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Swine Flu Scammers Provoke FDA Crackdown

Concerned over the surge of phony swine flu treatments hawked on the Internet, the Food and Drug Administration has ordered dozens of Web site operators to stop making fraudulent claims, leading to a drop in the number of scams.

In the six weeks since FDA's campaign began, nearly three-quarters have pulled down sites or removed illegal claims, and the number of new sites selling fake swine flu treatments and protective devices has plummeted, FDA officials told The Associated Press. The agency was to release an update on its progress late Monday.

"At the beginning, we were seeing as many as 10 new Web sites a day" selling fraudulent products, said Alyson Saben, deputy director of FDA's office of enforcement. "Over the last two weeks or so, we're seeing about two new Web sites a week."

Doctor examines a man at a public health center set up to check for swine flu symptoms
AP
Doctor examines a man at a public health center set up to check for swine flu symptoms

The FDA had issued 53 warning letters covering more than 100 products as of Monday morning, she said, with 70 percent heeding the warning. Operators either took down the Web site or removed illegal claims their drug, supplement or device could diagnose, prevent, treat or cure swine flu.

"In general, they've removed all reference to the swine flu," said Gary Coody, FDA's health fraud coordinator. Instead, they say their products boost the immune system.

A single warning letter to the operator of one Web site led to the removal of about 10 sites with similar claims about several products, such as, "You don't have to worry about getting the swine flu if you take our supplement," Coody said.

The FDA is still working with operators of the remaining 30 percent of sites. Its Office of Criminal Investigation is involved, and could seek product seizures, injunctions against sales and criminal prosecutions of those that don't comply.

While the World Health Organization last week declared the swine flu a pandemic, it has been mild in most patients, killing about 145 people out of nearly 30,000 cases documented. That hasn't stopped companies from trying to sell products that are patently fake.

Some recent examples, Saben said, include an ultraviolet light that purportedly destroys swine flu, "the only air purifier on the market that can protect you from a sneeze anywhere in the room," and a product "clinically shown" to kill the virus in the nose.

One dietary supplement supposedly would "excite your immune system so much that you would be ready to take on the flu virus," she said. Still, such products could be dangerous to buyers.

"They could be harmful to their health and present a potential threat to the public health," Saben said.

Coody said there is no way to know how much money the Web site operators have been raking in for these products. Healthcare scams take in billions of dollars a year.