After nurse Nina Pham was diagnosed with Ebola, health officials destroyed her belongings so others would be safe from contamination. Her family members had to stop working, but still have to pay for student loans, car payments, rent and meals.Two days ago, Sarah Strittmatter, a friend who has known her since the third grade, decided to help. She and Brian Roberts, who went to Nolan Catholic High School, which Pham attended in in Fort Worth, Texas, posted on the crowd-funding website GoFundMe, about the hardships the family faces, and as of early afternoon Thursday she has raised nearly $70,000 through 1,460 donations – much higher than her original goal of $20,000.The fundraising was successful because people wanted to help. But that same altruism has led con artists to set up phony Ebola-themed charities and promote fake miracle cures for the virus, trying to trick people out of their money. “Scammers prey on your emotions,” says Sid Kirchheimer, writer for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network and author of “Scam-Proof Your Life.” When it comes to ripping people off, he said, “There are huge emotions that are successful: Fear, curiosity and greed.” Like other disasters, the Ebola scare is ripe for all kinds of scams, from medicines claiming to cure the potentially deadly virus to email click-bait and fake charities. To lure victims, crooks tend to use headline-grabbing issues to prey on their victims, and the damage they do varies: in some cases people risk losing a little money; in others, their life savings or even their health are at risk. “It’s very common for scammers to play on things that are in the news to try to lure consumers into purchasing bogus products or services,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the National Association of Consumer Advocates. The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have issued warning letters to three companies who fraudulently claimed to have cures or prevention medications for Ebola. The federal agencies had received complaints from consumers and encourage people to come forward if they feel they are being advertised or sold bogus products. Some companies were touting a product that had the fruit Garcinia Cambogia in it, while others promoted the supplement Monolaurin, which is in breast milk and coconut milk. By law, dietary supplements cannot claim that they cure or treat disease. “Scam artists are making unsubstantiated claims that products containing everything from silver to herbal oils and snake venom can cure or prevent Ebola,” consumer education specialist Colleen Tressle wrote on the FTC’s website.
The agency, along with the FDA, sent warning letters to Natural Solutions Foundation for the way it marketed its product Nano Silver. So far the two other companies who were warned for claiming to have Ebola treatments, Utah-based doTERRA International and Young Living, appear to have reined in their exaggerated marketing claims.There currently are no FDA-approved vaccines or drugs to treat Ebola. Experimental treatments, such as ZMapp or brincidofovir, have been used on some Ebola patients, but they have not gone through the typical FDA-approval process. Instead federal authorities, facing a public health emergency, gave the go-ahead for their use. An anti-Ebola vaccine is in the early stages of development. Though health officials have maintained that Ebola does not pose a significant risk to the American public, some people may be misinformed about the virus or may not fully understand their level of risk. ” If someone is offering you an easy way to protect yourself or cure yourself it’s a very appealing prospect,” Grant says. “Crooks are playing on consumers’ fear and lack for knowledge to solicit them and buy these kinds of products.”No charges have yet been brought against doTERRA or Young Living, but federal agencies take legal action, such as seizure of property, obtaining a court injunction or criminal prosecution if they don’t change their misleading ads. “With [phony] medical products, you are not only wasting your money but risking your health, because you are not seeking appropriate medical treatment, and that’s very serious,” an FTC spokesman says. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper issued a warning Wednesday about Ebola-related scams – even though the state has not received any complaints yet. “We’ve seen past health issues such as H1N1 be exploited by con artists and hope to avoid the same thing happening with Ebola,” says a spokeswoman from the state’s department of justice. In August, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority warned people about investing in companies that claimed to have a product that would protect against viruses, including Ebola. A different kind of scam, though one not uncommon in times of crisis, took place in Illinois. People complained of emails purporting updates about the Ebola crisis, and others offering a “surplus personal protection kit.”“We suspect these emails are the handiwork of scammers seeking to take advantage of people’s understandable fear and anxiety surrounding this international public health risk,” Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan said in a statement. “It’s extremely important that you delete these messages and instead consult legitimate resources for more information about prevention measures underway.” Someone who clicks on a photo or video, that’s supposed to be about the Ebola virus, or downloads a program, could be exposed to malware – viruses and software that infect a person’s computer and can give hackers access to emails, bank accounts, or the ability to watch a person’s actions remotely. Stolen money can sometimes be difficult to recoup, because some hackers live overseas and conduct their business for a few weeks at a time before shutting down a program and moving on, Kirchheimer says. Madigan also warned last week against fake charities that claim to raise money to fight Ebola, and and on Thursday the FTC issued a similar warning, urging the public to verify any requests for donatons.. Grant says these kinds of scams tend to emerge during crises like hurricanes or floods, claiming to collect money to help struggling victims. Though officials haven’t seen any yet, they anticipate they will. “Unfortunately, legitimate charities face competition from fraudsters who either solicit for bogus charities or aren’t honest about how a so-called charity will use your contribution,” Tressler wrote. The Better Business Bureau, a consumer education group, allows people to search for charities to find out whether they are legitimate.Kirchheimer sums it up: “Don’t believe groups they have a cure, don’t believe every charity, and don’t click on just any link.” Copyright 2014 U.S. News & World Report