The Federal Trade Commission joined with public health and consumer protection and information agencies from the United States, Canada, and Mexico to "surf" the Internet for potentially false or deceptive advertising claims concerning treatments or cures for heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Today, the Commission announced that in just a few hours during the recently conducted North American Health Claim Surf Day, Internet surfers identified more than 400 World Wide Web sites and numerous Usenet newsgroups that contain promotions for products or services purporting to help cure, treat or prevent these six diseases. Participants with the FTC in this Surf Day included other federal agencies, 18 state Attorney General's offices, numerous non-profit health organizations, and national health and consumer protection and information agencies from the United States, Canada and Mexico. The Commission said that it sent hundreds of Web sites and newsgroups e-mail messages pointing out that advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims. FTC staff will follow-up by revisiting the targeted sites in the coming weeks to determine if changes have been made.
"Hopeful and sometimes desperate consumers spend millions of dollars on unproven, deceptively marketed, and often useless 'miracle cures' and the Internet should not become the newest medium for this age-old problem," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "In addition to wasting consumers' money, some products or treatments may even cause them serious harm or endanger their lives. Even when the advertised remedy is harmless, it can still have a detrimental effect if it causes consumers to stop or slow the use of proven treatments."
People with arthritis are prime targets for unproven health claims, according to the Arthritis Foundation. "In the few hours we surfed the Internet we found numerous websites promoting a wide variety of unproven 'cures' for arthritis, and we believe we only hit the tip of the iceberg," said Doyt Conn, M.D., Arthritis Foundation Senior Vice President, Medical Affairs. "With 40 million Americans coping with the daily pain and limitations arthritis can bring, marketing of unproven arthritis remedies is an ongoing concern. Fortunately, there are many things people with arthritis can do to make life with arthritis easier and less painful if they contact the Arthritis Foundation or know the proper place to get reliable information."
"Diabetes patients live in a daily balancing act that requires medicine and nutrition to prevent or delay devastating complications. Therefore the treatment choices they make must be smart, and the products they choose must be reliable," said Stephen J. Satalino, Chair of the Board of the American Diabetes Association. "We hope that Surf Day not only prevents false claims from reaching Web consumers, but that patients get more reliable information to manage this serious disease."
Health Claim Surf Day focused on Internet marketing materials promising that their product or service may help prevent, treat or cure heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. A number of the Web sites and newsgroup posts, for example, appeared to be making strong, unqualified claims promising "miracle cures" for one or more of these diseases. Other Web sites and newgroups made more qualified claims, disclosing limitations or caveats to whether the product or program would be of value in preventing or treating these health problems. Upon identifying Web sites and newsgroups where material was posted, Surf Day participants saved them and forwarded them to the FTC staff. The FTC staff then evaluated the ads and sent messages to those containing claims for which the advertisers would be required to have competent and reliable scientific support.
"We are pleased to participate in our second joint Surf Day sweep with the FTC and for the first time Mexico," said Konrad von Finckenstein, Director of Investigation and Research with the Canadian Competition Bureau. "To identify potentially false or deceptive advertising claims aimed at a particularly vulnerable segment of society and to cut down on the suffering that victims endure are paramount when we act with other agencies to combat scams on the Internet."
The FTC's Bernstein noted that any companies and individuals that engage in false or deceptive advertising violate the FTC Act. The FTC can bring legal action to halt violations and seek an order imposing restrictions on future advertising to ensure compliance with the FTC Act. In addition, in appropriate cases, the FTC can seek to recover money for consumers who were deceived by the ads.
Health and safety issues are a priority of the FTC. In June 1997, for example, the FTC launched "Campaña Alerta," an unprecedented effort to prevent health fraud directed at Spanish-speaking consumers. This project encompassed numerous federal and state law enforcement actions (including four FTC actions) and investigations targeting ads for hair loss treatments, cosmetic and weight loss products, as well as products that claim to cure a variety of diseases and health conditions, like arthritis, cancer, and asthma.
In addition to these efforts to prevent health fraud, the FTC has recently conducted several other Internet Surf Days focusing on different types of fraud, including pyramid schemes and deceptive business opportunity offers. "Deceptive marketers try to take advantage of the Internet to disseminate an advertisement very quickly and anonymously, the Internet also makes them susceptible to very quick and sure detection," Bernstein said. "We use the e-mail messages to make clear that laws against deceptive advertising apply not only to traditional media, but to the Internet as well. Surf days let us use the Internet to help ensure that unscrupulous marketers not destroy the credibility and viability of this medium. Our efforts also help legitimate marketers using this medium; we want consumers to trust promotional information on the Web."
The FTC offers these tips to avoid health fraud:
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is;
- Beware of products or treatments that are advertised as a quick and effective cure-all for a wide range of ailments or for an undiagnosed pain;
- Be cautious of testimonials claiming amazing results;
- Watch out for promoters who use phrases such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "exclusive product," and "secret ingredient"; and
- Before you purchase you should consult your pharmacist, doctor, or other health professional.
A free FTC brochure for consumers, "Fraudulent Health Claims: Don't Be Fooled," offers additional information regarding how to tell which health-related claims are likely to be legitimate. The FTC also has set up an e-mail address for the Health Claim Surf Day project at firstname.lastname@example.org (no period), where comments are welcome.
North American Health Claim Surf Day involved the cooperation, support, and participation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Health Canada; the Competition Bureau of Industry Canada; Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor of Mexico; the Secretaria de Salud of Mexico; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Federal Communications Commission (Denver Office); the Attorneys General of 18 states, including, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin; the Arthritis Foundation; the American Heart Association; the American Diabetes Association; the Capital Area and Tristate AIDS Task Force; and the Better Business Bureau serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
For copies of the brochure or more information on health fraud consult the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov (no period). This site also contains hot links to home pages operated by many of the non-profit health organizations that participated in this Health Care Internet Surf Day. Brochures and other information are also available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
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