British Columbia

'I was willing to try anything': UBC study explores why people fall for health scams

Forty per cent of people who participated in a recent survey said they'd clicked on an online health scam, according to a new study from researchers at the University of B.C.

Women more likely than men to click on online frauds, but they're also more likely to be targeted

British Columbians surveyed for a recent UBC study said that online health scams frequently focused on skincare products. (Shutterstock/Vladimir Gjorgiev)

Forty per cent of people who participated in a recent survey said they'd clicked on an online health scam, according to a new study from researchers at the University of B.C.

Just one per cent said they'd lost money to one of these frauds, but the results still offer reason for concern, according to Bernie Garrett, a UBC nursing professor who led the study.

"That's actually enough to sustain these businesses, given that they're involved in mass marketing over the internet," Garrett told CBC.

The research, published this week in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community, is based on an online survey of 156 British Columbians who self-reported their interaction with ads designed to sell deceptive or fraudulent products or services.

One person said they were severely burned by a facial skin-care product they'd purchased through one of those ads.

Another explained their experience like this: "Thought I was buying a trial sized item for $3, was later charged $400 for the full‐sized item I received 'accidentally' because I did not send it back."

Women more likely to be targeted

The scams mainly focused on weight loss, skin care, body-building, nutritional supplements, treatments for specific illnesses like cancer, and sexual enhancement.

The women who participated were twice as likely to click on health-related online scams as men, but Garrett says that's not surprising.

"That really reflects that the majority of these scams are actually targeting women," he said.

Age didn't seem to be a factor, but people with jobs were more likely than students to click.

Weight loss is another common focus of online health scams. (kurhan/Shutterstock)

Those who were taken in said they were attracted by claims that something was "natural" or the result of a breakthrough, as well as pseudoscientific language, testimonials and celebrity endorsements.

One person told the researchers they clicked because they had "such a desire to be free of acne that I was willing to try anything and pay anything."

Some said they simply clicked out of curiosity, or even because they knew it was a scam and thought it would be funny.

Garrett said the study provides important information that could help prevent people from falling for a health fraud. It also suggests a need for better regulation, he added.

"We do need to review our policies in terms of advertising standards and claims about health products and services, because it is pretty much the Wild West," he said.

"There's adverts everywhere for various products and services — from cancer cures to exercise machines — and a lot of them are really completely making claims that are not based on any sort of good scientific evidence."


Bethany Lindsay


Bethany Lindsay is a journalist for CBC News in Vancouver with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.


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