U.S. To Target Fraudulent Health Sites

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is implementinga new plan to crack down on Web sites selling fraudulent curesfor terminal diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

The FTC said that on Thursday it will announce a new round of law enforcement actionsto stem the tide of fraudulent marketing of supplements and other health products onthe Internet. It will also offer new online tools forconsumers to help them avoid being victims of online health-care fraud.

“If these companies are out there promoting cures for non-lethal diseases orfor obesity, that’s one thing, but if they’re promoting cures for cancer andAIDS, that’s really a more serious problem, and the commission takes thatvery seriously,” FTC spokesman Mitch Katz told industry press.

Operation Cure All

The new efforts are part of an ongoing federal and state law enforcement andconsumer education campaign called “Operation Cure All,” launched by the FTC in 1999. The goal of the campaign was to target bogus health claims on the Internet.

According to a Harris Interactive Poll taken last year, the number ofAmericans looking to the Internet for health-care information doubled to 98million from 1998 to 2000. The sheer number of health sites make policingand regulation difficult, particularly with regard to online pharmacies, law enforcement officials have said.

Illegal AIDS Tests

Health experts say many health-care Web sites are unscrupulous, citing the examplesof illegal and ineffective AIDS tests that might have led some people tothink they were not infected when in fact they were.

In addition, because a consumer generally searches for a specific healthtopic, e.g., “cancer cure,” techniques that direct a consumer to aparticular Web site can contribute to the consumer’s belief that theproducts offered on the identified site are effective for that purpose.

According to the FTC, cancer-related searches are the most common health-care search, followed by heart disease.

False Positives

Since the beginning of “Operation Cure All”, the FTC has settledcases with a wide variety of online health sites. In the majority of cases, the FTC alleged that the sites touted theirproducts as being effective treatments or cures for various diseases,including arthritis, cancer, diabetes and AIDS, without adequatesubstantiation to support the claims.

In addition, FTC complaints have challenged the use of various types ofsophisticated Internet techniques, such as metatags, hyperlinks andmouseovers, to deceive consumers about the efficacy of a company’s products.

In one case, the accused party allegedly used “mouseover text” in a deceptive manner, according to the FTC. Generally, when a surfer rolls the mouse over an image such as a flower, a small text window pops up briefly on the screen.

Instead of using that text to describe the image that appears on the screen (e.g. “flower image.gif”), the FTC alleged that the party in this case used the text window to make additional express efficacy claims about the product, such as: “Cures cancer, leukemia, lymphoma. Cures lupus, breast, prostate cancer.”

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