nuisance launched. (#10-11,
March 18, 2010)
Internet-based telemarketing schemes that promise great rewards may pose a threat to Web site operators who post their telephone number. Its marketers sell software that can search the Internet for phone numbers that are related to keywords that users choose. The resultant lists can then be uploaded to Web sites that broadcast up to 3,000 calls per hour for 1-2¢ per call. When combined, these programs can become a colossal nuisance. [Barrett S. Scraper Pro and Phone Broadcast Club: How to become a major nuisance in two easy steps. Quackwatch, March 17, 2010] http://www.quackwatch.org/15Ads/scraperpro.html.
"Acne Cure" software marketers. (#11-29, September 8th, 2011)
Marketers of two mobile phone applications have signed consent agreements under which they must refrain from making baseless claims that their products could successfully treat acne by generating colored lights. ["Acne Cure" mobile app marketers will drop baseless claims under FTC settlements. FTC News release, Sept 11, 2011] In both cases, users were advised to hold the display screen next to the area of skin to be treated for few minutes daily while the application was activated.
Software developer Koby Brown and dermatologist Gregory W. Pearson, M.D. doing business as Dermapps (Houston, Texas), sold about 11,600 copies of "AcneApp" through the iTunes store for $1.99. As part of the settlement he is obligated to pay $14,294 to the FTC.
Software developer Andrew N. Finkel (Rochester, N.Y.) sold about 3,300 copies of "Acne Pwner" through Google's Android Marketplace for $.99. His settlement calls for payment of $1,700.
These cases are the first the FTC has brought against health claims in the mobile application marketplace.
settles deceptive advertising case. (#11-36, October 27, 2011)
Reebok International has settled FTC charges that ads for its "toning shoes" were misleading. The ads in question stated that the sole technology of Reebok's EasyTone walking shoes and RunTone running shoes featured pockets of moving air that created "micro instability" that would tone and strengthen muscles during walking or running.
Under the settlement, Reebok must pay $25 million and refrain from making unsubstantiated claims that toning shoes or other toning apparel are effective in strengthening muscles. [Reebok to Pay $25 Million in Customer Refunds To Settle FTC Charges of Deceptive Advertising of EasyTone and RunTone Shoes. FTC news release, Sept 28, 2011] http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2011/09/reebok.shtm.
history classic posted
The full text of Dr. Elizabeth Whelan's 1984 exposé, A Smoking Gun: How the Tobacco Industry Gets Away with Murder, has been posted to Quackwatch (link). The book spotlights how the tobacco industry achieved economic success and actions needed to control it.
swindler gets 10-year prison sentence (#14-08 March 9, 2014)
Rose Marks, who with family members operated a fortune-telling business in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and New York City, has been sentenced to just over 10 years in federal prison for defrauding clients out of more than $17.8 million. Marks has been jailed since September when a jury found her guilty of 14 charges after a month-long trial. Her victims included best-selling romance novelist Jude Deveraux, who was a client since 1991. The indictment, which included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering, stated:
Marks, who represented herself as a fortune teller, clairvoyant, and spiritual advisor, induced clients to give her money, jewelry, gifts, and other things of value, in exchange for promises to provide fortune telling services, cure people of diseases, remove curses, chase evil spirits from homes and bodies, and cleanse the souls of her client and their families.
Marks further represented to her clients that she conferred with Michael the Archangel for his advice and counsel for them.
Eight other family members participated in one way or another in the family's business.
The other family members all pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have either been sentenced or will soon be sentenced. The Miami Sun-Sentinel has published highlights of the trial, including how the judge said that although the family's crimes were despicable, he wondered why anyone would fall for the absurd promises and predictions they made. Prosecutors stated that most victims were particularly vulnerable because they were coping with bereavement, bad relationships, personal or family illness, and other challenges, but the judge pointed out that many were well-educated. [McMahon P. 'Psychic' who fleeced millions from clients sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sun Sentinel, March 3, 2014, link].
reports on fasting quack (#14-40
November 3, 2014)
Smithsonian.com has published a brief account of Linda Hazzard, who, despite little formal training and a lack of a medical degree, was licensed by the state of Washington as a "fasting specialist." [Lovejoy B. The Doctor Who Starved Her Patients to death: Linda Hazzard killed as many as a dozen people in the early 20th century, and they paid willingly for it. Smithsonian.com, Oct 28, 2014] Hazzard claimed that the root of all disease was the result of eating too much and advocated long periods of near-total fasting during which patients consumed only small servings of vegetable broth, had their systems "flushed" with daily enemas, and underwent vigorous massages that nurses said sometimes sounded more like beatings. The article describes how several of her patients died of starvation, how she became the beneficiary of estates of wealthy clients, and how in 1911 she was ultimately convicted and imprisoned for manslaughter. The details of her career were published in Starvation Heights (2005), which is available from Amazon.com
Pharmacist Scott Gravura has written an excellent article about "detoxification" fakes. [Gravura S. The one thing you need to know before you detox. Science-based Medicine Blog, Dec 31, 2015] The article states:
"Detox" is a legitimate medical term that has been co-opted to sell useless products and services. It is a fake treatment for a fake condition. Real detoxification isn't ordered from a menu at a juice bar, or assembled from supplies in your pantry. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals under life-threatening circumstances-usually when there are dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or other poisons in the body. Drugs used for real detoxification are not ingredients in a smoothie. What's being promoted today as "detox" is little different than eons-old religious rituals of cleansing and purification. Framing detoxification in religious terms won't have the appeal in a world that values science. So use the word "toxin" not sin, and call the ritual a "detox" - and suddenly you've given your treatment a veneer of what sounds scientific. . . .
There's no published evidence to suggest that detox treatments, kits or rituals have any effect on our body's ability to eliminate waste products effectively. They do have the ability to harm however - not only direct effects, like coffee enemas and purgatives, but they also distract and confuse people about how the body actually works and what we need to do to keep it healthy. "Detox" focuses attention on irrelevant issues, giving the impression that you can undo lifestyle decisions with quick fixes. Improved health isn't found in a box of herbs, a bottle of homeopathy, or a bag of coffee flushed into your rectum. The lifestyle implications of a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, and alcohol or drug use cannot simply be flushed or purged away. Our kidneys and liver don't need a detox treatment. If anyone suggests a detox or cleanse to you, remember that you're hearing a marketing pitch for an imaginary condition.
Quackwatch offers additional details about "detoxification" schemes and scams.
- July 3, 2016)
More than 30 people attending a Tony Robbins "Unleash the Power Within" seminar event in Dallas have been treated for burns after being encouraged to walk on hot coals. [More than 30 burned during famous motivational speaker's hot coal walk. CBS News, June 24, 2016] Fire walking refers to the activity of walking on hot coals, rocks, or cinders without burning the soles of one's feet. Robbins encourages it for demonstrating that people can do things that seem impossible and represents it as a technique for turning fear into power. Robbins describes his motivational seminars as "designed to help you unlock and unleash the forces inside that can help you break through any limit and create the quality of life you desire." Similar injuries were reported at a Robbins seminar in San Jose, California in 2012. The Skeptics Dictionary has an excellent article about firewalking.
criticized for selling quack products (#16-34 - September 11, 2016)
Reports from The Sun (a British newspaper) have accused Amazon.com of "endangering the sick and vulnerable and illegally peddling bogus 'snake-oil' cures for cancer". [Quinton M, Stoneman J. DANGEROUS AND MISLEADING' How web giant Amazon 'endangers' the sick and vulnerable by 'peddling bogus miracle cancer cures. The Sun, Sept 6, 20-16] The products included electronic "zappers" claimed to treat HIV, instructions on administering bleach enemas for autism, and tablets made from animal glands aimed at people with thyroid disorders. One product, Dr Reckeweg R17 Tumour Drops, which was claimed to treat "all tumours, malignant or benign" including breast and stomach cancer, was removed from Amazon's site after the article was published. But thousands of dubious products remain available through Amazon.
patients blinded by unapproved stem cell therapy (#17-13 - March 26, 2017)
The New England Journal of Medicine has reported that three women have become permanently blind after having their eyes injected with a stem cell preparation. The patients, who ranged in age from 72 to 88 years, had age-related macular degeneration. Newspaper reports have identified the clinic as Bioheart Inc., also known as U.S. Stem Cell Inc. and say that stem-cell procedure involved liposuction to remove fat from the abdominal area, isolating the stem cells from the fat, and injecting those cells directly into eyes. The complications included detached retinas, hemorrhages, and vision loss. Knowledgeable observers believe that the FDA should regulate stem-cell treatment more closely and that unapproved studies should not be listable on ClinicalTrials.gov because that gives them undeserved respectability. [McGinley L. 3 women blinded by unapproved stem-cell 'treatment' at Florida clinic. Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2017] Another article in the New England Journal noted that, "Outside a few well-established indications, the assertion that stem cells are intrinsically able to sense the environment into which they are introduced and address whatever functions require replacement or repair is not based on scientific evidence."
blogger convicted of lying about brain tumor (#17-14 - April 2, 2017)
A federal court judge has concluded that 25-year-old Belle Gibson lacked a rational or reasonable basis to believe she had cancer when she made public claims about it to promote her book and apps. Gibson's book, The Whole Pantry, claimed: (a) she was diagnosed with brain cancer and told she would die within four months, (b) she had some standard treatment but then embarked on a "quest" to heal herself through "nutrition and holistic medicine," (c) diet and natural treatments had extended her life. The criminal case against Gibson was initiated by Consumer Affairs Victoria. Consumer Affairs Victoria also obtained enforceable undertaking in which the book's publisher (Penguin Australia Pty Ltd) acknowledged that statements in the book were false and agreed to donate AUS$30,000 to the Victorian Consumer Fund. Press reports state that Gibson took in more than AUS$1 million from her book and app. [Brown V, Sullivan R. Judgment in Belle Gibson vs. Consumer Affairs Victoria case handed down. News.com.au, March 16, 2017]
Secretary heavily invested in questionable "brain training"
- May 28, 2017)
The Washington Post has published a detailed report on Neurocore, a "brain performance" company owned by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos resigned her Neurocore board seat when she joined the Trump Cabinet, but she and her husband maintain a financial stake between $5 million and $25 million, according to a disclosure statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics. The Neurocore program is claimed to improve brain performance through sessions in which the patient watches television while hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. The report's author underwent a $250 program evaluation, examined the relevant experimental evidence, interviewed several experts, and concluded:
I'll admit that before I stepped into Neurocore, I had little intention of signing up for the company's treatment. I had read too many articles skeptical of brain training to think that I should pay for its services. But it took talking to experts and a visit to Florida to discover that the firm was also hurtful - a Trump University for people with cognitive struggles. By wrapping weak science in sleek packaging, by promising something that it cannot fully deliver, Neurocore offers false hope to people who need honest help. In this regard, what's most remarkable is that DeVos, the nation's foremost pedagogue, is behind it all, promoting a form of education that doesn't actually seem to educate. [Boser U. Betsy DeVos has invested millions in this 'brain training' company. So I checked it out. Washington Post, May 26, 2017]
therapy warning issued (#17-24
- June 18, 2017)
Skeptical Inquirer has published a critique of chromotherapy (color therapy), a pseudoscientific treatment in which colored light is applied to the skin or eyes. [Point S. The danger of chromotherapy. Skeptical Inquirer 41(4):50-53, 2017] For more than 100 years, the source of light has been incandescent bulbs, which pose no physical danger. The author notes, however, that some recent devices use LED bulbs that are powerful enough to cause retinal damage if placed close to the eyes.
genetic testing for soccer talent (#17-28 - July 16, 2017)
The American Council on Science and Health has sharply criticized a company which claims that its $299 "DNA Soccer Test" can help parents assess and enhance a child's potential as a soccer player. [Lief E. The goal is scamming parents: Testing kids's DNA for soccer talent. ACSH Web site, July 12, 2017] In 2015, the International Federation of Sports Medicine concluded:
- The number of companies offering direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests claimed to identify children's athletic potential had grown from at least 22 in 2013 to at least 39 in 2015.
- The issues surrounding these tests include exaggerated claims, lack of disclosure, quality control, and inducement to purchase expensive supplements.
- The general consensus among sport and exercise genetics researchers is that genetic tests do not meet the basic requirements of diagnostics and have little or no role to play in individualized prescription of training to maximize performance.
- No child or young athlete should be exposed to DTC genetic testing to define or alter training or for talent identification. [Webborn N and others. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification: Consensus statement. British Journal of Sports Medicine 49:1486-1491, 2015].
repellant advertising case settled (#18-41 - October 14, 2018)
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has approved a final consent order settling deceptive advertising charges against Mikey & Momo, Inc. and its owners regarding the marketing of their perfumed sprays and candles. The FTC had charged the defendant with (a) improperly claiming that their products would repel mosquitoes that carried the viruses that cause Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever and (b) posted five-star Amazon reviews written by an owner and her relatives. [FTC approves final consent order in Aromaflage insect repellant advertising case. FTC Press Release. Sept 27, 2018]
blasts addiction treatment industry practices (#19-11 - March 17, 2019)
Last year, in a brilliant 19-minute segment of his HBO program Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver exposed:
- unsupported advertising claims of high rates addiction treatment success in the U.S.
- use of untested treatment approaches
- lack of inclusion of evidence-based treatment approaches in many programs
- dangerous lack of regulation of the addiction treatment industry
- lack of barriers to opening outpatient programs and sober homes in some states
- exploitation of insurance payments for testing urine for drug exposure in Florida by arranging kickbacks from testing facilities
- patient brokering ("junkie hunting"), which involves enticing well-insured addicts with free rent, food, and cigarettes to gain access to their insurance coverage
- financial incentives for addicts to relapse and return to retreatment (the "Florida Shuffle")
- advertised phone networks that refer callers seeking treatment to programs that pay referrals
- Web sites that provide reviews of a treatment center that are actually owned by the center
Oliver appropriately recommended that people seeking addiction treatment use the physician lookup tool at the American Board of Preventive Medicine to search for physicians board-certified in addiction medicine.
exposes "psychic medium" trickery and harms (#19-12 - March 25, 2019)
John Oliver exposes "psychic medium" trickery and harms. In a recent 21-minute segment of his HBO program Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver provided a brilliant takedown of "psychic mediums" who purportedly can receive messages from dead people to their loved ones. He examined how mediums deceptively use cold reading and hot reading techniques to convince vulnerable people to invest large amounts of money to receive messages from their dearly departed. Oliver cited a recent Pew Research Center survey which found that four in ten American adults believe in psychics. Pew also reported that six in ten Americans accept at least one "New Age" belief including reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects like mountains or trees. [Gecewicz C. 'New Age' beliefs common among both religious and nonreligious Americans. Pew Research Center. Oct 1, 2018]
University lawsuits archived (#20-23
- June 14, 2020)
Credential Watch has archived the key documents from lawsuits against Donald Trump and Trump University, which ran a real estate training program from 2005 until 2010. In 2016, Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle three lawsuits which charged that he and his associates had misrepresented the nature and value of real estate courses offered by the school. The archive includes depositions, sales scripts, and news reports that spotlight the deceptive conduct. [Barrett S. Lawsuits against Trump University settled. Credential Watch, June 7, 2020]
fluoridation report posted (
#20-26 - July 5, 2020)
Dental Watch has posted the 1968 Report of the Royal Commissioner on the Fluoridation of Water Supplies. The 268-page book, written by Tasmanian Supreme Court Judge Malcolm Peter Crisp, was based on testimony at 66 hearings plus his review of voluminous written submissions. Crisp concluded that (a) the evidence showed "overwhelmingly" that fluoridation was safe and beneficial and (b) whether or not to implement it should be decided by the Tasmanian Parliament rather than local governments. About 20% of the report explained why various objections had no merit, including some that Crisp thought were so absurd that they should be considered delusional. On page 134, for example, he noted:
I was informed that the official and professional campaigns in favour of fluoridation are the most dangerous and subversive propaganda yet to appear in the Western World. That it, fluoridation, was responsible for the First World War and the Russian Revolution. That it was a Nazi plot to achieve world domination, but that when the Russians invaded Poland the German and Russian general staffs exchanged scientific military plans, the scheme of mass control through water medication fitted into the Russian Communist plan to communise the world. This is not the isolated statement of some deluded visionary, but is to be found repeated over and over again in the voluminous literature of the subject with which the public intelligence has been assaulted over the years.
This and similar passages provide a fascinating window into the history of opposition to public health, which is far more organized today through Web sites and social media.
grants clemency to egregious healthcare fraudster. (#21-01 January 10, 2021)
President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of Philip Esformes of Miami Beach, whose crimes involved $1.3 billion in fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicaid for services at his network of nursing and assisted-living facilities in Florida. Esformes was convicted in 2019 in what federal prosecutors termed the largest healthcare fraud scheme ever charged by the Department of Justice. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 20 felony counts. Esformes must still pay the amount left of the $5.5 million in restitution that was part of his sentence. In their pre-sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors described Esformes conduct as pernicious, premeditated, and part of a lifelong pattern of disrespect for the law. . . . This was not one criminal act, but hundreds of choices to break the law, even thousands, for more than a decade. [Hiltzik M. He was convicted in a historic healthcare fraud. Trump is letting him walk free.yahoo! news, Dec 29, 2020] A 2016 indictment of Esformes, hospital administrator Odette Barcha, and physician assistant Arnaldo Carmouze, alleged:
Esformes network of facilities gave him access to thousands of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
Many of these beneficiaries did not qualify for skilled nursing home care or for placement in an assisted-living facility; however, Esformes and his co-conspirators nevertheless admitted them to Esformes Network facilities where the beneficiaries received medically unnecessary services that were billed to Medicare and Medicaid.
Esformes and his co-conspirators further enriched themselves by receiving kickbacks to steer these beneficiaries to other providers who performed medically unnecessary treatments that were billed to Medicare and Medicaid.
To hide them from law enforcement, kickbacks were often paid in cash, or were disguised as payments to charitable donations, payments for services, and sham lease payments.
Esformes and hospital administrator Odette Barcha were also charged with obstructing justice.
Court documents indicate that in 2006, Esformes paid $15.4 million to resolve a civil fraud case that involved unnecessarily admitting patients from his assisted-living facilities into a Miami-area hospital.
swindlers get clemency from Trump (#21-03 - January 24, 2021)
Just before leaving office, President Trump:
- reduced the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who had served four years in federal prison for defrauding Medicare of tens of millions of dollars while endangering patients with needless eye injections, laser treatments of retinas, and injecting dyes into patients bloodstreams;
- pardoned Faustino Bernadett, a former California anesthesiologist and hospital owner who had been sentenced to 15 months in prison in connection with a scheme that paid kickbacks to doctors for admitting patients to Pacific Hospital of Long Beach for spinal surgery and other treatments;
- pardoned John Davis, the former CEO of Comprehensive Pain Specialists, a Tennessee-based chain of pain management clinics. Davis had spent four months in prison after being convicted of accepting more than $750,000 in illegal bribes and kickbacks in a scheme that billed Medicare $4.6 million for durable medical equipment.
In late December, Trump commuted the 20-year sentence of former nursing home magnate Philip Esformes, who bilked $1 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. [Schulte F. Trumps pardons included health care execs behind massive frauds. Kaiser Health News, Jan 22, 2021]
treatment harms summarized (#21-39
October 4, 2021)
Paul Knoepfler, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at UC Davis, has summarized reports about the harms from unproven stem-cell treatments. He notes: Many clinics have said over the years to potential customers that the worst that can happen is that the stem cells wont work. We know this isnt true and its irresponsible. [Knoepfler P. Stem cell therapy side effects: infections, tumors, & more. The Niche, Sept 29, 2021] The reported harms include: (a) complete blindness; (b) infection originating in the injected products or from unsafe injection practices; (c) tumors, lesions, or other growths; (d) paralysis; (e) blood clots in the lungs; (f) organ damage or failure; and (g) unusual immune reactions. Professor Knoepfler cited these reports:
Harms linked to unapproved stem cell interventions highlight need for greater FDA enforcement. Pew Charitable Trusts Issue Brief, June 1, 2021.
Marks PW, Hahn S. Identifying the risks of unproven regenerative medicine therapies. JAMA, 324(3):241-242, 2020.
Bauer G and others. Concise review: a comprehensive analysis of reported adverse events in patients receiving unproven stem cell-based interventions. Stem Cells Translational Medicine, 9:676-685, 2018.
Kuriyan AE and others. Vision loss after intravitreal injection of autologous stem cells for AMD. New England Journal of Medicine, 376:1047-1053, 2017.
Clinics offering unproven stem-cell treatments have proliferated since 2017 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave clinics a three-year grace period to show that their treatments were safe and effective before there would be a regulatory crackdown. The grace period was extended six months due to the pandemic and ended in May 2021. [Perrone M. US stem cell clinics boomed while FDA paused crackdown. Associated Press, Sept 30, 2021] Whether the FDA will take effective action remains to be seen.
and techniques for spotting misinformation online described (#21-51 - December 26, 2021)
MediaWise, the digital media literacy program of the Poynter Institute, has described six tools and techniques that can help to identify misinformation:
- the Fake news debunker by InVID and WeVerify, a Google Chrome plug-in that can be used to find the original source of any image on Facebook or Twitter by right-clicking and scrolling down to Image Reverse Search Google as described in a 28-minute video
- lateral reading, which involves crafting advanced Google queries
- using The Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive to see a sources history of spreading misinformation
- understanding the role of algorithms in directing content to you based on your clicks, comments, and shares
- using visual clues to investigate photographic evidence with Google Earth, SunCalc, and Weather Undergrounds Historical Weather archive
using the Google Fact-Check Explorer, a database of fact-checks posted by reputable fact-checkers
[Mahadevan A. These 6 tips will help you spot misinformation online. Poynter, Dec 22, 2021]
Internet Health Pilots article on How to spot a quacky web site provides advice that is easier to follow.