FTC Broadens Warnings to Marketers of Bioterrorism Defense Products

E-mails Focus on Questionable Claims for Bioterrorism Protection Devices

A month after sending out 50 warnings to promoters of purported medicinal cures or treatments for anthrax and other bioterrorism agents, the Federal Trade Commission staff has sent out 71 more e-mails, this time focusing on promoters of such dubious protection devices as air filters, gas masks, protective clothing, and ultraviolet light mechanisms. In its recent letters, the FTC warned marketers that stringent standards and rigorous tests are required before products can be touted as truly capable of deterring biological and chemical threats. Web sites that make these claims were warned that if their assertions cannot be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence, they must be removed from the Web.

The e-mail warnings stem from a coordinated Internet "surf" by the FTC with the help of the Food and Drug Administration, more than 30 state attorneys general, and the California Department of Health Services. The Internet search turned up more than 200 sites marketing bioterrorism-related products and now has resulted in a total of 121 warnings sent by the FTC. The initial wave of warnings in mid-November was sent primarily to promoters of medicinal products, while the latest round of letters sent in mid-December, targeted devices ostensibly providing protection from nuclear, biological, or chemical contaminants. So far, more than 25 of the initial 50 warned sites have eliminated suspect claims to satisfy the FTC's concerns; others that have not yet complied face potential prosecution.

"This recent round of e-mails demonstrates our continuing concern about questionable claims for bioterrorism protection products," said FTC Consumer Protection Bureau Director J. Howard Beales. "We, along with other participants in the surf, are prepared to follow up with legal actions if the recipients of these and our earlier letters do not come into compliance."

The letters warned that FTC staff will follow up by revisiting the targeted sites to determine whether changes have been made. Operators who make deceptive or misleading claims face possible prosecution for violating the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act). Firms or individuals who violate the FTC Act could be subject to a federal district court injunction, enforceable through civil or criminal contempt proceedings; or an administrative cease and desist order, enforceable through civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. Sellers also could be ordered to make consumer refunds.

Additionally, the FTC is referring suspect sites to state and other federal agencies with appropriate enforcement authority. Recent referrals made by the FTC to the Environmental Protection Agency resulted in orders to two companies to stop immediately the marketing of products claiming to protect the public from anthrax. The companies have since removed the promotion for these products from their Web sites.

Consumer Education

As noted in an FTC press release announcing the mid-November warnings, the FTC offers the following advice for consumers who visit Web sites or receive e-mails claiming to sell products to protect against, detect, prevent, or treat anthrax, small pox, or other biological or chemical health hazards:

  • Be wary of unscrupulous marketers who use cyberspace to peddle "miracle" treatments and cures. Many of the ads and Web sites, which feature exotic potions and pills, special curative diets, strange magnetic or electrical devices, or newly discovered treatments, contain questionable claims about the effectiveness and safety of these products or services. The only known effective treatments for biological agents like anthrax or smallpox are approved prescription drugs and vaccines.
  • Be a savvy Internet shopper. For additional information, visit:

http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/health/hea07.shtm and
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/cybrspce/index.shtm

For consumers who visit Web sites and receive e-mails claiming to sell Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) and other antibiotics to treat anthrax, the FTC recently issued a Consumer Alert titled "Offers to Treat Biological Threats: What You Need to Know," produced in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA. The Alert advises consumers to:

  • Talk to your health care professional before you use any medications.
  • Know that some Web sites may sell ineffective drugs.
  • Know from whom you are buying.
  • Don't do business with Web sites that don't give you access to pharmacists to answer questions.
  • Avoid sites that don't provide their name, physical business address, and phone number.
  • Don't purchase drugs from foreign Web sites.

In addition to the FTC, partners in this bioterrorism surf included the FDA, and offices of the attorneys general of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The District of Columbia Office of the Corporation Counsel, and the California Department of Health Services also participated in the surf.

For more information from the federal government about treatments for anthrax, visit www.consumer.gov. For more information from the FDA, call toll-free 1-800-INFO-FDA or visit www.fda.gov. Information on bioterrorism and public health preparedness from the CDC is available at www.bt.cdc.gov and also by telephone at 1-800-311-3435. More information about the role of complementary and alternative medicine in prevention or treatment of diseases is available though the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH, www.nccam.nih.gov. A recent statement of NCCAM's director on bioterrorism is available at www.nccam.nih.gov/ne/testimony/bio-full.htm. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, call the FTC, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov.

Copies of the press release are available on the FTC's Web site at www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Office of Public Affairs, Room 421, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Derick Rill,
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2472
Staff Contact:
Mary Engle or Heather Hippsley,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3161 or 202-326-3285
or
Thomas A. Cohn, Assistant Director
FTC Northeast Region
212-607-2808