From Acai berries to apricot pits, there have been many purported cures for what ails us.

Things haven't changed much since the snake oil salesmen of the 1800s, says Marc I. Leavey, MD, of Lutherville, MD. Shady products are still being marketed based on our fears, anxieties, and the desire to do the best for our families.

Of course you want the best, safest, most effective treatment available to help manage a health condition. But how do you sidestep a scam? Awareness and a bit of research.

3 Common Health Scams

1. Weight loss products. Weight loss products are legion, says Leavey. While some may just lighten your wallet, others may prove deadly. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled more than 40 products marketed for weight loss due to potentially harmful ingredients.

2. Sexual enhancement products. All-natural alternatives to treat erectile dysfunction may contain ingredients not listed on their labels. Such misinformation can lead to drug interactions.

3. Cures for diseases. Cancer, diabetes, arthritis, high cholesterol, even a sluggish metabolism—if the condition doesn't have a solid treatment protocol, Leavey says the more likely unscrupulous people will clamor on and say they can treat it with a secret remedy.

Telltale Signs of a Scam

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, says Leavey. That breakthrough remedy that the medical establishment doesn't want you to know about? Run away. He points out: Why would a legitimate business turn down the opportunity to make millions of dollars?

Beyond secret formulas, there are buzzwords that lend a clue that a product is fraudulent. Here are nine red flags from the FDA:

  1. Cure all!
  2. Quick fix!
  3. Ancient remedy!
  4. Revolutionary!
  5. Amazing results!
  6. My tumor shrunk!
  7. Act now!
  8. Lose weight!
  9. Money-Back Guarantee!

Also take heed if a statement reads, "The FDA has not evaluated the safety of this product."

The FDA has no regulatory power over supplements-only medicines. "Therefore, someone can market anything as a supplement, make any claims they want, and won't be breaking the law. That's because they're not saying it's a medicine, they're saying it's a supplement," explains Leavey. The problem is, these products may have adverse effects—especially if you're on legitimate medication.

Take the dietary supplement red yeast rice, for example. The extract has been widely marketed to treat cholesterol, and it does—it has about half the prescription level of lovastatin, which is a statin. But it's a supplement, and chances are, if you're taking it and you didn't tell your doctor, who might have already prescribed for you a statin to control cholesterol, you run the risk of a problematic drug interaction.

How to Avoid Health Scams

If a product makes a claim, you want to see proof, says Leavey. And that proof should not be a testimonial.

You want to see controlled studies that are published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals (Journal of the American Medical Association or Lancet, for example). But even then, it's not so easy. Some companies may lie. They'll tell you there's an article to support their claims, or they'll cite celebrities who are endorsing the product when in fact no such endorsement or articles exist.

The takeaway: You can't take these claims at face value. If you're really serious about taking that supplement or trying that remedy, you have to take it upon yourself to see if it's legitimate. And the best way to do so is to ask your doctor. She has access to materials to prove (or disprove) those claims.

Marc I. Leavey, MD, reviewed this article.




Marc I. Leavey, M.D., of Lutherville, Maryland. Visit his blog, String of Medical Pearls, at

Don't Be Fooled by Health Fraud Scams. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Web, Oct. 2012