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Ten tips

How to protect yourself from health fraud

By Times staff
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

Consumers literally spend billions of dollars each year on fraudulent health care products and regimens. It's especially easy for people to fall victim to health fraud when they're desperate for a cure to a serious illness or eager to look better. Here are some of the most common tactics used by unscrupulous health care marketers, along with tips to help you protect yourself.

* * *

1. A miracle cure for multiple diseases? Don't fall for claims that a product can cure numerous unrelated conditions, including serious diseases such as cancer, AIDS and diabetes. Many serious diseases have no cures, only therapies to help manage them.

2. Be leery of promises of fast cures. If a health care marketer makes such promises, be on the lookout for ambiguous language. For instance, the words "in days" can refer to any length of time.

3. Don't be duped by the term "natural." It can be misused to imply that a product is safer than a conventional treatment. Note that some plants, such as poisonous mushrooms, can kill when ingested. What's more, 60 percent of over-the-counter drugs are based on natural ingredients.

4. Same goes for other promising-sounding words. Be on the lookout for hyped-up terms meant to grab your attention, such as "time-tested," "newfound treatment," "innovation," "miracle cure," "exclusive product," "new discovery," "magical" or "ancient remedy."

5. View personal testimonies with healthy skepticism. Testimonials are difficult to prove; in fact, they can be completely made up. Sometimes patients' good results are due to remission or simultaneous use of approved medical treatments, not the use of the fraudulent product.

6. If your satisfaction is guaranteed, something is wrong. A money-back guarantee may sound reassuring, but realize that you're unlikely to see your money again. Fraudulent health-care marketers rarely stay at the same address for long.

7. Be suspicious about promises of easy or rapid weight loss. The only way most people can lose weight is to eat less food, or fewer high-calorie foods, and increase activity. It's reasonable and healthy to lose about one to two pounds a week.

8. Meaningless medical jargon is a red flag. Scientific terms and explanations may sound impressive, but they may be utterly fictitious. Sometimes such terms are borrowed from an article in a reputable scientific journal about a study on a completely different subject.

9. Do the promises sound too good to be true? If so, they probably aren't true. If you're not sure, ask a doctor or a representative of a professional group associated with your illness, such as the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association or the National Arthritis Foundation.

10. Check out the product and the product's marketer. Find out about complaint histories by contacting the Food and Drug Administration at www.fda.gov/ora/fed-state/dfsr-activities/dfsr-pas.html or (888) 463-6332. You also can call the Better Business Bureau at (800) 955-5100 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (800) 435-7352.

-- Compiled by Laura T. Coffey. Sources: Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov); Quackwatch (www.quackwatch.org)

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