Health Guides Most Popular Supplement Scams: Avoid Common Fraud Practices

Most Popular Supplement Scams: Avoid Common Fraud Practices

Reviewing the top 20 dietary supplement scams in 2020, plus a buyer's research guide on avoiding fraudulent nutrition products and wellness programs for user safety and consumer protection.


The supplement industry is home to some amazing companies. It’s also home to plenty of bad companies.

Bad supplement companies illegally advertise health benefits. They charge inflated prices for low-quality products. They trick you into signing up for auto-ship programs, or they bombard you with shady and unnecessary emails.

Supplement companies get away with these tricks every day. We’re fighting back.

Today, we’re highlighting the most common tactics used by today’s worst supplement companies – and how to avoid those scams in 2020 and beyond.

Of course, there are always limitations to any scam list. The best defense against being taken advantage of in this growing industry is to use your common sense and frequently reference alternative sources to verify company claims and product offerings.

Let's review the top 20 most popular dietary supplement scam methods out there and elaborately explain how to avoid fraudulent nutritional products and wellness programs to ensure user safety and consumer protection.


Fake “Free” Trials

fake free trials

You don’t have to look far online to find “free trials” of certain supplements. A company may claim you can try a supplement risk free; all you have to do is pay for shipping, which is $5 or $10. You enter your credit card to pay the shipping costs, and your free supplement trial arrives in the mail a few days later.

Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, this free trial is often not actually free.

Instead, your trial period starts the moment you order the supplement. From that point, you have 14 days to receive the supplement, test it out, and send it back to the original manufacturer. If you do not return the supplement within the 14 day window, then your credit card will automatically be charged the full price of the item.

These free supplement trials were extremely popular in the early days of affiliate marketing, and they peaked from 2012 to 2016. Today, due to increased regulatory oversight, they’re less common, but they are still around and consumers should always be on the lookout.

How to Avoid It

Few people give away anything for free on the internet. If someone is offering you a free trial of anything online, then there’s probably a catch.

Read the fine print. Check the terms and conditions. Scan every word on the supplement’s order page to ensure there are no hidden charges.

Some supplement companies legitimately give away free samples. For example, a new company might provide free trials to generate interest in their product line. Be sure to read the terms and conditions before you enter payment info.

The Inflated Shipping Price Supplement Scam

Supplements are cheaper to make than you realize. In many cases, a $10 to $20 shipping fee covers the entire cost of manufacturing the item and shipping it to you.

A supplement might cost $50 + $10 shipping, for example. That may seem like a good deal. However, the supplement company is simply preparing itself for a refund. If you request a refund on your supplement, then the manufacturer will happily return the $50 retail price while keeping the $10 shipping fee. In reality, the manufacturer has still made money from you because of the inflated shipping cost.

How to Avoid It

Read the refund policy carefully before you buy any supplement online.

Check shipping costs carefully.

Additionally, consumers can avoid this scam by only doing business with companies that pay for shipping in the case of a customer return. Companies that charge a lot for shipping and force users to front the cost are most likely using it to recoup the costs of a potential refund.

The Hidden Shipping Cost Scam

This scam is similar to the inflated shipping cost scam. With this scam, your inflated shipping costs are built into the price of the supplement.

Let’s say the company charges $60 for a supplement. You buy it, but don’t like it. You request a refund, and you send back the bottle. The manufacturer sends you a refund for just $40 because $20 of the original cost of the item was for shipping. The refund explicitly says that shipping costs would not be refunded, but shipping costs were not disclosed on the ordering page. This gives manufacturers the ability to refund you as much (or as little) money as they like.

How to Avoid It

Read the refund policy carefully before you buy any supplement online. Check shipping costs carefully.

If a company does not offer to pay for shipping costs in the case of a return, and especially if they fail to pay for costs and charge an inflate shipping price, they are likely engaging in disreputable business practices and should be avoided.

Junk Science Scams

Picture this. You visit a supplement’s sales page. The page is filled with incredible claims about how this supplement has been linked to weight loss, higher IQ, and improved energy levels. The sales page seems legitimate: it links to studies done by names you recognize like Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. The studies are published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals.

However, supplement companies are taking advantage of one crucial fact: 99% of supplement buyers never read the studies.

Let’s say you read a line like this:

“In one 2006 study, researchers observed a 400% reduction in tumor cells after adding Supplement X”.

If you actually read the study, you might learn it involved cells in petri dishes, rats, or other animals. The study might have involved just 2 rats, for example, or 5 petri dishes filled with animal cells. Nobody has ever been able to repeat the results of the study, and the study is not significant in any way, shape, or form – but the supplement company still happily links to it knowing you won’t read the study.

How to Avoid It

The gold standard of scientific testing is double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In this trial, neither the researchers nor the participants know what’s going on. Some people receive the placebo treatment, while others receive the real treatment. Researchers observe the effects, reveal who took what, and then analyze the evidence.

Look for double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials performed in humans.

Take the time to read every study carefully to avoid being misled by bas science.

Inaccurate Dosage Scams

Dosage matters in the supplement industry. Some supplements contain all of the right ingredients, but at 1% of the dosage needed to achieve any benefits. Other supplements contain a dosage that’s proven to work in an average-sized human.

We’ve seen many supplements advertise an insane range of benefits. They claim their supplement can cure any disease or illness and provide incredible benefits. When you check the ingredient label, the supplement seems to have the right ingredients.

However, if you look at the dosage used in studies, you’ll find that the dosage is much larger than what can be found in the supplement. Your bodybuilding supplement might contain just 100mg of creatine, for example, when an average bodybuilder takes anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000mg of creatine per day.

How to Avoid It

Check the dosage used in your supplement. Compare it to the dosages recommended by medical professionals and scientific studies.

Ideally, the study used a dosage of 500mg of ingredient X, and your supplement contains exactly 500mg of ingredient X.

If the supplement’s dosage is lower, then the supplement may not be effective. If the dosage is higher, then the you may experience nasty side effects.

You should also always cross-reference the dosages used in cited supplement studies with the dosages included in the ingredient list to ensure that the benefits found in the study are achievable at the relevant product dosage.

The Proprietary Formula Scam

A good supplement clearly lists every ingredient and dosage on the label. However, many supplements hide dosages behind proprietary formulas – and this is perfectly legal.

A testosterone booster supplement might contain something like “5,000mg of the Alpha Male Matrix”. The ingredient label lists that the formula contains caffeine, tribulus terrestris, creatine, protein, and maca root. However, you don’t know the individual breakdown of each ingredient. The formula might contain mostly caffeine, for example to trick you into thinking you’re more energized and “manly” than before.

Some legitimate companies use proprietary labels to hide trade secrets. However, shady companies also take advantage of proprietary labels to hide low ingredient dosages.

How to Avoid It

Even good supplement manufacturers use proprietary formulas to protect trade secrets. Check the label: the proprietary formula still needs to list each ingredient in descending order. You don’t know the specific dosage of each ingredient, but the label still tells you something.

Avoiding proprietary formula scams can be tough. However, be sure to check ingredient label. Make sure you know the dosage of any important ingredient.

Avoiding proprietary formulas is particularly important if dealing with low-quality, unknown supplement manufacturers. However, if you trust the manufacturer, and the supplement is well-rated, then the proprietary formula might be okay. Avoid proprietary formulas from untrusted manufacturers.

Fake Positive Reviews Scams

The supplement industry is notorious for its fake reviews. In fact, it’s estimated that about 90% of supplement reviews you read online are fake or influenced in some way.

Some reviews are completely fake. The company has written the reviews themselves or paid an army of writers to write the reviews, for example.

Other reviews are influenced by the supplement company. The supplement company gives free samples to industry influencers with the understanding that they’ll leave a positive review for the product, for example.

How to Avoid It

Fake reviews are tough to avoid. They’re prevalent across the supplement space. You can find fake supplement reviews on Amazon, official company websites, and anywhere else supplements are sold.

I guarantee you’ve read a fake review without noticing it. Sure, there are obvious fake reviews, like someone writing “This supplement cured my cancer”. However, many reviews are indistinguishable from real reviews.

One way to spot fake reviews is to look for uniform language throughout a company's review section. If every poster is constructing their sentences in similar ways, or especially if they all share a common phrase or comment, this might be evidence of fake user reviews.

Fake Negative Review Scams

Similarly, some supplement companies flood competitors’ pages with fake negative reviews. You might see a supplement page filled with claims of unusual side effects, for example.

A reviewer might claim that a supplement was ineffective, for example. Or, a reviewer might claim that the supplement gave them warts all over their face.

How to Avoid It

The supplement industry is cutthroat. Supplement companies may do anything to get ahead.

Just like you should be wary of overly positive reviews, you should also be wary of overly negative reviews. Use similar precautions to ensure that you're given an accurate taste of a product's effectiveness through its reviews.

The Fake Press Release or News Alert Supplement Scam

You might get an alert in your email inbox one day saying something like, “Amazing new supplement treats 95% of diabetes symptoms”. Intrigued, you click on the link, then read a news article about this amazing new supplement.

The news article looks real. It appears to have been published by a legitimate news website.

However, the news article is just part of a marketing scheme. The supplement company has released a press release or sponsored news article that advertises the benefits of their supplement. The news article wasn’t written by a legitimate journalist: it’s just an advertisement for the company.

How to Avoid It

Be wary of news articles that sound overly promotional or “sales-y”. Legitimate journalists write objective news pieces.

Check the website you’re on to verify it’s a legitimate news website. See if there are other legitimate news articles on the site – or if it’s just a hub of advertorial pieces.

Illegally Advertising Health Benefits Scam

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits supplement companies from advertising health benefits. Supplements cannot claim to treat or prevent any type of disease or illness. Only drugs can do that.

A supplement cannot claim to “cure a headache” or “treat cancer”, for example.

However, a supplement can claim to “help maintain a normal immune system” or “support digestive function”.

Many supplement companies toe the line here, pushing FDA regulations as far as they can go. They’ll claim to “reverse diabetes permanently”, for example, instead of specifically saying “cure diabetes”. Effectively, these two phrases mean the same thing – but one is illegal by FDA regulations and the other is not.

How to Avoid It

Supplement companies are not allowed to advertise supplements as a way to treat or prevent any disease or illness. If a supplement is advertising itself as a treatment or preventative measure, then that supplement could be violating FDA regulations.

Legitimate supplement companies do not advertise any health benefits. Shady supplement companies will walk a fine line. If any supplement claims to “reverse” an illness or disease, it’s a sign you’re being scammed.

Extreme Weight Loss Claims

We get it. You want to lose a lot of weight quickly. Every day, millions of people Google things like “lose weight loss fast” or “fast weight loss by tomorrow”. These people want quick solutions to their weight loss problems.

Supplement manufacturers are happy to advertise these solutions. Many diet pills make insane promises about their effectiveness. They claim you can drop 20 pounds in 10 days just by taking a pill twice a day, for example, or help you lose weight with no changes in diet or exercise.

The vast majority of diet pills are scams. Diet pills that advertise exaggerated wight loss benefits are even more likely to be scams.

How to Avoid It

There’s only one substantiated way to lose weight: maintain a caloric deficit. The best way to get a caloric deficit is to stop eating. The second best (and most realistic way) to maintain a caloric deficit is to eat a healthy diet and exercise more frequently. That’s it.

Of course, there are plenty of diet pills that work as advertised. Many diet pills help you maintain a caloric deficit. They help you burn more weight, for example, or encourage you to eat less food by suppressing your appetite.

All Natural Supplement Scams

Many supplements claim to be “all natural”, although there’s not really a good definition for what’s natural and what is not natural.

You could argue that anything found in the natural world is “natural”, for example. In that case, arsenic, tobacco, stevia, and petroleum are all natural products.

How to Avoid It

Be wary when a supplement makes a big deal of the fact that it’s “all natural”. For most supplements, this is a meaningless buzzword designed to convince you the supplement is plucked from a beautiful forest – when in reality it’s made in a lab like all other supplements.

Many supplements do use natural ingredients, and there's nothing wrong with pointing this fact out. But consumers do need to be aware that this does not imply a type of natural harvesting process; their products still likely get made within a laboratory and packaged within a packaging plant.

Organic Supplement Scams

Many supplements are labeled as “organic”, although few supplements meet this definition. In fact, “organic” has become almost as meaningless in the supplement space as “all natural”.

If your supplement is not certified organic by a reputable organization (like the USDA), then the organic label is meaningless. There’s limited control over what’s organic and what is not organic. Many supplements just slap a green “organic” label because they know it will increase sales by 20% – even though there’s nothing organic about the supplement.

There’s one problem: the USDA doesn’t certify certain organic supplements. Cannabis manufacturers, for example, struggle to get USDA certification.

How to Avoid It

Don’t just trust the word “organic” on a supplement label. Verify what that label means. Look for USDA organic certification, for example, or certification by another trusted regulatory body.

“FDA Approved” Supplement Scams

Many supplements claim to be “approved by the FDA”.

In reality, the FDA has not approved any specific supplements. Instead, all supplements can only contain ingredients that have previously been approved by the FDA. The FDA has a list of hundreds of ingredients that can be added to supplements. It’s illegal for supplements to use other ingredients without the permission of the FDA.

How to Avoid It

When a supplement claims to be “FDA approved”, it’s almost certainly a scam. No legitimate supplement company labels their products as “FDA approved”. It’s a sign you’re dealing with a shady company willing to say anything to make a quick buck. Supplement companies are well aware that the FDA has never approved any supplements.

No supplement in the United States will ever be FDA approved.

Automatic Shipment Scams

Many shady online supplement retailers use automatic shipment scams – or autoship scams. With these scams, a customer orders one supplement, but the company continues shipping new products to the customer every month – and charging the customer’s credit card on file.

Let’s say you buy one bottle of a supplement online. You get the supplement, use it for a month, and decide not to re-order it. Then, another bottle of the supplement arrives in the mail. You check your credit card, and there’s another charge of $50. The supplement company has automatically charged your credit card and sent you another bottle. You need to contact the company to cancel your automatic shipments.

How to Avoid It

Autoship scams may seem illegal. However, many supplement companies hide this information in plain sight. Read the fine print, check the ordering terms and conditions, and look for any other information on the sales page.

If you have already ordered a supplement and realized you signed up for the autoship program accidentally, then call the company immediately to cancel it.

If the company refuses to cancel the order or refund it, then call your credit card company. Supplement companies are terrified of angering credit card companies or dealing with chargebacks.

Supplements with Unrealistic Benefits

In case you needed to hear it, there’s no supplement in the world that will permanently increase the size of your penis. It’s never going to happen.

Despite this seemingly obvious fact, supplement companies make millions from penis enlargement supplements every year.

Many other supplements come with equally unrealistic benefits. They claim to make you taller, for example, skyrocket your testosterone, or

How to Avoid It

Don’t chase unrealistic health benefits online. Most supplements aren’t proven to work, and they’re certainly not proven to increase your penis size, make you taller, boost your testosterone, or achieve other unrealistic benefits.

Managing your expectations is a good way to approach any medical treatment, but it is especially important when dealing with supplement health benefits, which are often contested and heavily debated within the scientific community.

Testosterone Booster Scams

95% of testosterone boosters available today are scams. Most testosterone boosters do not contain any ingredients proven to boost your testosterone.

In fact, very few foods or beverages have been proven to raise testosterone in a reliable way. There are plenty of foods and supplements that have been shown to raise libido or widen blood vessels, which can trick you into thinking you have higher testosterone.

Some supplements have been shown to support healthy testosterone levels. If your testosterone levels are low due to diet or exercise problems, for example, then taking a supplement (and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine) can legitimately raise your testosterone.

For most people, however, the best way to raise testosterone is to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine. That’s it.

How to Avoid It

Unless you’re taking anabolic steroids, you’re probably not going to increase your testosterone with any type of food, drug, or beverage.

Most testosterone boosters are scams that will have no impact on your body. Even the ones that seem to work don’t actually raise testosterone; they just widen your blood vessels or trigger your libido, tricking you into thinking your testosterone is higher.

Omega 3 Fatty Acid Supplement Scams

Omega 3 fatty acid supplements are extremely popular. However, they’re not as proven as you think. In fact, several large studies on humans have shown that omega 3 fatty acid supplements are no better than a placebo.

This study published in JAMA in 2012, for example, found that omega 3 supplementation was not associated with a lower risk of death from heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.

Meanwhile, this study published in JAMA analyzed the effects of omega 3 supplements over a long trial period. Researchers found that omega 3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline or reduce the progression of macular degeneration, which is a major cause of vision loss among older Americans. That study involved 3,000 people over a five year period.

How to Avoid It

Some people continue to believe in omega 3 fatty acid supplements – and there is some evidence showing these supplements work as advertised. However, be wary of omega 3 fatty acid supplements that make exaggerated claims about their health benefits.

Garcinia Cambogia, Acai Berry, Raspberry Ketones, and Other Trendy Ingredient Scams

Every year, there’s a new trendy supplement ingredient that makes headlines across the industry. In 2009, it was acai berry. In 2015, it was garcinia cambogia.

Supplement companies love when a new ingredient comes along to disrupt the space. Suddenly, a supplement that sold for $5 per bottle now sells for $60 per bottle. Supplement companies gleefully advertise the benefits of these trendy ingredients, selling it to you for the highest possible price.

In reality, even the trendiest ingredients are rarely proven to work as advertised. There are no large scale human studies showing that garcinia cambogia, acai berry, or raspberry ketones will lead to weight loss, for example.

Typically what happens is that one study comes out with promising benefits. Or, someone like Dr. Oz randomly mentions an ingredient on his show. There’s still no evidence that the ingredient works as advertised, but now the world has heard about it – and there’s no stopping the surge now.

How to Avoid It

Most trendy diet pill ingredients are complete scams.

At best, these pills have no effect on your body and are not proven to work as advertised. At worst, the pills contain dangerous levels of caffeine (or worse ingredients) that trick you into thinking the ingredients work.

Dr. Oz Supplement Scams

Dr. Oz is a controversial figure in the supplement space. Dr. Oz may be a renowned heart surgeon, but he’s infamous for touting unproven cures oil to millions of his gullible viewers through The Dr. Oz Show.

Supplement companies take advantage of this behavior. Today, you can find plenty of supplement companies that claim to be “endorsed by Dr. Oz”, for example.

Several years ago, Dr. Oz fought back against these companies that were dragging his name through the mud. He started to take legal action against them.

Supplement companies found a clever workaround. Today, they say things like “endorsed by a famous TV doctor” or “as mentioned by a famous TV doctor”. They’re not mentioning Dr. Oz by name, but readers assume.

How to Avoid It

If a supplement mentions Dr. Oz on its website, it’s probably a scam. There are few exceptions to this rule.

Take the information Dr. Oz shares on his show with a grain of salt. While some of it is backed by science, other information is not. Always consult with your healthcare provider before buying into any new scientific community.

Final Thoughts

Supplement scams cost consumers over $4 billion every year. Even the best supplement manufacturers sell unproven products.

By following our tips above and learning to recognize supplement scams today, you can avoid being scammed by a shady supplement company. Use your common sense, manage your expectations, and take the advice of your doctor to guarantee you don't become one of the millions of annual supplement scam victims.

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