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Miracle cure or major con? UBC researchers break down 329 likely health scams

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If you’re not happy with your DNA, there are online videos that claim they’ll teach you how to change it. Worried about how your posture is affecting your health? Try a mail-order postural assessment.

Those are just two of the likely frauds examined by a group of researchers from the University of B.C. in a new paper that attempts to build a taxonomy of internet health scams.

“We’ve seen a lot of them over the years, and there are some pretty wild and wacky ones that are out there,” said lead author Bernie Garrett, a professor at UBC’s nursing school.

The research, published last week in the journal Health & Social Care in the Community, takes a look at 329 probable online scams, which run the gamut from faith healing to jade vaginal eggs to homeopathic immunization alternatives.

A panel of 10 health professionals — including nurses, physicians, pharmacists, physiotherapists and a social worker — reviewed the marketing for each product or service to determine the risk that it’s deceiving the public.

“Early on, we discovered it was impossible to say, for example, ‘yes that 100-per-cent is a scam,’ or ‘no, that is not,'” Garrett said.

“We formed a whole set of criteria that can be used by any health professional or really any person to … look at any particular advert or activity that’s being promoted to them.”

The resulting tool ranks the risk of deception based on things like the use of pseudoscience, mystical theories and extraordinary claims.

This tool, developed by researchers at UBC, helps determine whether a health claim or product is likely to be a scam. (University of B.C.)

The researchers found that the biggest of chunk of likely scams take advantage of people who are concerned about body image — things like weight-loss services targeting women and bodybuilding products aimed at young men.

Then there’s the rampant marketing of natural and herbal remedies with unsupported claims, including suggestions that high doses of vitamin D can cure the flu or that drinking aloe juice can get rid of psoriasis.

There are also so-called “healthy lifestyle” products, alternative health services and a small but growing number of medical diagnostic services, including DNA analysis.

And all are advertised using classic advertising techniques, like playing on people’s fear and desire to be unique.

“They’re marketed using a canny range of techniques,” Garrett said. “One of the key things that they use very often is large personal benefits for minimal investment, for example, rapid weight loss with hardly any physical effort.”

Overall, he says the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of deceptive health practices being marketed online.

The researchers hope that health professionals will be able to use these findings to discuss the risks of health scams with their patients, and that members of the public might have a little more guidance when trying to discern fact from fiction.

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