FTC Cracks down on Marketers of Bogus Bioterrorism Defense Products

Agency Tells Web Site Operators Get Off the Net or Face Prosecution

For Your Information

The Federal Trade Commission is warning Web site operators who suggest using such things as oregano oil or zinc mineral water to treat illnesses like anthrax that it is aware of no scientific proof for such claims and that the Web site operators must remove them from the Internet. After a coordinated Internet "surf" found sites touting products and therapies that claim to prevent, treat, or cure anthrax, smallpox, and other health hazards, the FTC has sent about 40 e-mail warnings telling operators of these sites to pull the information immediately. The FTC staff will follow up by revisiting the targeted sites to determine whether the changes have been made. Operators who continue to make deceptive or misleading claims face possible prosecution for violating the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act).

The warning campaign is based on information gathered via a coordinated Internet surf by the FTC with the help of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 30 state attorneys general, and the California Department of Health Services. The Internet search focused on products claiming to protect against, detect, prevent, or treat biological and chemical agents, including anthrax. More than 200 sites marketing bioterrorism-related products were uncovered, and additional sites are being evaluated for possible warning letters. Included in the review were such items as gas masks and protective suits; mail sterilizers; biohazard test kits; homeopathic remedies; and dietary supplements such as colloidal silver, zinc mineral water, thyme, and oregano oil as treatments for contamination by biological agents. Web sites may be subject to state or federal investigation or prosecution for making deceptive or misleading marketing claims that their products can protect against, detect, prevent, or treat biological or chemical contamination. "This marketing targets people worried about the prospect of exposure to lethal biological or chemical weapons. The FTC is aware of no scientific basis for any of the self-treatment alternatives being marketed on the Internet," said Howard Beales, FTC's Director of Consumer Protection. "Essentially, these operators need to shut down these areas of their sites or face prosecution. Our best advice for consumers: Consult your physician immediately if you believe you may have been exposed to anthrax or any other biological agents." Beales praised the coordinated effort by the various surf participants, noting that "this should help put an early end to misleading marketing that attempts to prey on people's fears of anthrax, smallpox, or any other biological or chemical threats. Where necessary, we will pursue legal action vigorously and promptly."

"The events of September 11 have heightened our fears and vulnerability to scams," said Ohio Attorney General Betty D.Montgomery, who is co-chair of the National Association of Attorneys General. Montgomery vowed that attorneys general would "continue to be vigilant to protect consumers against such fraud." Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire agreed, adding, "State Attorneys General will not stand by while Web site operators capitalize on public fears by selling products that offer no protection."

John Taylor, the FDA's Director of the Office of Enforcement, noted that the FDA has approved a limited number of products for the treatment of anthrax including, Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), doxycycline, and penicillin G procaine. "However," he added, "there are no products marketed as dietary supplements that have been proven safe or effective for the treatment or prevention of anthrax. Together with the FTC, we've found quite a number of disturbing sites. Companies marketing unapproved or otherwise misbranded products for anthrax or other diseases run a very high risk of FDA enforcement or regulatory action."

In addition, a broad coalition of trade associations representing the dietary supplement industry has indicated that there is no scientific basis for the promotion of dietary supplements as a treatment for anthrax.

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 could also be ordered to make consumer refunds.

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, the FTC recommends:

  • 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.html.

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 (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 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 http://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:
Richard Cleland or Heather Hippsley
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3088 or 202-326-3285