Health Talk: Internet Health Scams
Hosted by The Post's Health Editor
Tuesday, June 29, 1999
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently launched "Operation.Cure.all" in response to bogus health claims for products and treatments advertised on the web. With the abundance of available information online, how can you, as a consumer, protect yourself from health scams?
Michelle Rusk, senior staff attorney in the Division of Advertising Practices of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, was our guest for this week's "Health Talk" with special host Lexie Verdon, The Post's Assistant Health Editor.
Please read the following discussion on Internet health scams.
Welcome to Health talk. Last year more than 22 million Americans went to the Internet to look for advice on health care and they can find much good information there. But how can they weed out those marketers with phony treatments and cures? Join us in a discussion about bogus health claims on the Web with Michelle Rusk from the Federal Trade Commission.
Lexie Verdon: Ms. Rusk, the FTC announced last week that it has begun Operation Cure.All to try to alert consumers to the risks of fraud on the Internet and to find sites that are not offering reputable products. What should a consumer do before buying a health product or service over the net?
Michelle Rusk: Consumers need to be very wary about health products and services marketed on the Internet. The Internet can be an extremely valuable tool for finding health information, but unfortunately there is also a lot of bad information out there. Do some homework about the product and service. Never rely solely on a commercial sitethe site selling you the productfor information. There are many resources on the Internet, like the government's gateway site Healthfinder.gov and the National Library of Medicine's Medlineplus, which provide reliable information. The FTC's web site at www.ftc.gov provides links to those online resources. It is also important to talk to a health care professional before trying a product, especially if you have a medical condition or are taking medications.
Baltimore, MD: Is the FDA involved in any way in the FTC project?
Michelle Rusk: Yes. The FDA and FTC share jurisdiction for regulating many health products and coordinate closely in our law enforcement efforts. The FDA partnered with the FTC in searching out health fraud on the Internet.
Arlington, VA: With so many outlets for information on the web, how does the FTC enforce advertising laws on the Internet? Certainly, there's no way to scout out every bogus site.
Michelle Rusk: Unfortunately the web is too vast for the FTC to be able to guarantee that we have found and stopped every fraudulent site. We conduct "surf" days with other law enforcement agencies from all over the country and world to search for suspect health products and services and bring law enforcement actions against some sites, but we do not want consumers to be lulled into a false sense of security that we have cleaned up the Internet. The best protection is for the consumer to be a savvy Internet user. We have some consumer information at our web site, www.ftc.gov, with tips on how to spot a bogus product and where to get accurate information.
Washington, DC: Often, the web is the most accessible resource for information on alternative therapies. Is there any way for consumers to determine which sites are legitimate?
Lexie Verdon: We get questions like this often. Consumers are eager for information about alternative therapies, but generally they haven't had the same medical scrutiny as conventional treatments. Are there resources you might recommend for consumers to check these options?
Michelle Rusk: There are some specific links which should be useful for getting current and reliable information about alternative therapies. The NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is a good resource. The Office of Dietary Supplements has put together a database of research on various supplement products. For herbal products, the American Botanical Council is a useful source. Links to all of these are available through the FTC's web site. Again, it is important for you to talk to your health care professional, especially if you are considering alternative therapies to treat a serious disease condition. Also, there are many foundations and organizations that have expertise in a specific disease, like the Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society.
Silver Spring, MD: It seems that enforcing these policies might be a little more tricky since there are no distinct state or country lines on the Internet. How does the FTC deal with the issue of jurisdiction?
Lexie Verdon: Sometimes aren't there even questions about sites that are located overseas? How does the FTC deal with these sites if they are promoting products that they shouldn't?
Michelle Rusk: The FTC has jurisdiction over any deceptive or fraudulent marketing of products to consumers in the U.S., no matter what the medium or where the company is located. If a company from overseas is marketing to U.S. consumers, we have authority to take action and will often seek assistance from the country where the company is located. We also help other countries with enforcement against companies that are located in the U.S. but marketing overseas. We have very close cooperative arrangements with Canada and Mexico, in particular, to deal with cross border fraud.
Washington, DC: I read about the "teaser sites" put up on the web by the FTC. How do users access them? Are they registered with search engines so that unsuspecting surfers will come across them? (I'm also curious because I'd like to see one.)
Michelle Rusk: The FTC has set up a number of "teaser" sites on the Internet on arthritis treatments, weight loss and impotence, among other things. They offer miraculous "cures" for these conditions and use many of the techniques that scam artists use to lure in consumers, like amazing testimonials, references to government conspiracies to keep products from consumers, and long lists of ailments that the product can treat. A consumer that attempts to purchase from the site will be warned that he could have been scammed. We register these sites with search engines and use other techniques to get them out there to alert consumers. Look for "Arthriticure" as one example.
Springfield, VA: What are the most common kinds of scams? Do you find a concentration of bogus ads directed toward any particular diseases or conditions?
Michelle Rusk: Operation Cure.All, the FTC's enforcement effort to stop health fraud on the Internet, targeted six serious diseases because they appear to be the diseases most often the subject of fraudulent treatments and cures: these were heart disease, cancer, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. The Arhtritis Foundation has reported that consumers spend an estimated two billion dollars a year on unproven arthritis remedies. Two of the FTC's consent orders in Operation Cure.All involved such remedies: CMO, a fatty acid derived from beef tallow, that purported to reverse severe arthritis in just five days; and magnet therapies that claimed to treat arthritis, heart disease, liver cancer and many other ailments.
Bethesda, MD: What are some warning signs that an ad might be a scam?
Michelle Rusk: The FTC has a consumer bulletin on Virtual Health Treatments available on its web site with some tips about how to spot a likely scam. Phrases like "scientific breakthrough", "miraculous cure," "secret formula," "ancient remedy" are one tip off. Sites that have amazing testimonials from "cured" consumers should also put you on alert. And the more ailments a product claims to treat, the more suspect it is.
Lexie Verdon: Ms. Rusk, obviously there are thousands of sites on the Internet. Is there anyway for regulators to truly stay ahead of the scams? Or is this an area where the consumer is really dependent on his or her own good sense?
Michelle Rusk: I'm glad you asked that, because the most important message of the FTC's Operation Cure.ALL is that consumers really do need to beware and do some research through the many reliable resources available on the Internet. The FTC will continue to be an aggressive law enforcer, but we simply can't keep up with the proliferation of health fraud in this medium.
Bethesda, MD: Does the FTC have a list of sites which have been found to be fraudulent?
Michelle Rusk: The FTC posts information on its web site at www.ftc.gov on the companies that have been the subject of specific law enforcement actions, both from the Internet and elsewhere. There is not a publicly available list of the 800 sites that were the subject of our "surf" days since some of them involve ongoing enforcement efforts. If you have concerns about a particular product or company, you can search our web site to see if they have been the target of law enforcement action. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to avoid the sites that use the techniques I referred to above and go to sources you know to be reliable.
Washington, DC: What kind of laws are out there to make sure people running a fradulent site are prosecuted?
Michelle Rusk: The Federal Trade Commission has broad authority to prohibit deceptive or fraudulent marketing of health products to US consumers on the Internet and in other media. The Food and Drug Administration also has authority in this area, particularly over the labeling of drug and supplement products. In addition, the state Attorneys General have parallel authority and have been active in the area of fraudulent health products. The FDA and many of the states, as well as other authorities assisted the FTC in its Internet enforcement efforts.
Washington, DC: In response to an earlier question, you mentioned that the FDA also participated in searching out fraud on the Internet. Is the FDA also aiding in enforcement?
Michelle Rusk: The FDA assisted the FTC both in surveying the Internet and in our specific investigations. The FDA also has authority to take action over matters relating to the labeling of health products.
Olney, MD: In the four cases cited in The Post's article, each company decided to settle. What would be the worst case scenario if a company did not heed the FTC's initial warnings?
Michelle Rusk: Once a company is under order with the Federal Trade Commission they have certain compliance and reporting obligations. If they continue to make deceptive claims about the products they sell they are subject to civil penalties that can amount to very large sums. There are a number of other remedies available in the case of serious health fraud, like freezing a companies assets, obtaining injunctions against marketing of the product, ordering the company to turn over profits or provide consumer refunds, and ordering corrective advertising.
Great Falls, VA: Is there any place for consumers to report complaints about health ads they suspect to be scams?
Michelle Rusk: To report a company you believe to be making false claims, call the FTC's Consumer Response Center at the toll-free number 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 202-326-2502 or submit a complaint online at www.ftc.gov (click on Complaint Form).
I'm afraid that we've come to the end of our time. Thank you, Ms. Rusk, for your helpful advice on finding good health information. And thank you all for your questions. Please join us again next week.
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