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Feds Crackdown on Internet SARS Scams

Officials Warn Against Misleading Claims About SARS Treatments

WebMD Health News

May 12, 2003 -- Federal officials are cracking down on Internet scam artists who are trying to cash in on the public's fear of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and FDA have sent warnings to web site operators and email solicitors to remind them it's against the law to make false claims about any product that claims to offer protection from, treat, or cure SARS without scientific evidence.

"Scam artists follow the headlines, trying to make a fast buck with products that play off the news," says Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a news release. "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."

A coordinated Internet search by the agencies revealed a variety of web sites that promised consumers they would be protected from SARS if they bought products such as personal air purifiers, disinfectant sprays and wipes, respirator masks, latex gloves, dietary supplements (including colloidal silver and oregano oil), and SARS "prevention kits" that packaged these items together.

Officials say web sites that make bogus claims about the health benefits of products may be subject to state or federal prosecution, civil penalties, and ordered to refund customers' money. In addition, those that violate FDA rules by marketing unapproved drugs as SARS treatments are liable to injunction and seizure of the illegal products.

Experts say consumers should be wary of any web site or email that offers products that claim to prevent or treat SARS. No drug, nutritional or herbal supplement, or other product has been scientifically proven as an effective SARS treatment.

"Doctors and healthcare experts around the world are working hard to find treatments for SARS. Until they succeed, there are common sense actions people can take to protect themselves from SARS and other respiratory infections," says FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan, MD, PhD, in a news release. "Bogus products from questionable web sites do no good, and can actually make matters worse by providing a false sense of protection."

Evidence shows that SARS is most commonly spread through close, personal contact with an infected individual. The SARS virus appears to spread through contact with infected droplets released by coughing or sneezing. Infection may also occur by touching contaminated objects and then touching the mouth, eyes, or nose.

To reduce your risk of SARS, the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) suggest the following steps:

  • Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if your hands aren't visibly soiled.
  • Steer clear of SARS affected areas: The CDC and WHO recommend that travelers postpone travel to areas where SARS is known to be spreading.
  • Seek prompt medical attention: If you have traveled to an area affected by SARS or had contact with someone with SARS and begin to experience symptoms, such as cough, difficulty breathing, and high fever, contact a healthcare professional immediately.

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