“If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” You’ve no doubt heard this old adage.
But with scammers preying on people’s fear of the Zika virus, maybe it’s a good time to update that familiar phrase: If something sounds too good to be true when it comes to preventing or treating Zika — and there’s not a word about it on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and your doctor has never heard of it — don’t trust whatever the product or claim is for a minute.
At the very least, the Zika “cure” or “guaranteed” method of prevention is probably an unsubstantiated rumor that’s picked up steam on the internet. But it is likely an outright scam. Con artists and an array of people with shady business practices are busy coming up with ways to make money off Zika fears.
Zika virus is known to be spread through the bite of mosquitoes infected with the virus so, understandably, it’s a good idea to lower the risk of mosquito exposure. To that end, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourages getting rid of standing water around your home where mosquitoes can breed, making sure window screens are in good repair, and wearing long sleeve shirts and pants when you are outdoors in areas with mosquitoes. The EPA also urges using an FDA-approved mosquito repellent when necessary.
Unfortunately, scammers would like people to think there are other strategies known to kill all Zika-carrying mosquitoes or keep them at bay.
Take claims that you should pay to have your yard sprayed with pesticide that will protect you from Zika carrying mosquitoes, for example. The EPA explains spraying potentially environmentally harmful pesticide to try to control mosquitoes is best left up to experts and county health officials — because when, what, and how to use these insecticides effectively is complicated. To be successful, mosquito control officials have to apply the chemicals under optimum environmental conditions based on air temperature and wind conditions so they can target a specific species when it is most active.
So if someone claims they are selling a pesticide spraying service that will kill all mosquitoes in your yard and protect you from Zika — consider that a red flag. The North Carolina Attorney General’s office has announced it has already received a complaint about misleading advertising for mosquito spraying that uses the Zika elimination claim.
What if you could skip using an insect repellant when you are outdoors and instead just wear a little band on you wrist that keeps Zika-carrying mosquitoes at bay? Yep, that sounds easy. But it’s also bogus.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took action against Viatek Consumer Products Group, Inc., a company that marketed Mosquito Shield Bands. These wristbands, which contained mint oil, were sold directly to consumers through retailers, including the Home Shopping Network. They were hawked with the shaky claim a “vapor barrier” kept anyone within five feet of a person wearing one of the wristbands from being bitten by mosquitos. And each wristband supposedly offered 96 to 120 hours of protection.
The FTC ruled these are deceptive claims because there’s no scientific evidence the bands keep mosquitoes from biting — and the company was fined $300,000.
“With Zika virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses in the news, consumers might be looking for products that protect them from mosquitos,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The defendants took advantage of those concerns, and peddled a product without having scientific support that it effectively prevented mosquito bites.”
New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman is aggressively going after Zika scams. Six companies have already agreed to stop marketing bogus Zika protection products after Schneiderman sent them cease-and-desist warning letters.
The products included ultrasonic devices, wristbands, and patches that supposedly kept mosquitoes away. Not only did the bogus Zika products not work, Schneiderman noted in some cases they actually attract mosquitoes.
“We won’t let fraudsters take advantage of a public health crisis, and this should serve as a warning to other companies who seek to engage in the same dishonest practices,” Schneiderman said. “I urge consumers to educate themselves about the repellents that will actually protect you against Zika to avoid being fooled by these outrageous scams.”
While the wristbands and some other scam items are off the market, beware of any other products, from supplements to devices you wear, that may pop up with similar unsubstantiated claims. Remember that product reviews and recommendations may sound convincing, but they can be exaggerated and totally fabricated — and they prove nothing.
While Zika is most often transmitted through mosquito bites, it is now known that you can acquire the virus through sexual contact between a Zika-infected man and his sex partners. So when Australian pharmaceutical company Starpharma Holdings Ltd. sent out a press release announcing it was supplying Australian Olympic athletes with special “anti-Zika” condoms lubricated with an anti-microbial gel, "VivaGel Active," the story was picked up by media around the world. Some headlines even implied this was a breakthrough in halting sexual transmission of the virus.
Unfortunately, many news organizations simply repeated the press release claim without looking into whether these condoms offered any more protection than the regular kind of condoms.
It turns out the fine print on the Starpharma website reveals the company has "not yet applied for or received regulatory certification regarding Zika virus activity of VivaGel for the Dual Protect™ condom." And the CDC has no evidence that the addition of a germ-killing gel alters the effectiveness of condoms, according to John Brooks, MD, senior medical adviser for the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention.
Instead of falling for claims about condoms with an unproven “special” ability to prevent Zika, the CDC emphasizes you can avoid sexual transmission of the virus by proven methods — abstaining from sex or using widely available condoms correctly every time you have sex.
The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection in Maryland warns about a variety of other con artist tricks — including selling supplements with false claims that vitamins or herbs can protect you from Zika virus.
If you are looking for information about the virus, protect yourself by visiting only tried and true online sources such as the CDC – or you could end up being hacked. Malicious software (malware) designed to secretly gain access to your computer may be hidden in links on scammers’ websites or in emails that offer a guide to Zika information, according to the Montgomery County Consumer Protection office.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued a warning for investors to beware of investment scams tied to the Zika virus. Increasingly, stocks for companies that claim to be developing services or products to prevent or treat Zika are being hyped, according to the SEC. The result can be inflated stock prices that plummet after the company’s owners dump their own stock to make a quick profit.
“Investment scams exploiting the Zika crisis may include ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes, where promoters ‘pump’ up the stock price of a company by spreading positive rumors that incite a buying frenzy and then they quickly ‘dump’ their own shares before the hype ends,” the SEC stated in an investor alert. “Typically, after the promoters profit from their sales, the stock price drops and the remaining investors lose money.”
If you or anyone you know has been the victim of a Zika scam — or if you suspect a fraudulent Zika product or service is being promoted — take action. Report it to your state’s Consumer Protection Agency.
August 05, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA