How often have you seen “one weird trick” for weight loss, or that “doctors don’t want you to know about” this new arthritis cure?
It’s a growing problem, according to figures from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, as more scams keep getting reported.
That’s why researchers from the University of British Columbia decided to study the issue. They found that the most common scams were about body image: advertising muscle-building supplements to men or weight-loss supplements to women. But some websites also advertised cures for specific medical conditions like asthma or arthritis, or more general wellness products.
The problem is, a lot of these things aren’t backed up by science and probably don’t work, according to study co-author Bernie Garrett, an assistant professor at UBC’s school of nursing.
“On the whole they could be seen as fairly benign and people are just losing money out of the scam activity,” he said. But there’s a chance that people are taking these products instead of proven treatments, or alongside them, increasing the risk of drug interactions.
“There is a significant risk that people engaging in these activities are doing damage to their health as well.”
While it’s tough to be entirely sure that a given advertisement is a scam, after reviewing hundreds of probable health scams online, Garrett’s team came up with a list of clues to help determine the risk that things aren’t what they seem. The more of these you see, the higher the chance there’s a problem.
1. Celebrity endorsement
So your favourite celebrity is endorsing this product. That’s not a good start, says Garrett. “If you’ve got a celebrity promoting some health product, it should automatically raise a bit of a red flag because these aren’t health professionals.”
2. Claims of scarcity
Claims that a product is very rare or only available from that supplier are suspect, according to the research. In some cases, “they may say that it’s soon going to be made illegal,” said Garrett. The team found examples of growth hormones that told people to buy them soon, as the government was about to outlaw them.
3. Claims of relatability or psychological persuasion
Claims that include language like “one weird trick” or “moms’ tips” are suspect too, said Garrett, and are used to imply that something has been used for awhile, or must be safe because “moms” are using it. Similarly, if “millions of people are using this,” that implies that it’s effective, even if that’s not true.
Also, products that “doctors don’t want you to know about” play on people’s desire to take control of their own health, he said, and suggest miraculous results outside of conventional medicine.
This technique provides something for free at first, like a free sample, and then follows up with phone calls or signing up to a newsletter – making people feel like they are obligated to reciprocate.
5. Effects claims
Many products promise miraculous effects, and maybe show them through before-and-after photos and testimonials from users or patients. These claims should be viewed with suspicion if that’s all the information they’re providing.
6. Pseudotechnical language
If the product invents a new science-y sounding word, or buries explanations in jargon, that’s another warning sign, according to the researchers.
7. Pseudoscientific claims
Related to the last clue, many products or services present themselves as scientific, but aren’t. Their claims might rely on faith-based or mystical theories. Some clues to this include words like “ancient,” “holistic,” “kemetic,” “molecular,” and “nano-science,” according to the researchers.
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8. Bad scientific evidence
This is the hardest thing for a layperson to judge, but generally, scientific evidence ranges from the nearly non-existent, indicated by testimonials and faith-based information, to a widespread history of use and practice, backed up by large-scale studies, said Garrett.
Googling might not necessarily help you determine how good the evidence is for something, as companies are good at making sure their websites come up high in Google results, he said.
A better method is to “talk to a nurse or doctor or health professional in a public setting who can give you some advice on what the likelihood is that the thing you’re looking at has any evidence of use or not.”