Protection From Quacks and Health Care Fraud

Each year, gullible, desperate patients spend millions of dollars on quacks and fraudulent products they choose through false advertising.

A woman looking at her prescription bottles
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Quacks and Quackery

A quack is a person who pretends to be educated and licensed or somehow credentialed to be able to diagnose or treat a patient with a health problem. He creates a persona that entices people to trust him with their health, then fraudulently sells that patient (or at least attempts to sell) a product or service that will supposedly cure the patient.

Those sales are illegal, both because they are fraudulent, and because they may cause harm to the patient. The legal penalties for a quack who is caught vary from state to state.

One problem is that many herbal supplements and therapies being used in the United States are considered to be complementary or alternative and are not regulated. They do not have standards they must meet, nor do they need to be approved by the government before they are sold. With no standards or approvals needed, the marketplace is flooded with bogus products which are being purchased by unsuspecting consumers.

Fraudulent products cost consumer-patients millions of dollars each year. They are being purchased from legal pharmacies, your local supermarket, through catalogs, and on the Internet. The sources may appear bona fide, and many of them are. But not all of them.

Harm Done by Quacks

But the real problem is the harm quacks and fraudulent products bring to the patients who have trusted them. When someone is sick, perhaps diagnosed with a terminal or highly debilitating or painful disease or condition, vulnerability and desperation set in. It's easy to believe everything we read or hear that sounds hopeful. That desperation causes us to begin trusting the untrustworthy and believing even the things that sound too good to be true.

The Internet and late-night TV infomercials have made it easy for patients to find quacks and for quacks to find patients. As patients search for any information about cures or relief, they find websites, or watch infomercials, then begin ordering bogus supplements, lotions, books, CDs, or other products with relief in mind. The problem, of course, is that patients are so easily fooled. They may get sicker, they may die sooner, or they may just postpone relief.

Quacks Find Patients to Prey Upon

The quacks find the patients too. Patients sign up for e-newsletters, or participate in online support groups using their real names or email addresses, or post comments to blogs and websites providing enough personal information, and they find themselves on more and more spam email lists. When those spam email promises fulfill a desperate need, they may get suckered into purchasing drugs from a bogus "drug" supplier in the United States or overseas, or from another questionable source.

There are even some quacks who are practicing medicine, beyond just selling bogus products. They may set up their own offices and perform examinations, even surgeries or other procedures which are at the least worthless and may be dangerous. Again, desperate patients find these people and think they are getting good healthcare advice or treatment. They are not.

Those who realize they've been fooled, regardless of whether they visited a quack doctor or purchased bogus substances, rarely come forward because they are embarrassed. That makes it easy for quacks to stay in business.

Making a purchase from a fraudulent source or a quack located in the United States is not illegal. If you have done so, you have not done anything wrong. But you should help others by reporting what happened.

Counterfeit Drugs

Counterfeit drugs are not usually sold directly to patients by a quack or anyone else. Instead, they are manufactured illegally or stolen, then resold into the legal drug supply in a variety of ways. Read more about counterfeit drugs and how patients can protect themselves from them.

Health Insurance Fraud

Obtaining the care we need is an expensive proposition. Health insurance may not be of great interest to you if you are young and healthy, but the older you grow, and the more problems your body gives you, the more inclined you are to seek out health insurance. Further, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many people who never gave much thought to obtaining health insurance before are considering it now.

Where necessity and high expense lead, fraud follows. Trying to obtain affordable health insurance can become a frustrating task, meaning we can be easily swayed by promises that are too good to be true—and aren't. Understand the pitfalls of health insurance purchases and scams—what to look for, how to know when to back away, and how to protect yourself from health insurance fraud.

False Advertising

False advertising and quackery go hand-in-hand. As mentioned above, most of the fraudulent sales in the United States come from the sale of unregulated and unsubstantiated claims of herbal supplements or other alternative therapies. Making false claims through advertising, which includes the Internet and TV, is illegal in the United States.

There are sometimes news reports of products that have been pulled from shelves or paying settlements because the advertising was false. We have heard of products like Airborne (advertised to prevent air travelers from catching a cold). The Natural Cures: What 'They' Don't Want You to Know author, Kevin Trudeau, was silenced by the FTC for several violations regarding his claims and scams.

How to Protect Yourself

  • When you deal with any medical or health professional, confirm his or her credentials.
  • Understand the controversies over products that are not regulated by the FDA.
  • Question everything. If you are using the Internet for research, follow the guidelines for verifying information to make sure it is credible and reliable.
  • Learn about counterfeit drugs to protect yourself from the consequences of receiving these when you fill a legal prescription.
  • Never use your real name, phone number or other personal information in a public online location, like support groups, forums or to sign up to receive information. Set up a separate email address to use only for online contacts, an email address you can change later if necessary.
  • If you feel as if you have been violated by a quack, have made a purchase from a fraudulent source, or have encountered a quack who claims to be a medical professional, report the experience to your state's health department. If you need to report it elsewhere, they can help you get to the right place. Remember, you have done nothing illegal as long as the transaction took place in the United States.
1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schmitt R. AARP Bulletin. Drugs & Supplements. Supplement Pills That Promise Too Much: Labels make extravagant claims, but all too often they are hard to swallow.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.