Health-related scams have existed for centuries, but with the advent of the Internet and social media, they are proliferating much more quickly. We are now constantly bombarded with ads for so-called “miracle” treatments and cures.
Advertising prescription products to the public is illegal in Canada. Manufacturers may advertise non-prescription and natural products, but must respect numerous criteria when doing so. For example, any beneficial effects claimed in ads for non-prescription products must be supported by quality scientific data. As for natural products, manufacturers may only include benefits recognized by Health Canada.
The problem is with products sold online, because it is practically impossible to prevent misleading advertising on the Internet. When we surf online or use social media, we often see ads selling products in a side panel. Many scams are also spread via email.
Health-related scams most commonly deal with weight loss, sexual dysfunction and diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Scammers can even use client targeting tools to send you customized ads. For example, if you do a Web search on weight loss, you will likely soon notice ads related to that topic on any advertising-supported site that you visit afterwards.
Here are some tips for identifying scams:
- Beware of products that claim to cure various diseases.
- If a product claims to cure everything from cancer and Alzheimer’s to warts, something’s fishy! Medication is usually developed to act on a specific aspect of a disease, and it is quite rare for the same issue to occur in diseases that have very different causes.
- Ads that include testimonials with claims such as “Product X cured my cancer!”
- These testimonials are probably made up. The only acceptable proof of a product’s effectiveness is a series of high-quality scientific studies. If the ad refers to a study, do a quick search on the Internet. You will quickly find out if this study actually exists and whether it was published in a respected journal.
- Ads that promise results in record time. “Lose 15 kg in 30 days!” “Get rid of your psoriasis in 2 weeks!”
- Serious medical conditions can rarely be cured in just a few days, even with proven treatments.
- Beware of products described as “100% natural” on the Internet. In Canada, the composition of natural health products is guaranteed by a special code on the package label – the natural product number (NPN, followed by a number).
- Products sold over the Internet may have been produced in unregulated facilities and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. Health Canada regularly issues notices regarding foreign-made products tested positive for ingredients that are potentially dangerous to our health. For example, many of the so-called “100% natural” products that claim to “improve sexual performance” actually contain dangerously high doses of a known prescription medication. Likewise, unregulated “natural” weight loss products often contain a prescription medication that was taken off the market in Canada many years ago due to its associated health risks.
- Don’t believe in miracles! If an ad claims to have found the cure to cancer or any other serious illness, keep in mind that if true scientists had discovered such a cure, they would not be hiding the fact in online ads or leaflets added to your weekly store flyers.
- Lastly, watch out for “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” statement. In medicine, there are no guarantees. A treatment can be effective for one person and prove to have no effect – or even be dangerous – for another person with the same condition.
When doing online research, make sure to browse quality sites. Blogs and commercial sites are not always reliable sources of information in the health care field. Websites affiliated with teaching hospitals, medical associations and research organizations (with an URL ending in .edu or .org) are reliable sources of information.
If you are tempted to purchase a product online, take a moment to discuss the product with your pharmacist or physician before placing the order. They will help you determine whether the product is a scam!