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Guarding Against Medical Scams

From television infomercials touting the latest medical "cures," to mail-order schemes and newspaper and television ads that promise better health and a longer life with specific, but unproven, products, medical scams are everywhere. And with the Internet, health fraud is spreading fast and siphoning billions of dollars from consumers' pockets each year.

The Internet has given medical scams an effective distribution method. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provide regulatory oversight, many medical products slip through the cracks because of the vast number of them on the market.

So it's up to you, the consumer, to protect yourself from medical scams, the FDA says. These tips will help you reduce your risk of being ripped off and putting your health in danger.

Buyer beware

Do your homework. Before you invest in a medical product or treatment, check the source of the information you're provided.

Reputable studies are done by major universities and published by prestigious medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine.

In general, bogus medical products and information aren't backed by credible references, although many may give you the illusion they are. Be suspicious of products that come from companies or organizations you've never heard of.

You should also check what others say about the product/treatment by visiting reputable, nonprofit websites, such as http://www.healthfinder.gov, a health portal run by the U.S. government; and http://www.quackwatch.com, a physician-run website devoted strictly to unearthing consumer medical fraud.

Talk to your doctor

After arming yourself with one or two reputable articles or medical studies about the product or treatment you're interested in, show the information to your doctor during your next visit. He or she can help you medically evaluate the information.

If the medical literature you're presenting is a pilot study, for example, it may be too preliminary to include in your treatment strategy.

Moreover, talking to your health care provider is very important, because taking a drug or supplement or undergoing a treatment without checking first can be dangerous. Even something that seems harmless, such as a vitamin or an herb, can have side effects or cause adverse interactions with medications you already take.

Buy from U.S. companies

Once you've investigated a medical product and gotten your doctor's go-ahead, make sure the company you're buying from is based in the United States by calling its telephone number and verifying its U.S. address, the FTC advises.

If you don't get what you ordered from a U.S. company, you can complain. But if you order from a foreign-based company, you'll be out your money if it doesn't deliver.

In general, you should also be skeptical of medical treatments/products that use over-promising promotional language, such as "breakthrough," "cure," "guaranteed results," in their advertisements.