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Easy Ways to Spot Health Scams

How Marketing Terms Can Alert You to Bogus Treatments

Harvard Health

We all want a magic pill to make aches and pains go away. But that longing sometimes makes us vulnerable to health scams. These come in the form of untested remedies promising to treat or cure everything from arthritis to aging. “From my experience, some older adults fall for the scams that focus on issues where there really is no good medical treatment or cure, such as Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, or cancer. The vulnerability comes in because people are looking for hope,” says Dr. Anthony Zizza, a geriatrician at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.


The first tip-off to a health scam is often the way a product is described. Be wary of words used in marketing claims, such as quick fix, miracle, secret, cure, and breakthrough—and anything that promises to relieve your medical problems. “You might see something that says ‘Take this pill and you’ll reverse memory loss,’ but don’t believe it,” says Dr. Zizza. Other clues include the terms no-risk, money-back guarantee, free gift included, or limited supply.


A large category of potential scams consists of dietary supplements — not the vitamins and minerals your doctor recommends to combat nutrient deficiency, but the formulations promising to relieve just about any health problem you can think of, such as poor memory, aches and pains, colds and flu, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and sexual dysfunction. They may be sold as pills or liquids and may contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, or “botanicals.”

Beware also fraudulent gadgets, such as belts promising to melt off pounds, copper bracelets for arthritis, or light therapy devices without FDA approval that are sold to treat skin conditions. “If it doesn’t make sense to you or you can’t understand why it would work, then it probably doesn’t,” says Dr. Zizza.

There are also health apps (computer programs that you can use on smartphones) that make false claims. They may claim to diagnose or cure medical problems using the standard features of a cellphone, such as the camera or microphone. But there are only a handful of apps that are FDA-approved to treat anything, and they usually involve an approved attachment as well.


At best, using fraudulent health products may have a placebo effect (leading you to feel better) and cause no harm. Often, however, these untested, unproven remedies wind up delaying actual medical diagnosis and treatment, and some can put your health at risk directly. For example, “unproven concoctions or herbs may interact with medications and increase or decrease their effectiveness,” Dr. Zizza explains.

Some products contain potentially dangerous ingredients, such as hidden pharmaceutical drugs or untested substances. How do those get by the FDA? By law, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring a product is safe and makes no false claims. But that still means scammers can sell a product, and it’s up to FDA officials to find out, and then prove, that the product is unsafe before they can call for its removal from store shelves. The Internet and social media sites like Facebook are also popular for supplement sales, making it easy for unscrupulous individuals to promote legitimate-seeming products. Products that come from other countries are often found to have suspicious or dangerous ingredients.

Another risk: many health scams are expensive and can put a serious dent in your wallet. “I have some patients who spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on supplements each month, and it’s not clear that the supplements work,” says Dr. Zizza.


If an ad for a product interests you, tell your doctor about it. “It’s okay to ask for the doctor’s opinion, or ask if the doctor knows of any research about a treatment,” says Dr. Zizza. In some cases, there’s scientific evidence to prove something does or doesn’t work. “Ginkgo is often sold as a cure for memory loss, but studies have shown that it’s not,” says Dr. Zizza.

Remember: be cautious, just as you would if someone knocked on your door trying to sell you something. “If it sounds too good to be true, stay away from it,” warns Dr. Zizza.


To do your own research on potential treatments, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov or www.pubmed.gov to see if there are any current or completed studies on a treatment.

For more on supplements, visit the Office of Dietary Supplements at www.ods.od.nih.gov.

For more on health scams, visit the FDA at www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ProtectYourself.

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