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Risky Ad-Ventures

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This story appears in the February 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Snake-oil salesmen are back, but these days they don't have to rely on brightly painted horse-drawn carts to attract interested crowds of people. Who needs a soap box when outrageous claims made over the Internet can reach thousands of gullible buyers? But just like the sheriffs who used to run flimflammers out of town, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is watching. In addition, attorneys general in all 50 states keep tabs on advertising and take action against businesses that violate state regulations.

The same technology that makes it easier to hoodwink people also makes it easier to track down those who mislead consumers. On two Health Claim Surf Days in 1997 and 1998, FTC employees, working with their counterparts in 24 other countries, searched the Internet and found more than 800 Web sites and news-groups making questionable claims about products that could supposedly cure a host of illnesses. The Arthritis Pain Care Center of Arlington, Texas, offered a fatty acid derived from beef tallow, purported to cure arthritis by modifying the immune system. Body Systems Technology Inc. of Casselberry, Florida, claimed its shark cartilage capsules were scientifically proven to be effective in treating cancer, arthritis and HIV/AIDS--claims that turned out to be completely unfounded.

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