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UBC professor targets internet health scams in new book

He looks at how to spot scams and understand what's being advertised.
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Internet health scams can create untold harm according to UBC professor Dr. Bernie Garrett.

With internet health scams now an everyday part of the internet, one UBC professor has deconstructed what those cons look like and how to understand what you find online.

The New Alchemists was written by UBC nursing professor Dr. Bernie Garrett and looks at the deceptive and misleading tricks used by online scams to engage readers.

"Deliberately selling a product using false marketing or spreading false information can have serious health consequences," he says in a press release. "Probably the worst examples are the fake cancer clinics that sell remedies or treatments for cancer patients who are desperately searching for solutions."

The name of the book comes from the alchemists of the middle ages and early Renaissance, who famously tried to create gold out of a variety of things, including nothing. They also tried to invent immortality potions. Being that they're all dead, as far as we know, that venture was unsuccessful. The book's name is a nod to the group, who became known as crooks, Garrett says.

Deception in the current era varies, from individuals to corporations.

"We’ve also seen hugely deceptive practices in the pharmaceutical industry, such as lawsuits over the mis-marketing of drugs such as OxyContin or Abilify," Garrett says. "Stranger examples include the 18-year-old fake doctor in Florida who operated for a number of years, as well as bizarre fake health machines, and alternative practitioners who market useless therapies using false claims."

While the internet and social media is a relatively new space for the scams, modern advertising techniques are often used.

"They know all the triggers that can help sell a product. Examples include making it appear that a treatment is scarce, with language like 'supplies are running out' or 'buy it quickly now before it’s gone.'" he explains. "They often link their product to positive images, such as photos of mothers, or claim that a product is 'healthy' or 'natural.'"

The book explores these issues and ideas more deeply, and discusses ways to look at advertising that may be a scam more critically. It also looks at conspiracy theories, alternative health systems, and the role of celebrity.

"Look for trigger words, such as if the marketer suggests that something is only available for a short time or from this one site," suggests Garrett. "Watch for claims that mention 'science hasn’t caught up with this' or 'amazing results'. Be very wary of claims that are based on personal testimonies or celebrity endorsement."

The book also looks at other issues of deception in the medical professions, like Andrew Wakefield, whose research on vaccines was found to be fraudulent, but is still a hero to the anti-vaccine movement.