By Linda A Johnson -- AP Business Writer
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Public fears of swine flu have brought snake-oil salespeople out of the woodwork, adding to the pool of fraudulent products claiming to cure conditions from diabetes to obesity.
It's easy to advise "buyer beware." But such scams are taking in billions of dollars a year, some to the tune of hundreds of dollars per customer.
Swine flu scams popped up so fast after the epidemic started two months ago, the Food and Drug Administration quickly set up a fraud task force to comb the Web for fake products and get them off the market. But it's a never-ending job because bogus operations can just open up shop under another name with a different Web site.
"It's a lot like Whack-a-Mole, where you hit one and another one pops up," said David Schardt of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Scam artists typically prey on the public's fears of diseases or insecurities about excess weight, wrinkling faces or sexual performance.
Already, FDA has issued dozens of letters to sellers of swine flu products.
"Anytime there's an emerging disease ... almost overnight products just appear" that are unproven or illegal, as with the anthrax and SARS scares, said Gary Coody, FDA's health fraud coordinator.
Among the dubious swine flu products FDA has gone after are a detoxification kit called "Resolve Swine Flu" that promises to eliminate the virus from the body, a product called FSBS that claims to modify the population of microbes in the body to set up natural defenses and an air sterilizer to destroy biological contaminants. Others include an electron-magnet body scanner to boost your immune system and a drink supplement to "protect your whole family from swine flu in any mutations," said Alyson Saben, deputy director of its office of enforcement.
When shopping online, particularly if you're responding to a product ad, there are some easy checks you can make to try to steer clear of a scam.
Before buying products on the Internet check out the Food and Drug Administration's tips site, which has reports of scams being investigated and actions taken by the agency.
Also, look for complaints against a company or poor ratings at the Better Business Bureau site (www.bbb.org/us).
Nutritional supplements, particularly for weight loss, are perennial targets for false claims.
One of the hottest right now is juice and capsules made with the acai (pronounced a-sigh-EE) berry, an antioxidant-rich berry showing up in supermarket aisles in juice blends by Naked Juice, V8 and others.
The products touted on the Web are priced much higher and falsely claim the "ancient secret from Brazil's rainforest" has super powers to slow aging and bring great weight loss. Many of these companies advertise their products in mass-distributed ads posted on the Web sites of news media and other respected organizations.
The ads fool many with slick pitches: Blogs where people praise results. Web addresses that include names of real health news sites. False claims that they are endorsed by TV hosts Oprah Winfrey and Rachael Ray.
One such ad took in schoolteacher M Chanel Pinkett, 38, a mother of three in Gaithersburg, Md. In early January, she ordered a free trial sample, but had to give her credit card number to cover shipping.
"I was getting shipments every two weeks. They were charging me $100 a bottle," she said.
"Once I saw it was a scam, I was afraid of what was in there."
She never drank the juice, and tried to call the company to stop shipments.
"I could never get through, no matter what time of day I called," said Pinkett, who had to cancel her card to stop the charges. She's sent the bottles back and is still trying to get a refund.
That's typical, said Schardt, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Once they have your credit card number, they start billing you not only for the (free) product you ordered but other products," totaling hundreds of dollars, he said. If consumers manage to reach the company to complain, "They laugh at them."
While some bogus products are useless but harmless, others can be dangerous.
Take Hydroxycut, a supplement sold to millions of dieters and bodybuilders. It was linked to serious liver damage and at least one death, leading FDA to warn the public about it a month ago. The agency said the company agreed to recall 14 versions of the product.
FDA does not have the authority to regulate supplements, which can be sold with no evidence they work or are safe, and the agency can take years to ban a dangerous product like the weight-loss pill ephedra, said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, acting director of consumer group Public Citizen.
Nancy Metcalf, a senior health editor at Consumer Reports, said the Web isn't the only place where dangers lurk. She's occasionally seen reputable health food stores stock fake or dangerous supplements, including colloidal silver, hawked as a cure-all for decades and now billed as swine flu protection. If taken long enough, it turns skin blue or gray permanently.
With so many uninsured now, Metcalf said supplements have wider appeal.
"This is the kind of thing that people resort to when they're in financial hardship."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.