Guarding Against Medical Scams

Medical scams are everywhere, from television infomercials touting the latest medical "cures," to mail-order schemes. Medical scams are also in newspaper and television ads that promise better health and a longer life with specific, but unproven, products. The Internet enables health fraud to spread fast and to siphon billions of dollars from consumers' pockets each year.

The Internet has given medical scams an effective distribution method. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission provide regulatory oversight, many medical products slip through the cracks because of the vast number of them on the market.

So it's up to you, the consumer, to protect yourself from medical scams. The following tips will help you reduce your risk of getting ripped off and putting your health in danger.

Buyer beware

Do your homework. Before you invest in a medical product or treatment, check the source of the information that is provided.

Major universities conduct reputable studies that prestigious medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, often publish.

In general, credible sources do not back bogus medical products and information, although many bogus offerings may give you the illusion they are backed by trustworthy sources. Be suspicious of products that come from companies or organizations you've never heard of.

You should also check what others say about the product/treatment, by visiting reputable nonprofit websites, such as a health portal run by the U.S. government; and a physician-run website devoted strictly to unearthing consumer medical fraud.

Talk to your doctor

After arming yourself with one or two reputable articles or medical studies about the product or treatment you're interested in, show the information to your doctor during your next visit. He or she can help you medically evaluate the information.

If the medical literature is a pilot study, for example, it may be too preliminary to include in your treatment strategy.

Moreover, talking to your health care provider is very important, because taking a drug or supplement, or undergoing a treatment without checking first, can be dangerous. Even something that seems harmless, such as a vitamin or an herb, can have side effects or cause adverse interactions with medications you already take.

Buy from U.S. companies

Once you've investigated a medical product and gotten your doctor's go-ahead, make sure the company you're buying from is based in the United States, by calling its telephone number and verifying its U.S. address. If you don't get what you ordered from a U.S. company, you can complain. But if you order from a foreign-based company, you'll be out your money if it doesn't deliver.

In general, you should also be skeptical of medical treatments/products that use over-promising promotional language, such as "breakthrough," "cure," "guaranteed results," in their advertisements.