FTC commissioner warns about fake COVID-19 cures: 'The scams follow the headlines'

Suzanne Smalley

The Federal Trade Commission is policing a surging number of fraudulent marketing claims exploiting the coronavirus pandemic, including from companies promoting supplements to be taken in conjunction with a class of antimalarial drugs that have been promoted by President Trump, according to agency officials.

On Thursday, the FTC sent warning letters to 21 marketers who have taken advantage of the pandemic to dupe consumers with unproven therapies, FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips told Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. At least one targeted company marketed a product to be used in tandem with chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, which some Americans tried to self-administer after the president first praised the drugs as a promising treatment last month. An Arizona man died in March after ingesting chloroquine phosphate — a related compound used to sanitize fish tanks — in a misguided effort to protect himself.

Last week, Rick Bright, a top Health and Human Services official who said he was removed from his job for resisting the push for hydroxychloroquine treatments, complained publicly about the effort to make the drug more accessible despite an absence of peer-reviewed clinical data to support its safety and effectiveness. NBC News reported Thursday that the president's interest in the antimalarial drug was stoked by Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, a major donor to the president and a member of the White House economic recovery task force. The White House did not return a message seeking comment.

“Whenever there is a disaster, you will see scams follow that disaster — the shorthand we use for this is that scams follow the headlines, and now there are a lot of headlines,” Phillips told “Skullduggery” hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman.

Since the beginning of January, when awareness of the coronavirus began to grow in the United States, Phillips said the FTC has fielded nearly 30,000 reports of scams and frauds involving losses in excess of $20 million. Phillips said the number of reports the FTC has received are “by multiples larger than the kinds of scams we usually see.”

There is currently no proven treatment for the coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory disease it causes, which has so far killed more than 56,000 Americans.

Controversy over Trump’s vocal support for the untested antimalarial drugs as a coronavirus treatment erupted earlier this month when the president kept Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease researcher, from discussing hydroxychloroquine at a White House briefing.

Phillips said he could not comment on whether Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine and related drugs may be driving the fraudulent marketing claims. Asked whether the FTC has asked the president to stop discussing unproven drugs, Phillips said that as an independent agency the FTC does not work in conjunction with the White House. But he added: “In terms of ‘Does something help you with your medical condition?’ That’s a great question for your doctor or for the official channels of medical information.”

Noah Joshua Phillips, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) commissioner nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, center, listens during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. The FTC, which investigates mergers and consumer-protection cases, has been operating with three empty seats on its five-member commission. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Noah Phillips at his Senate confirmation hearing in February 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

One of the 21 companies the FTC sent a warning letter to last week, the Internet merchant Personal Health Shop, advertised on Instagram and Facebook directing consumers to buy its elderberry gummies because they could “combine with chloroquine to help treat the coronavirus.” An Instagram ad posted by Personal Health Shop claimed, “Recently on March 19, 2020, The President of the United States Covid19 task force has encouraged/grant [sic] approval to the FDA to do further testing with a drug call [sic] hydroxychloroquine as prior testing has shown Incredibly [sic] effectiveness.”

The Personal Health Shop was one of nine vitamin and supplement purveyors to receive a warning letter. Additionally, seven companies were warned for marketing unproven IV therapies to treat the coronavirus; three for marketing unproven ozone therapies; and two for marketing unproven stem-cell therapies.

“We have seen companies out there making claims that their products in conjunction with hydrochloroquine or hydroxychloroquine have effects that will benefit people in light of coronavirus whatever those effects they’re claiming are,” Phillips said. “The broader point here — and I think this is really important — is that people should go to official sources.”

Phillips said the FTC is partnering with the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on scammers.

“Companies that make bogus claims ... are pivoting to the coronavirus, and they’re sometimes stepping up their game in pushing out these scams and frauds to the American public — an American public that is increasingly nervous,” Phillips said. “Horrible as the pandemic is, horrible as the economic effects of the pandemic have been, one of the silver linings on this very dark cloud is the level of social cohesion. … But, yeah, there’s this other part of it where the scammers come out.”


Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more: