Let the Buyer Beware

by Karen Lee Richards

Whenever any chronic or painful illness becomes relatively well known, companies providing health-related products and services take notice and begin developing new products to help this patient population. Unfortunately, scam artists and hucksters also take notice and crawl out of their holes, sensing fertile ground.

In recent years, both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome have become targets for people and companies looking to get rich off of our suffering. There are many good products and alternative treatment options available, such as vitamin and herbal supplements, acupuncture, myofascial release therapy and yoga. But there are also a growing number of questionable products and services being heavily promoted. So how you do tell which is which?

Learn to Recognize the Red Flags

Before you even consider spending your money to try a new product, look for these warning signs:

• Products or techniques that are promoted through interactive online communities.

Although most online communities work hard at trying to keep spammers out, a few do occasionally slip through the cracks. Spammers will try to infiltrate any health-related community site. They may show up in blogs or SharePosts, comments, forums and message boards. Frequently they claim to be someone who has been healed or at least greatly helped by a particular product. They invite you to visit a Web site or give you an e-mail address or phone number where you can get more information. Although they seldom admit it, most of the time these people are affiliates of the company selling the product and their primary motivation is making money, not helping you. The best thing you can do when you come across a questionable post is to notify the Web site host or forum moderator so the post can be deleted.

P**roducts, techniques or therapies that promise to cure FM or ME/CFS.**

There is no cure for fibromyalgia or ME/CFS, so you know right away this is a false claim. If their primary claim is a lie, is there any reason to think you can trust anything else they say?

Products sold from Web sites making grandiose claims.

The Web sites from which questionable products are sold often use high-pressure sales techniques designed to make the greatest emotional impact. These techniques usually follow a fairly typical format:

· Frequent use of bold lettering and all caps.

· A lot of text with many of the words in red and/or highlighted in bright yellow.

· Empathetic language showing how they understand what you're going through and how much you are suffering.

· Lots of personal stories and testimonials from people whose lives have been changed by using this product.

· References made to research proving their claims, but no links provided to the actual research.

Techniques or therapies that you can only learn more about by buying the book.

Sometimes you will find someone claiming to have an exercise program or therapy technique that will drastically reduce your symptoms, but they don't give you a clue as to what their program consists of. All they will tell you is that to learn more about this amazing technique, you can purchase their book. While I don't expect anyone to give away their entire program, I do think if there's any value to it, they should at least give you a general idea about what it involves.

Products or techniques that claim to help a wide variety of different illnesses.

No single product or technique can cure or improve every illness. It is wise to question anything that claims to help everything from fibromyalgia to autism and heart disease. The etiologies of these illness are significantly different, so it is highly unlikely any one product or treatment will help all of them.

Products or therapies that rely almost solely on personal testimonials to verify their claims.

Most companies selling questionable products or therapies offer a lot dramatic personal stories as proof of their claims, but no verifiable research or clinical trials. The stories told sound heartfelt and are extremely persuasive. The people testifying describe going through the same kind of suffering as you. Then they tell how, after using this product, their lives have been changed forever. They're no longer in pain and are full of energy. Even the strongest of us find ourselves wondering if maybe this product could be just what we've been looking for. But before you fall prey to this tactic, remember: These stories were designed to draw you in and sell you a product. The cold, hard fact is you have no way of knowing whether these stories are even real. Reputable products and therapies should have solid, verifiable research to back up their claims.

Tips to Consider Before Buying

If the product you're thinking of purchasing has passed the red flag test, consider these tips before making that final decision:

  1. Buy from a reputable source. If you can only buy the product from one company, check out that company carefully before giving them your money or your credit card.

  2. Read the fine print. Although this applies to all purchases, it's particularly important if a company is offering you free products. Often there are hidden fees, such as exorbitant shipping and handling charges, processing fees, auto-shipping commitments or membership requirements. Remember what your parents told you, "If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is."

  3. If the product or service will require a significant financial outlay to try, consider whether you can afford to continue using it on a long-term basis if it is effective. If not, don't waste your money even trying it.

  4. Don't make your decision to purchase when you're having a really bad day. Your desperation to find something that will help could cloud your judgment. Wait until you feel enough better to research the product and evaluate it rationally.

  5. Try to find someone you know who has tried the product. If you don't know someone personally, ask on the forum or check with your local support group. Never depend on the testimonials supplied by the company selling the product.

  6. Remember that every person is different. What worked for one person may or may not work for you.

  7. Always talk with your doctor before trying any new product. There could be potentially dangerous interactions with medications you are currently taking.

There are many good, reputable products and therapies available that help relieve some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for some people. But sadly, there are also a number of products that offer more hype than substance. Just keep this in mind: If a company or person seems to be taking advantage of your vulnerability and playing on your emotions, it would be wise not to trust their claims. In the end, when it comes to product and treatment options, the doctrine of Caveat Emptor applies--Let the Buyer Beware.

© Karen Lee Richards

Updated 10/17/07