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Protecting Senior Loved Ones from Health Fraud

Woman using credit care to make online purchase

Older adults are often targeted by companies that sell worthless medications and phony medical devices. What are the "red flags" to watch out for?
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After watching a late night infomercial, an Arkansas woman spent thousands of dollars on an electronic device the celebrity spokesmodel claimed would "melt off pounds." After using the gadget for six months, the customer reported, "The only thing that melted was my bank account."

Diagnosed with prostate cancer, a New Jersey man found an online clinic that promised a cure through a special diet and secret formula vitamins. By the time his family members convinced him to visit a reputable healthcare provider, the disease had advanced to a less treatable stage.

A California woman asked the clerk of a local supplement store how best to treat her worsening arthritis. She left the store with a useless "magnetic bracelet"— and imported mineral supplements that over time caused liver damage. 

Health fraud is the deceptive marketing of unproven, fraudulent health-related products, treatments or devices. The sellers claim that their products will cure diseases, make us feel better, and look younger. But the only real benefit of these products is to the con artists themselves, who bilk Americans out of $100 billion every year.

Health fraud can damage more than your bank account. You might waste valuable time pursuing useless treatments instead of receiving effective care that could really help you. And some products are not only useless; they can be dangerous. For example, many dietary supplements are produced in unregulated foreign plants with no safety standards or regulatory oversight.

Seniors can be at particular risk of health fraud. Scammers often target people who are at their most vulnerable. They prey on the hopes of those who are experiencing ill health, pain and fear. Seniors are more likely to experience challenging health conditions which modern medicine can't entirely cure…and it's no coincidence that scammers put most of their energy into claims for those very diseases.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers to be aware of these common health fraud types:

  • Useless remedies for diseases and health conditions such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, HIV/AIDS or flu;

  • Weight-loss products;

  • "Anti-aging" treatments;

  • Unproven diagnostic tests; and, 

  • Useless dietary supplements claimed to promote better health.

As you evaluate health advertising and product packaging, here are some "red flags" to look out for:

  • Claims that a product is a "cure-all" for a variety of ailments;

  • Advertising terms like "scientific breakthrough," "miracle cure" or "ancient remedy";

  • A "no-risk" guarantee;

  • Statements that claim a product is better because it is "all natural";

  • Pressure to "buy now, as supplies are limited"; 

  • A company that recruits you to become a dealer of their product;

  • Negative comments using terms like "the medical establishment" or "mainstream medicine"; or,

  • Salespeople who call the home repeatedly and try to "befriend" you.

Remember: a glitzy website, an hour-long TV infomercial full of testimonials, or a full-page advertisement, even in a reputable publication, is no guarantee of the value of a healthcare product. You would be justified to suspect that the scammers have spent all their money on this advertising, and not on research or a quality product.

Speak to your doctor before you spend your money on medical devices or products. And remember that following the advice of a trained, licensed healthcare provider is the wisest choice when it comes to making healthcare decisions. Scam artists take advantage of our hopes. But the best source of a sense of well-being comes from knowing we have made educated choices.

Talking to Older Loved Ones

If you suspect a senior relative has been swindled, offer your help in a non-judgmental way. Your loved one may be defensive, or embarrassed at having been taken. Assure him that he is not alone; appeal to his sense of justice by telling him how widespread the problem is. You can say, "We'll do what we can to get your money back, and we'll educate ourselves on what to look out for in the future. And you can share the information with your friends."

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Resources to Share with Your Loved One

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website offers FDA 101: Health Fraud Awareness, where you can learn more about healthcare fraud, and report a problem. You can download a brochure and also watch an online Health Fraud Awareness video to help familiarize yourself with the common scams.

The Federal Trade Commission is another good source of information consumers can use to recognize fraudulent health claims. They offer the "Who Cares" online tutorial to help consumers find reliable sources of healthcare information.

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Right at Home is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care and assistance services.


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Protecting Senior Loved Ones from Health Fraud
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