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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

How To Spot A Health Scammer

A Brief Background

My friend VS recently attended a seminar on “alternative” medicine and sent me a message, which I then quote slightly edited:

I just wanted to share with you a rather interesting experience. I attended this free introductory talk on (alternative medical system). I have very keen on learning this but it was only now that i had this opportunity to have a live interactive lecture. It was quite enlightening to learn how (alternative medical system) remedies are prepared and moreso the philosophy behind it.

I assumed that there will be similarities with tcm and Ayurveda since they are all natural holistic traditional methods. I was just a bit disconcerted though that the “doctor” who claimed to have practiced both Ayurveda and tcm seemed to relegate the two in the same league as western, except that instead of man made chemicals, they used herbs – eg for asthma, there is a standard ‘formula’ without considering the root cause. Of course i had to speak up and say that in my experience with tcm, i know, because i read the herb list of the medications that i have been taking, that each formulation is different, depending on one’s current state. For instance, asthma may be caused by excess, or deficiency, etc etc.

I was just thankful that i was there, otherwise the other participants would have been given the wrong idea about tcm.

What are your thoughts on (alternative medical system)? Am just concerned that its selling point is its quick effectivity – but it espouses self diagnosis, which can be quite risky. They offer a 3 month course which comes with a ‘starter kit’ of mother tinctures which the graduates can dispense for personal use and to prescribe to others. I asked if there was going to be a sort of certificate at the end of the course – wala. Yikes, nakakatakot ata. What do you think? (from Facebook message to writer, dated October 27, 2013)

Now, I do not know what was precisely mentioned in the seminar – I am not one to fall for mere hearsay – but I feel the need to put down in writing the general tone the answers I gave to VS and to share to the public what I feel are the hallmarks of a Health Scammer.

Disclaimer: I must say that I am in no way claiming that the individual VS is referring to or any other individual is a health scammer.  I am in fact a believer in the system that VS says the doctor is referring to. One cannot determine such things from other people’s stories alone.  What I can share are my insights from my own experiences dealing with health scammers directly or through my patients.  I shared this with VS so that the next time she attends this person’s seminar, she will have the right questions to ask.  I now share this with you.

Health Scammer Red Flags (Note that not all signs must be present.)

1. The Health Scammer Can Cure Anything

You’ve heard the magic words – “miracle cure”, “secret” coupled with more exclamation points than Henry VIII had wives.  The authentic healer knows his limitations.  The scammer will claim to cure what others say is incurable.  Zhang Zhongjing (died around 219 AD), who is known as the sage of Chinese Medicine and the preeminent figure in the Cold Damage school of Chinese Medicine, once wrote that with his book (the Shang Han Za Ping Lun or Treatise on Cold Damage and Miscellaneous Illnesses), one could handle half of all diseases.  Note that Zhang doesn’t even say cure.  He says handle.  He didn’t say all, didn’t say most.  He said half.  Even Christ Himself was recorded as not being able to perform miracles in towns where the people had no faith in Him.  These Health Scammers will claim to have a track record better than Jesus Christ Himself!

Now, how does the scammer justify that he can cure anything?  The answer is…

2. The Health Scammer Has Secret Knowledge No One Else Knows

Everyone loves secrets.  Everyone loves to know others’ secrets.  Knowing what other people want kept from the rest of the world helps inflate one’s self importance.  Hence, the Health Scammer justifies being able to cure anything AND appeals to victims’ sense of wanting to feel special by promising hidden knowledge.  Is this not also the way cults reel in recruits?

Usually the Scammer will have some secret technique, or some secret formula handed down only in the Scammer’s family.  The worst will even claim secret knowledge given by spirits, angels, or aliens from the planet Lovetron.  I mean who cares about such things as patient records and research, right?

Then again, no one will believe a Scammer who claims knowledge from the planet Lovetron, but he will do so if the Scammer drops the names of famous figures or works of literature from history.

3. The Health Scammer is the Ultimate Namedropper

I remember an incident, non-medical, involving myself getting into a minor traffic accident.  I was already admitting fault and was asking for the pertinent documents so I could submit them to my insurance company.  The other guy wasn’t interested.  He wanted me to give him PHP 5000 (roughly more than a hundred USD) then and there.  He was mouthing off about his father who was a captain in the Philippine Army.  I replied, smiling, “Oh, so your dad must know my uncle? He’s a retired general.”Hearing me mention my uncle’s name wiped that arrogant smirk off his face.  He then said to forget about it.  Hey, if he can namedrop, so can I.And so can Scammers.Scammers usually have some sort of “authority” to fall back on when making their claims.  Sometimes these authorities are just fancy sounding exotic names.  At other times they are legitimate authorities that are familiar enough to listeners that the aforementioned names carry weight, but not familiar enough that victims don’t realize that such authorities would never endorse Scammer’s methods.

Case in point: I recall being in China when a certain huckster tried to sell a herbal formula as a secret cancer cure found in the Huangdi Neijing (for more info on the HDNJ, please see my previous post).  The problem is that, according to my instructor, Professor Du, “While there are some formulae mentioned in the Huangdi Neijing, no legitimate herbal practitioner would lend any credence to them as the method of composing herbal formulae had not yet fully developed until the time of the Shang Han Lun in the 2nd century AD.”  The legit practitioner would know this, but the hapless layman?

Also, don’t get the Health Scammer started on research…

Conventional Medicine is Portrayed as the Bad Guy. Image by Imagerymajestic /

Conventional Medicine is Portrayed as the Bad Guy. Image by Imagerymajestic /

4. The Health Scammer Says Conventional Medicine is Doing the Scamming

Someone has to be the bad guy.  The world unites against a villain.  The Health Scammer tries to invoke conspiracy theories and once again appealing to people’s weakness for “secret knowledge” by claiming that it is Conventional Medicine that is doing the scamming.

Now, conventional medicine isn’t perfect.  True, pharmaceutical companies are indeed profit oriented.  I myself feel that some such companies are intentionally pushing products that consumers may not actually need.  Does that mean that EVERYTHING they do is totally evil?  Don’t be ridiculous.  The fact of the matter is that, for all it’s faults, conventional medicine fills a real need.  It may not fill it totally, and definitely doesn’t fill all medical needs, but it fills a need.  My mainland Chinese friend tells me jokingly that for her back pain, she’ll go get acupuncture, but if she gets run over by a car, please take her to the emergency room.

The Health Scammer, in his need to justify why his secret cure has escaped science and conventional medicine hasn’t even come close to his miracle cure, will either claim number 2, secret knowledge, or claim that conventional medicine probably already knows about his technique but is keeping it from the public because it wants more profits, doesn’t care, or just likes torturing people.

This is especially most farcical and tragic with cancer cures.  How many times are patients told that “THEY don’t want you to know about this cancer cure” because “THEY want to keep you buying expensive chemotherapeutic drugs.”  Funny, the “cures” that the Scammer sells are sometimes even more expensive than the chemotherapy.

I remember being referred a patient in the Philippine General Hospital.  She was referred for pain because of multiple metastases in her spinal column.  Alas, even acupuncture could do little rather than to lower her morphine dose.  I tragically found out that she only had a small stage 1 breast cancer tumor that was easily removed.  There was no spread, no nothing.  Six cycles of chemo was all that was recommended.

Except she never went through with it.

She had been taken by some scammer who said the didn’t need chemo and just needed herbs.  Herbs that she had to buy from him.  Do I need to ask if they worked or not?  Of course, chemotherapy doesn’t always work, but I had seen this guy’s newspaper ads and he promises cures.  Again, refer to number 1.

And MDs are the bad guys?

5. The Health Scammer Has One Treatment for Everything

In the 1990s, Mel Brooks spoofed not one but two popular movies.  Robin Hood: Men In Tights was making fun of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; while Dracula: Dead and Loving It ridiculed Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  In the latter, the character of Dr. Seward was portrayed as using enemas to treat any and all psychiatric diseases.  We laughed because it was a comedy film.

In real life, we should stop laughing.  There really are some quacks out there who has one treatment for everything.

Don’t get me wrong.  Others may misconstrue this as saying that people with predominant modalities are quacks.  The skeptic would be tempted to accuse me of being such.  Ditto for chiropractors or osteopaths.  The differences is that while an acupuncturist uses needles, the point selection is still different with each case, and the needling technique as well.  For manual therapy enthusiasts, there are also different techniques being applied.  To be honest, if we are going to nitpick on singular modalities, what about the internist who mostly dispenses drugs?  The difference is at least there are various drugs to be given, various acupoints to be used.  For the Scammer, they have little variation on their methods.  All patients must take the same magic potion.  All patients must have the same magic treatment.  In the words of a patient who had gone through such things: “(the Scammer) preaches holistic treatment, yet seemingly treats all patients the same”.

A variation of this is beware the panacea or cure-all.

6. The Health Scammer has Techniques Far Superior to History Taking and Physical Examination

This is particularly true for those who are not licensed to actually practice medicine, whether western or other traditions.  In the Philippines, the practice of medicine is defined as examining, diagnosing and recommending treatment to a patient.  Doing so without the proper qualifications and licensure may get one into legal trouble.  Hence, the Scammer may actually refrain from looking and talking to individual patients.  Rather, what the Scammer will do is give some sort of “free” seminar to lure people in.  The Scammer will then hawk his treatment or product, and talk about it’s benefits and what diseases it can treat.  The attendees then start thinking, “whoah, this stuff is good for me!” or at least, “whoah, one of this guy’s products is good for me!”

When accused of practicing medicine without a license, this particular type of Scammer can then say, correctly, that nowhere did he examine a patient, made a diagnosis on a particular patient, nor did he recommend a particular treatment to a particular patient.

7. The Health Scammer is an International Man of Mystery

This is a variation on number 3; what if the Scammer himself is presenting ideas so newfangled that there are no legitimate authorities to namedrop?  He must then create some sort of exotic background to justify where he learned such mysterious esoteric arts.  This kind of Scammer will say they have been to places from Tokyo to Timbuktu, from Vienna to Vladivostok.  He will say he studied here, there and everywhere.

Yet he will not name names.  He will offer no proof of any training in any institution abroad or anywhere.  He will offer no proof of having studied under the namedropped authority.

Why would he be so detailed? To let people unmask him more easily?  I would suppose not.

8. The Health Scammer Can Save You Money

This one is a doozy, and befuddles me all the time.  Yet it’s totally understandable.  This is how stores make money off the idea of discounts and sales.  It is but human nature for a person to enjoy the feeling of getting a bargain.  Never mind that I noticed that items on sale are usually items that people normally wouldn’t give a second look after browsing, let alone buy.

In this case, the victim is lured in by the idea that the “alternative” treatment will save them money, usually by avoiding surgery or prolonged chemotherapy or something similar. Sometimes it’s a trick – the bogus treatment will turn out to be more expensive and much less effective.  Remember the cancer patient I mentioned earlier?  She later realized that the amount she spent on the so-called “herbs” was probably only slightly more expensive than going through six cycles of chemotherapy.

Yeah, the Scammer wants you to save money  – so you can give it to him.

9. The Health Scammer Says Natural is Safe

How many times have we heard this?  Synthetic chemicals are evil.  Natural remedies are not.  That’s why we go natural, even if natural means taking a natural product, processing it, stuffing it in a capsule or into a tablet, and taking it orally not unlike a conventional medical pill.

Let’s call an ace an ace and a spade a spade – anything that can treat disease can be harmful in the wrong amounts or if administered the wrong way.  Heck, drinking too much WATER can be harmful.

But no, the Scammer must reinforce the idea that he is the saint and the system is the schemer.  Any real practitioner of any herbal tradition will realize that even “natural” herbs work by being metabolized by the liver and kidney. In fact, when I was studying Chinese Herbs in Beijing, my brain went bananas on the amount of side effects and drug interactions I had to learn.  In fact, I recall Professor Du basically glossing over a whole bunch of herbs, saying, “These materia medica are so toxic… that you probably won’t have to bother using them.”


10.  The Health Scammer is a Martyr

Any attempt to expose a Health Scammer for the fraud that he is will inevitably bring out the “I’m being persecuted” card.  The Scammer paints himself as a martyr for the cause of health, that everyone else, not just conventional medicine, is out to get him.  Everyone wants to silence him, because what he knows is dangerous for the interests of those maintaining the status quo.

He will maintain this charade even though, let’s say, he actually DID something that merits being chased after by the law enforcement authorities.  I recall a popular speaker marketing various cures who was indicted on credit card fraud, among other things.  The guy would claim that he was… tan tananananan! persecuted!

Persecuted for the truth!

Hallelujah! Save me, Scammer!

There we go.  I hope that this list can help people distinguish the legitimate medical practitioner  – MD, chiropractor, acupuncturist, homeopath or whatever – from the scammers.  Is there anything I missed?  Feel free to comment, but note my comments policy.

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