You see the ads everywhere these days—“Smart Drugs” for long life or “Arthritis Aches and Pains Disappear Like Magic!” or even statements claiming, “This treatment cured my cancer in 1 week.” It’s easy to understand the appeal of these promises. But there is still plenty of truth to the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”
Health scams and the marketing of unproven cures have been around for many years. Today, there are more ways than ever to sell these untested products. In addition to TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, infomercials, mail, telemarketing, and even word-of-mouth, these products are now offered over the Internet—with websites describing miracle cures and emails telling stories of overnight magic. Sadly, older people are often the target of such scams.
The problem is serious. Untested remedies may be harmful. They may get in the way of medicines prescribed by your doctor. They may also waste money. And, sometimes, using these products keeps people from getting the medical treatment they need.
Why do people fall for these sales pitches? Unproven remedies promise false hope. They offer cures that appear to be painless or quick. At best, these treatments are worthless. At worst, they are dangerous. Health scams prey on people who are frightened or in pain. Living with a chronic health problem is hard. It’s easy to see why people might fall for a false promise of a quick and painless cure. The best way for scientists to find out if a treatment works is through a clinical trial.
These scams usually target diseases that have no cures, like diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. You may see ads for:
Clinical Trials: Evaluating Treatments
A clinical trial is a research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. Studies try to find ways to prevent, screen, diagnose, or treat a disease. Clinical trials may also compare treatments.
Be wary. Question what you see or hear in ads or on the Internet. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations do not always check to make sure the claims in their ads are true. Find out about a product before you buy. Don’t let a salesperson talk you into making a snap decision. Check with your healthcare provider first.
Remember the old stories about the snake oil salesman who traveled from town to town making wild claims for his fabulous product? Well, chances are that today’s scam artists are using the same sales tricks. Look for red flags in ads or promotional material that:
Two Federal Government agencies work to protect you from health scams. The Federal Trade Commission can help you spot fraud. The Food and Drug Administration protects the public by assuring the safety of prescription drugs, biological products, medical devices, food, cosmetics, and radiation-emitting products. If you have questions about a product, talk to your doctor. Getting the facts about healthcare products can help protect you from health scams.
Here are some helpful resources:
Council of Better Business Bureaus
4200 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 800
Arlington, VA 22203-1838
Federal Trade Commission
FTC Complaint Assistant
Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993-0002
National Cancer Institute
Public Inquiries Office
6116 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322
1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER, toll-free)
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
U.S. Postal Inspection Service
For more information on health and aging, contact:
To sign up for regular email alerts about new publications and other information from the NIA, go to www.nia.nih.gov/health.
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Updated July 2011
Publication Date: September 2008
Page Last Updated: October 17, 2013