Be a wise health consumer: How to avoid fraud and scams

March 22, 2017 Michelle T. Toshima


With April Fools’ Day right around the corner, I started thinking about why we fall for scams, pranks and misinformation.  

Health scams have been around for centuries. Take the outrageous scam perpetrated by William J. A. Bailey, a Harvard dropout who called himself a doctor but had no medical degree. Soon after Marie Curie discovered the radioactive metal radium, Bailey noticed how the properties of radium fascinated people, especially the fact that it glowed and seemed to give off power.

Bailey started a company that specialized in producing and promoting products containing radium. One of the products, Radithor, was marketed as a medicine that would provide “glowing health” and “invigoration.” Radithor was basically radium dissolved in water. 

Knowing what we know now, we could say to ourselves that we would never fall for such a scam. But back then, very little was known about radium because it had just been discovered. 

Unfortunately many people were harmed by this “medicine.” Eben Byers, one of Bailey’s wealthiest clients, consumed more than 1,400 bottles of Radithor and died of radium-induced cancer. Bailey, however, went on to become a very wealthy man from his many products made with radium.

Fraudulent and unproven health products and services are still a common problem, and billions of dollars are spent every year to promote them. Some of the most vulnerable and susceptible groups of people that fall for scams are the elderly and those with serious medical conditions that have no known cure. The sale of “hope” is a very lucrative business.

So what can you do to avoid fraudulent products and services? Look out for these common red flags when deciding whether to try a new health product, supplement, service or treatment:

  • The product or service can do it all. Be suspicious if a product or service claims to cure or benefit a wide range of unrelated diseases — particularly serious diseases. No product can treat every disease and condition and, for many serious conditions, there are no cures, only therapies to help manage them.
  • Personal testimonies are the primary marketing tool. If a product or service relies almost entirely on personal testimonies, be suspicious. Personal testimonies can tip you off to fraud because they are difficult to prove and can often be fabricated.
  • Quick fixes. Be wary of products or services that suggest a quick cure or fix, especially for serious health conditions. Even with proven treatments, many serious conditions cannot be cured quickly.  
  • It’s “natural.” Don’t be fooled by this term. It’s often used to grab your attention. It suggests that the product is safer because it’s “natural.”
  • Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. When a company offers a 100 percent money back guarantee with no questions asked, be wary. Marketers of fraudulent products or services rarely stay in the same place for long. Consumers often have a hard time finding the companies or can’t reach anyone to get a refund. This is why the company can be so generous with its guarantees.  
  • Meaningless medical jargon. Scientific terms and explanations may sound impressive and may have an element of truth to them. But most people have a hard time separating fact from fiction, and that’s why companies promoting fraudulent products or services use a lot of scientific terms.  

The bottom line: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  

If you still aren’t sure about a product, check it out further:  

  • Go online to This website is dedicated to helping health consumers make sound decisions and avoid fraud, scams and quacks. Stephen Barrett, M.D., a retired physician who runs the site, has written multiple books and articles on the subject, including “Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions” and “Vitamins and Minerals: Help or Harm?”
  • Talk to a doctor or health care professional.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see whether there have been complaints about the product or product’s marketer.
  • Contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or go to the agency’s website to see whether it has taken action against the product.

With the wealth of information and ads readily available to us through the media and the internet, it’s more important than ever for us to become wise consumers of health information.  

Have you ever discovered that a product or service was a scam? Share your story in our comment section.

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