FTC cracking down on bogus health products

By Steve Brachmann
November 25, 2015

FTC Building, Washington, DC.

FTC Building, Washington, DC.

Cryotherapy, or the application of extremely cold temperatures to the human body for pain relief and anti-inflammatory benefits, is a growing fad among athletes and chronically ill patients alike. Beginning in Japan in the late 1970s, whole body cryotherapy techniques have been developed in which a subject’s body is submerged in a tank of air maintained at temperatures as low as negative 300°F. If that sounds just a little dangerous to anyone, that’s because it can be fatal. In October, a woman in Las Vegas died by freezing to death while inside one of these chambers. It’s been suggested that the woman, who entered the cryotherapy facility after hours, may have passed out from a lack of oxygen while bending down to pick up an object.

Cryotherapy is not the only health trend to become the latest fad despite both a lack of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a tendency to do more harm than good to practitioners. The magazine publication Men’s Fitness has pointed out some of these recent exercise trends in an article published this April, noting that excessive gymnastic ring workout regimens or attempting to complete standardized workouts found online can provide stress on the human body which undoes much of what those individuals are trying to accomplish.

The federal regulatory agency in charge of assessing health claims for goods and services sold to American consumers is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. government’s main consumer protection agency. In the past few months alone, the FTC has taken action against a number of bogus health products which may seem obviously suspicious at first blush but have been successful in defrauding well-meaning consumers out of their money.



FTC Strips Claims of Vision Improvement from Ultimeyes

Ultimeyes is an app developed by Carrot Neurotechnology and available for either Android or iOS devices for the price of $5.99. Developers of the technology argue that the app offers a form of visual training and point towards improved performance among members of the baseball team at the University of California, Riverside, as proof that the app does so. The app asks users to engage in four sessions each week of what is essentially gameplay as users are directed to identify fuzzy stimuli on a gray background, ostensibly improving the brain’s ability to process visual information.

In September, Carrot Neurotechnology agreed to settle FTC charges that its app could improve a person’s ability to process vision by agreeing to drop the claim from all app marketing. The FTC complaint hinged on the fact that the claims made by the developers of Ultimeyes were backed by weak science. Carrot Neurotechnology also agreed to disgorge itself of $150,000 as part of settling the FTC complaint.

Carrot seems to have made good on its promise as all claims of scientific research supporting this program as a vision improvement app have been removed from those listings. The UC Riverside researcher who developed the app, who continues to stand by his idea that the program can help improve the way that the human brain processes vision, was given a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2013 to conduct study in the related field of perceptual learning.


Predatory Business Practices, Fake Alcoholism Cure Claims May End with Jail Sentence

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 7 percent of all American adults older than 18 years of age were afflicted by an alcohol use disorder. Long-term excessive drinking can have a negative effect on a wide range of human functions, from drooping heart muscle to fatty liver to changes in mood or behavior. Those in the grip of alcoholism are victims of a disease which modern medical science is working hard at trying to cure.

One company which had been making a lot of money by making fraudulent claims of being able to cure alcoholism was the Alcohol Cure Corporation of Jacksonville, FL. In July 2012, the company and its owner, Robert Douglas Krotzer, were ordered by a Florida federal court judge to pay more than $730,000 in restitution and barred the company from selling any other health treatments. The court found that the company sold supplements under the bogus claim that they could cure alcoholism within 10 weeks while allowing alcoholics to drink socially. Clients of the company who tried to end their regimen early often faced high cancellation fees as well as the threat that employers would be notified of their alcohol problems.

Most recently, the FTC requested that Krotzer be found in contempt of the July 2012 court order for his inability to turn over the funds required by the court order. In the middle of October, this request was granted by the U.S. district court headquartered in Jacksonville. As a result, Krotzer must pay just over $8,000 in proceeds earned after the 2012 court order, provided an explanation of the inability to pay the court-ordered fine and provide other accounting details within 60 days or he must serve out a prison sentence.


FTC Begins Reimbursements for Fraudulent Children’s Speech Improvement Supplement

There are about 7.5 million people living in the United States have some form of problem using their voices, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Often these disorders are detected during a person’s childhood when speech issues such as dysarthria or stuttering present themselves. Early intervention to correct a child’s speech problem has been linked to greater rates of success with reading, writing and social relationships.

One company running afoul of the FTC for making bogus claims in this sector is NourishLife, a company based in Lake Forest, IL. The company had been marketing health supplement products branded as Speak and Speak Smooth while making the claim that the supplements provided nutritional benefits against speech disorders. These supplements cost parents about $70 per bottle, marketed with claims that the FTC found were false. In January, the company agreed to an FTC settlement that it would stop making the health claims as well as pay $200,000 in restitution.

Most recently, the FTC began work on providing restitution to parents who purchased the Speak or Speak Smooth supplements by cutting checks totalling $175,000 coming from the NourishLife settlement. The agency planned to mail a total of 6,936 checks, each for a payment of $25.18, to provide some restitution for the bogus claims. In a separate case, a case in Florida court has been moving against NourishLife since the beginning of this year for bogus health claims that its supplements can help to cure autism.


FTC Cracks Down on a Variety of Melanoma Detection Apps

The most common cancer suffered around the world is skin cancer and the American Cancer Society has forecast a total of 73,870 new melanoma cases that will be diagnosed in the U.S. during 2015, with men expected to make up the majority of those cases. Melanoma, which occurs in skin cells known as melanocytes, can be survived if patients are treated early, although it still leads to the greatest numbers of death from skin cancer.

It’s not surprising to see, then, that many people have tried to leverage this desire to detect melanoma early with a plethora of fraudulent health products and services. This year, the FTC has announced a crackdown on a collection of mobile device applications that claim to be able to analyze a consumer’s risk of melanoma from an image captured of a mole or other anomaly on the skin. This April, the FTC ruled that Health Discovery Corporation, the developer of MelApp, would be barred from making any claims that its products diagnoses melanoma or can detect its risk factors.

Recently, the FTC decided in August to prohibit the Mole Detective apps sold by L Health Ltd. for Android and iOS devices at prices up to $4.99 per download. With the final defendant in the FTC case agreeing to a settlement, the FTC has effectively ridded the mobile world of a series of programs being sold while marketed under unsupported health claims. The settlement also requires the app’s owners to pay fines up to $60,000 unless the owner can prove an inability to pay the fine.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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