The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have warned more than 40 Web site operators to immediately cease and desist offering products that purport to protect against, prevent or treat Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The warning letters say neither the FTC nor the FDA are aware of any scientific proof for such claims and that the Web site operators must remove any misleading or deceptive claims from the Internet.
The letters caution that it is against the law to make claims about SARS protection or treatment, or any other health benefit, without rigorous scientific support. The FTC and FDA staff will follow up by revisiting the targeted sites to determine whether the Web site operators have deleted or revised unproven claims.
Firms or individuals who violate the FTC Act could be subject to civil or criminal contempt proceedings with civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. Sellers also could be ordered to make consumer refunds. Operators who violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by marketing unapproved drugs are liable to injunction and seizure of the illegal products.
The warning campaign is based on information gathered through an Internet “surf and sweep” that the FTC coordinated with the help of the FDA and the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services. The FTC also retrieved seven promotions for SARS products from its spam database.
Included in the sweep were Web sites that promised consumers would be protected from SARS if they purchased such items as personal air purifiers, disinfectant sprays and wipes, respirator masks, latex gloves, dietary supplements like colloidal silver and oregano oil, and SARS “prevention kits” that package various items together, such as gloves, masks, and wipes.
“Scam artists follow the headlines, trying to make a fast buck with products that play off the news,” said Howard Beales, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Our message to e-marketers making deceptive claims is ‘change your site to comply with the law.’ At the same time, our message to consumers is ‘hold on to your money.’ No products have been found effective in preventing, treating, or curing SARS.”
The FTC’s efforts to combat unproven SARS remedies represents the most recent phase of the agency’s ongoing effort to curb Internet health fraud. The agency has conducted several surfs to identify fraudulent health marketing in partnership with FDA and other law enforcement and public health authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world.
The FTC has focused its most recent crackdown on the marketers of products claiming to protect against biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism attacks. As a follow up to its enforcement efforts against bogus terrorism defense products in 2001 and 2002, the FTC recently conducted another surf that resulted in the dissemination of 39 e-mail advisories to Web sites promoting dietary supplements and devices to prevent, treat, or cure ailments associated with biological, chemical, or nuclear agents.
The FTC sent the warnings during the week of April 29, and the agency will be revisiting sites to evaluate the response. In addition, in March, the FTC sent 35 e-mail advisories to Web sites marketing potassium iodide products, urging them not to exaggerate the protective benefits of potassium iodide for use in nuclear emergencies, such as following a nuclear “dirty bomb” explosion.
To date, the FTC has received positive responses from about 20 of these sites, indicating that they have modified or will modify certain claims made for their products.