On the Internet, companies are at liberty to promote all kinds of health benefits about their products and even include their own so-called research to back it up, the FTC warns.
Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, says that while Americans can find truthful information on the Internet, they need to beware of exaggerated or false health claims.
"If they tell you this is a quick and effective cure-all for almost any disease, if they say this is a secret remedy...that the government has kept this information from you, it's a gigantic conspiracy -- that's all of the kind of language that is used in these ads that should be clear signals to consumers to stay away from those products," Bernstein told CBS News.
Bernstein said that more than 22 million U.S. adults had searched online for health and medical information as of December 1998. Twenty-nine percent of Americans use the Internet for medical information, with 70 percent of that group doing so before visiting a doctor's office, she said.
But the FTC has evidence that consumers are tapping into the dark side of the Internet's resources and coming up with less-than-credible medical advice.
In cases announced Thursday, companies used the Internet to make false claims about a cure for arthritis made from beef tallow and a shark cartilage remedy to treat cancer and AIDS/HIV.
One site the FTC discovered offered a magnetic therapy device it claimed could heal a number of serious diseases.
"It claims to be able to cure cancer, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases," Bernstein says. "And they make claims for all of those diseases and claim they can cure them. And they simply can't."
Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, believes the FTC needs to put out regulations that specifically detail what Internet ads for dietary supplements and other health products can say.
"The Internet is a veritable minefield of false and misleading claims," Silverglade says.
He told The Associated Press that his group has received reports of some companies advertising supplements on the Internet, even when those products had been deemed unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration and ordered off store shelves.
But Bernstein doesn't believe that the government needs to devise special regulations for advertising on the Internet, saying that the laws in place already extend to the Web.
The FTC has tracked down about 800 sites that contain questionable promotions for disease cures. More than a quarter of the sites that have been warned for advertising law violations in the past year have either removed their claims or have been taken down, Bernstein said.
Manufacturers of questionable products also can use the Web to post seemingly credible scientific research about their product. But the consumers browsing the site have no way of determining the quality of those studies or if they have been peer-reviewed, says David Schardt, also of CSPI.
"People who go to the Web site for more information and read that, thinking they're getting an objective, balanced view, are going to be misled and fooled," Schardt said.
The Association of Cancer Online Resources, which runs most of the Internet mailing lists that have to do with cancer, has instituted some self-regulation to keep out bad health information from reaching its more than 36,000 cancer patients and caregivers.
Whenever someone posts a claim about a cancer cure, members of ACOR challenge them to offer scientific proof rather than just immediately removing the claim, said Gilles Frydman, president of ACOR.
The Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging people to use the federal consumer health information gateway at www.healthfinder.gov as a reliable resource. The FDA and the FTC have their own sites, www.fda.gov, and www.ftc.gov that consumers can search for additional information.