electromagnetic field therapy, hydrotherapy and ozone therapy.
- Devices such as nebulizers, which turn medicine into a mist that can be inhaled.
Take the case of a firm in suburban Dallas called OrganyLife, which touted horse milk to help people recover from COVID-19. OrganyLife made its claims in April on Facebook and Instagram.
The firm's milk products had been sold on Amazon, according to the FTC's May 11 warning letter, which was sent by email and copied to a corporate attorney for Amazon.
AARP sent a request for comment to an email address shown in the warning letter, but the email bounced back and was not delivered.
In an Aug. 11 statement, Amazon said:
"Amazon requires that sellers provide accurate information on product detail pages and put processes in place to proactively block inaccurate claims about COVID-19 before they are published to our store. We've also developed specific tools for COVID-19 that run 24/7 to scan the hundreds of millions of product detail pages for any inaccurate claims that our initial filters may have missed."
The product in question was removed from the online retail giant and “action was taken against the bad actor,” the statement said.
Laying down the law
Under federal law, it is illegal to advertise that a product can prevent, treat or cure a human disease unless one possesses reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies, the FTC says.
The FTC gave OrganyLife 48 hours from the time it received the email to describe steps it was taking to address the agency's concerns. The firm still advertises on social media but now sells supplements — one is Horny Goat Weed — without mentioning COVID-19.
Since the spring, there's been a barrage of warnings from the FTC, some issued in tandem with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Generally, the FTC regulates the marketing and advertising of over-the-counter medications and supplements, and the FDA regulates prescription drugs, DeLorme says.
Seller of ‘chaga’ tea is warned
Last week, the FDA and the FTC dinged Canadian Chaga, in Ontario, Canada, for pitching chaga tea, chaga capsules and a chaga tincture during the pandemic. The company claimed the products “were in extremely high demand from the spread of coronavirus.” Chaga is a fungus that grows parasitically on hardwood trees, especially birch.
When AARP sought comment from Canadian Chaga, Chad Beckwith Smith in an email said his firm had complied and “completely closed down all Canadian Chaga in selling any products whatsoever."
Its website calls Chaga mushrooms “God's gift to you” but also points out: “We are not selling any Chaga at this time."
Fake claims about COVID-19 remedies turn up on social media, websites, TV ads and billboards, some appearing in Spanish.
"It's really atrocious to take advantage of a public health emergency,” DeLorme says, adding that the firms in question are offering people false hope.
There are three key reasons to avoid spurious products, she says. One, you could be physically harmed. Two, you stand to waste your money. And three, you could be lulled into a false sense of security and thus forgo fundamental protective measures recommended by public health authorities: social distancing, frequent handwashing and wearing a face mask.
The majority of firms slapped with warnings comply with the admonition to respond within 48 hours and state what they have done to address the FTC's concerns, DeLorme says. If a company making bogus claims doesn't quit, the FTC may ask a federal judge to order the firm to stop and give refunds to consumers.
The large number of warnings during COVID-19 is unprecedented, exceeding those issued during Ebola, Zika, bird flu and swine flu outbreaks, DeLorme and an agency spokesman say.
Buyers, and sellers, beware
A 16-year veteran of the FTC, DeLorme works in the agency's Division of Advertising Practices. As a Harvard-trained lawyer with undergraduate degrees from Stanford in biology and history, she is well suited to protect consumers during a health crisis.
So snake oil salesman and charlatans trying to make a quick buck, beware. Caveat emptor, too, since buyers also should beware.
"The goal is to get these unproven products out of the marketplace, to stop the harm that's occurring,” says DeLorme.
Alert the FTC if you see sham products
Mare’s milk, chaga tea among products being hawked during pandemic
Want to learn more about phony products and services tied to COVID-19? Here are all the FTC’s COVID-19 warning letters about fake cures, treatments and therapies.
File a complaint online with the FTC, or call 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357), toll-free.