Last week in Virginia, a man was arrested on charges of posing as a doctor and prescribing phony cancer medication.
The arrest is not an isolated incident.
Last year, a Northern California man was arrested on charges of practicing medicine without a license and prescribing patients “natural” cures that investigators say included bags of dirt.
In 2013, an evangelical minister was sentenced to 14 years in prison for pushing phony herbal supplements on parishioners dying of cancer. Experts testified that the supplements actually contained sunscreen preservative and beef flavoring.
Then there’s the strange case of Hulda Clark and her “Zapper.”
Clark’s books promoted the electrical device as a means of killing parasites and other pathogens that she claimed were the cause of cancer and other diseases.
According to a friend and colleague, Clark died of cancer in 2009 — her own device was unable to cure her because of crippling arthritis in her hands. But the zappers can still be purchased online for hundreds of dollars.
Fake cancer treatments come in all sorts of forms from liquids to electronics.
They also target an array of people, older adults in particular. And many use the internet to ply their trade.
The internet is a rich source of websites that sell herbs, creams, and salves.
The medicinal properties of these products are generally unsubstantiated, and some have been reported to cause harm.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumers should look out for claims that a product “treats all forms of cancer,” or that it can help patients "avoid painful surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or other conventional treatments."
Such promises are attractive to people whose cancer does not respond to conventional treatments.
"I believed he had an answer to my problems. He was mentioned on the internet as being a guru and that he could do vaccines," the woman who alerted police to the dirt prescribing doctor in California, told an ABC news affiliate.
She said she visited his clinic after learning that her breast cancer had spread to other organs despite chemotherapy.
Other patients seek alternative treatments to ameliorate the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy.
Acupuncture, meditation, and massage are all now widely accepted for this purpose. And studies have explored the use of extracts from ginger and ginseng to combat chemo-induced nausea and fatigue.
But that doesn’t mean patients should self-medicate with these plants, warns K. Simon Yeung, a pharmacist and herbalist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Yeung manages a directory of herbal medicines for patients and providers that’s called About Herbs.
Some herbs can act as blood thinners, a dangerous side effect for patients with low platelet counts, he said. And, he added, they can interact with chemotherapy drugs, disrupting the “narrow window” of toxicity required for the treatment to work properly.
For these and other reasons it can be unwise to read too much into the word “natural,” Yeung said.
“Many of the cancer drugs we are using today are originally derived from plants although they are not necessarily used as herbal medicines or dietary supplements,” he told Healthline.
Some of the products that are advertised as natural can actually be quite toxic, he said.
Laetrile, for example, which is derived from the pits of fruit, is broken down into cyanide once ingested and can cause cyanide poisoning.
Other questionable treatments are spinoffs of promising new technology.
A recent study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found more than 500 stem cell clinics operating in the United States.
Stem cell therapy, though promising, is not yet approved for use outside of clinical trials except in the case of bone marrow transplants.
Another alleged misuse of burgeoning technology is the “Mole Detective” family of apps for smartphones.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged the company with making unsubstantiated claims about the app’s ability to diagnose a mole as cancerous or benign.
Accusations can be handled by the FDA, the FTC, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the United States Postal Service, or the Department of Justice.
Rich Cleland, assistant director of advertising practices with the FTC, told Healthline that it depends on which agency first catches wind of the supposed fraud, and whether the case is prosecuted in civil or criminal court.
Lately, he says, the trend in health scams seems to involve products targeted at issues that affect older adults, like arthritis pain, cognitive decline, and even gray hair.
As baby boomers age, hucksters go where the money is, he said. The consequences can be tragic.
“In my investigations I have come across some pretty heart-wrenching stories,” he said.
Those include people who fell prey to treatments that didn’t work, and “by the time they realized that the alternative treatments were not going to save them, their cancer had progressed to a point that conventional medicine couldn’t do anything for them either.”