Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Snake oil salesmen warning: DoJ, FTC are cracking down on fake coronavirus products

Don’t even think about marketing ‘coronavirus-curing’ goods, the agencies have warned.

US watchdogs have warned vendors to stop trying to flog misleading coronavirus cure and prevention products or they will face severe consequences.

This week, the US Department of Justice (DoJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that anyone found to be breaking US antitrust laws will be "held accountable" in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

The novel coronavirus, officially designated as COVID-19, is believed to have originated from Wuhan, China and has spread in recent weeks across China, South Korea, Europe, and the United States. Over 115,000 confirmed cases have been recorded, together with over 4,000 deaths, at the time of writing. 

The majority of recorded cases are in China, with a recent uptick in novel coronavirus cases in Italy and South Korea. 

The outbreak has caused panic buying -- in strange cases including toilet paper -- as well as the ransacking of shelves to purchase face masks, respirators, and sanitizer gel. 

While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that basic hygiene practices, such as washing your hands, and using masks only in case when you are coughing, sneezing, or caring for someone who is a suspected novel coronavirus case, this has not stopped vendors selling out -- or jacking up prices to profit from the illness. 

Amazon is grappling with a flood of products claiming to help cure or prevent COVID-19, and in recent weeks, has wiped at least one million products off its online shelves. Facebook has recently announced the temporary suspension of face mask and respirator-related adverts in order to stop price gouging and profiteering. 

Now, US regulators are making their own thoughts known and have warned businesses against marketing or selling products based on fraudulent novel coronavirus claims. 

The DoJ says that it will "hold accountable anyone who violates the antitrust laws of the United States in connection with the manufacturing, distribution, or sale of public health products such as face masks, respirators, and diagnostics."

This may include price gouging or fixing, rigging bids to raise the price of products, or rival vendors working with each other to share health product inventory -- so they all benefit from price-fixing, for example -- and any individuals or companies found to be influencing the market in this way may be prosecuted. 

CNET: Coronavirus and COVID-19: Everything you need to know

It is not just price-fixing, however, that US watchdogs want to stop. The FDA and FTC, too, have warned businesses to not "even think about marketing a product unless you can support your claims with sound science."

The reminder has been made in relation to products that claim to treat, cure, or prevent COVID-19. 

See also: Facebook suspends face mask ads to stop traders exploiting coronavirus fears
 
"The FTC has a magnifying glass on the marketplace to monitor coronavirus claims," the agencies say. "Under the FTC Act, claims that a product can prevent or treat a serious disease require the support of well-controlled human clinical studies."

The agencies have provided a list of companies that are already on the radar and have been sent letters warning them to stop pitching coronavirus-related products. These include:

  • Jim Bakker: "Antiviral" Silver Sol Liquid, Silver Sol Gel, and Silver Lozenges;
  • Herbal Amy, Inc.: "Coronavirus Protocol" formulas touted as "preventative as well as specific for acute infections."
  • N-Ergetics: Colloidal silver products claiming to be "the only known antiviral supplement to kill all seven Human Coronaviruses," as well as saying on its website, "This Chinese Wuhan Flu Pneumonia has a non-traditional remedy that has successfully killed coronaviruses from the flu virus to pandemic diseases, in vitro, for over 100 years."
  • Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd.: "Essential Oils To Protect Against Coronavirus."
  • GuruNanda, LLC.: Claims of coronavirus-preventing frankincense.

TechRepublic: Coronavirus: What business pros need to know

Businesses that do not correct their practices or contact the FDA and FTC within 48 hours explaining themselves may face injunctions, financial penalties, or prosecution. 

The DoJ and FTC have also asked consumers with any information related to price-fixing, rigging, or anti-competitive conducts to report their suspicions

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