Beware of These Zika Scams

As posted on August 3, 2016 on www.consumerreports.org

 

The New York Attorney General's Office has issued cease-and-desist letters to seven companies marketing products that claim to protect against Zika. 

With fourteen reported cases of locally transmitted Zika in Miami—and with officials saying they expect more to turn up in the weeks ahead—it’s clear that the virus has gained a toehold in the continental U.S.

But while health officials at every level of government may be struggling (against budget constraints and a dearth of available technology) to contain the outbreak, not everyone has been left in dire straits: The crisis has been a boon for the insect-repellent industry. According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, by June, bug spray sales were up 648 percent from last year.

Given that spike, it’s no surprise that a whole roster of "scammers" and "fly-by-nights" (as Attorney General Schneiderman called them today) are latching themselves to the Zika scare. "Some companies are taking advantage of people's fears and exploiting the current crisis" Schneiderman said. "They are lying just to make a buck." 

The most egregious examples include tiny wristbands and animal-faced stickers marketed specifically for babies and small children. The Attorney General called both of these products "useless" at protecting against Zika. 

The most important first line of defense against such fraudsters, he says, is an informed consumer. We’ve compiled a list of Zika scams to watch out for. We’ll add to it as mosquito season progresses.

Anti-Zika Wristbands

Bug-repellent wristbands generally claim to work by creating a sort of insect-free bubble around the user. But Consumer Reports has tested some wristbands and found them to be ineffective at repelling mosquitoes. The American Mosquito Control Association has also advised consumers not to waste their money on these products.  

The NYAG names several specific wristband products in today's letter, including: Wildheart Outdoors Natural Mosquito Repellent Bracelet; MosQUITo Repellent Bracelet Wristband Band; and Neor Mosquito Repellent Bracelet. Earlier this year, the FTC fined another wristband maker, Viatek, $300,000 for false advertising.

Ultrasonic Pest Repellers

Ultrasonic devices claim to emit high frequency sounds—too high for humans to hear, but evidently just the right frequency to drive pests, including mosquitoes, away. Trouble is, there is no proof that they work. "Numerous scientific studies show that [these devices] don't repel mosquitoes, and may even attract mosquitoes," the NYAG says in its statement, Today's letter includes two specific brands: STAR Ultrasonic Pest Repeller and iGear iGuard 2.0 Ultrasonic Insect Pest Repeller. The FTC is also investigating several ultrasonic repellers for false advertising. 

Natural Repellents

Natural or organic insect repellents may sound safer than products that don't make this claim.

One such product—Fit Organic Mosquito Repellent—has scored a celebrity endorsement from U.S. Olympic gymnast Jake Dalton. In a press-release issued by the company, Dalton said the product was "free of synthetic chemicals," (it's active ingredient is lemongrass), and "extremely effective in warding off mosquitoes." The company further claimed that their product offers "equal protection to DEET," and is USDA-certified as organic.

But we've tested several natural repellents (including ones that use lemongrass) and found that, with very few exceptions, they don't offer much protection against insects—and certainly don't work as well as DEET.

The NYAG letter specifically names botanical and vitamin-B based repellents, because none of these products contain EPA-registered ingredients.

Anti-Zika Condoms

Starpharma, an Australian pharmaceutical company, says that its gel-coated, anti-viral condoms offer near-total protection against sexually transmitted Zika. They've arranged to supply the Australian Olympic teamwith their product during the games that start this Friday.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that there is no evidence that these condoms work any better than normal condoms at preventing viral transmission. And, as others have pointed out, there's at least some reason for concern: one of the chemical's used in Starpharma's anti-viral gel is dangerously similar to a chemical that has been shown to boost HIV transmission.  

Spray Scams

As the prospect of local Zika outbreaks looms, the American Mosquito Control Association says that more and more contract insecticide sprayers have popped up, and that not all of them are legitimate. Consumer protection bureaus everywhere are on high alert for companies that spray without proper licensing, experience, or equipment. 

As we recently explained, not all pest-control companies are created equal. If you have a pest problem in your yard, start with your municipal mosquito control team; if your town doesn't have one, follow our tips for vetting pest control companies. 

Investment Scams

The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued an investor alert because the agency says companies claiming to have developed products or services relating to Zika are on the rise. Of particular concern to the commission are "pump-and-dump" schemes, where promoters spread positive but false rumors about a stock, in an effort to inflate prices and incite a buying frenzy. Those promoters then sell their own shares at a profit before the rumors prove false.

The SEC advises proceeding carefully with any potential Zika-related investments. For stock purchases, for example, make sure the company is registered with the SEC, and check to see that its trading privileges have not been suspended.