Researchers at the University of British Columbia have devised a simple screening tool (Figure) to evaluate if a health product that appears on the Internet is likely to be a scam. The Risk of Deception Tool (https://news.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-Health-Scams-Assessment-Tool.jpg) assigns points based on the type and number of persuasion techniques used in an ad. If the ad includes a celebrity endorsement, it gets one point; if it uses pseudo-technical language, it gets another point. More points are added if the ad uses mystical language or claims that the product is very rare or in short supply. The higher the overall score, the greater the probability that the ad is a scam.
The system was devised by a team of two nurses, two doctors, two physiotherapists, a pharmacist, and a social worker, all from UBC.
Researchers analyzed advertisements targeting 112 different health concerns. They found that the most common deceptive ads were those promoting bodybuilding and weight loss, followed by medicinal products, which claim to treat pain, asthma, or other conditions, and lifestyle products, which include antiaging or sexual enhancement remedies.
The developers also found a high number of advertisements from alternative health practitioners that made claims that were well outside what their therapies could reasonably achieve. Most of the scams identified originated in the United States. Misleading health ads on the Internet are concerning because consumers may end up self-medicating, say researchers.
The study, “Internet health scams—developing a taxonomy and risk-of-deception assessment tool,” was published in Health and Social Care in the Community. The lead researcher is Bernie Garrett, an associate professor in the UBC School of Nursing.
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