States, feds shut down cancer charities

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/20/2015.

PDF: Feds all 50 states shut down cancer charities

Mississippi has joined with the other 49 states and the District of Columbia in charging four national cancer charities with defrauding consumers of more than $187 million.

The action, announced in a Tuesday news conference, is one of the most sweeping charity-fraud enforcement actions ever announced. The complaint was filed in a U.S. District Court in Arizona. And several settlements were filed concurrently with the complaint in which defendants agreed to pay a combined more than $135 million with another more than $100 million suspended if penalties are paid.

The organizations included: Cancer Fund of America Inc.; Cancer Support Services Inc., Children’s Cancer Fund of America Inc. and The Breast Cancer Society Inc. Officials also singled out several individuals associated with each of the four organizations.

The organizations and key officials are accused of preying on the sympathies of potential donors to raise money to help cancer patients, but instead using most of the money to benefit charity staff, families and friends, and fundraisers.

“Defendants, four sham charities and the individuals who run them, have engaged in a massive, nationwide fraud, telling generous Americans that their contributions will help people suffering from cancer, but instead, spending the overwhelming majority of donated funds supporting the Individual Defendants, their families and friends, and their fundraisers,” wrote the officials in the scathing introduction of their court case.

“Mississippians are the most generous in the nation,” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said in response to the filing. “We deserve to have our contributions utilized correctly by any entity who is representing themselves as a charity.”

Noted Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in a news release: “The allegations of fundraising for personal gain in the name of children with cancer and women battling breast cancer are simply shameful. This is the first time the FTC, all 50 states, and the District of Columbia have filed a joint enforcement action alleging deceptive solicitations by charities, and I hope it serves as a strong warning for anyone trying to exploit the kindness and generosity of others.”

According to the FTC, the defendants used telemarketing calls, direct mail, websites and materials distributed by the Combined Federal Campaign, which raises money from federal employees for nonprofit organizations, to portray themselves as legitimate charities with substantial programs that provided direct support to cancer patients in the United States, such as pain medication, transportation to chemotherapy and hospice care. In fact, the complaint alleges these claims were deceptive and that the charities “operated as personal fiefdoms characterized by rampant nepotism, flagrant conflicts of interest, and excessive insider compensation, with none of the financial and governance controls that any bona fide charity would have adopted.”

The organizations are accused of providing “lucrative employment for family members and friends,” as well as spending donations on cars, trips, cruises, college tuition, gym memberships and other perks. Professional fundraisers were said to have kept as much as 85 cents on the donated dollar, and to have used deceptive fundraising materials provided by the organizations, running afoul of several laws that regulate fundraising and telemarketing activities.

“When charities lie to donors, it is our duty to step in to protect them,” South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond said in the news release. “At the same time, however, this historic action should remind everyone to be vigilant when giving to charity. This case is an unfortunate example of why I always tell my constituents to give from the heart, but give smart.”

The proposed final orders include a variety of penalties, including steep fines, liquidation of assets and bans against the individuals’ future association with charity organizations. In some cases, some operations will be spun off to existing charitable organizations.

“Cancer is a debilitating disease that impacts millions of Americans and their families every year. The defendants’ egregious scheme effectively deprived legitimate cancer charities and cancer patients of much-needed funds and support,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in the news release.

For more on the action, including an informative infographic, visit http://www.ftc.gov.

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/19/2015.

When it comes to skin cancer, old advice is best

Every year, around 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States. By some estimates, one in every five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some time in our lives, many of them deadly. Melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, claims more than 9,000 lives each year. But along with the grim statistics is the good news that many skin cancers are highly treatable, if caught early (98 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.)

Oncologists, dermatologists and advocacy groups have for years focused on covering your skin, avoiding sun exposure and unnecessary exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, and detecting skin cancer early by examining moles and other potential problem areas.

So, given the increasing awareness of skin cancer and ubiquity of smartphones, it was probably inevitable that someone would find a way to bring the two together. In recent months, several smartphone apps have hit the market, based on the idea that if you can find a potential skin cancer early, you can get treatment. Two apps in particular (MelApp and Mole Detective) allowed you to take a photo of a suspicious mole, enter a few pieces of information, and it would tell you if the moles could potentially be dangerous.

Such apps could only be good, right? Not so fast. Federal regulators say the apps’ marketers couldn’t scientifically support their claims to be able to determine if a mole is potentially cancerous, and could even mislead consumers who should really see a health professional. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Monday announced settlements with two makers of Mole Detective and MelApp. The apps were sold on the Apple Store and in other app marketplaces for a few dollars.

The settlements prohibit the companies from claiming that their products can detect or diagnose melanoma, “unless the representation is truthful, not misleading, and supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing of the device.” Both companies will have to pay relatively small fines from the settlement.

“Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

According to a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), (http://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1557488) smartphone apps often erred in classifying moles, missing 30 percent or more of melanomas as “unconcerning”. “Reliance on these applications, which are not subject to regulatory oversight, in lieu of medical consultation can delay the diagnosis of melanoma and harm users,” wrote the study’s authors.

FTC Commissioners Edith Ramirez, Julie Brill and Terrell McSweeney noted in a separate statement that new technology should be backed up by sounds science.  “Technologies such as health-related mobile apps have the potential to provide tremendous conveniences and benefits to consumers,” they noted. “However, the same rules of the road apply to all media and technologies – advertisers must have substantiation to back up their claims. The Commission will continue to hold advertisers accountable for the promises they make to consumers, especially when they pertain to diseases and other serious health conditions.”

So it seems that until technology advances to the point it is as good as the trained eyes and hands of a physician, if you think you may be at risk for skin cancer, the old advice is the best: don’t wait; your next call should be to your doctor.

Consumer watch: Don’t be ‘Pinkwashed’

via Consumer watch: Don’t be ‘Pinkwashed’.

Go to the grocery store these days, and it looks as though a bottle of Pepto-Bismol has exploded. Pink is everywhere; it’s on yogurt lids, chicken buckets and paper towels. Even the National Football League(!!) is getting in on the action.

Behind this pink flood is a cause: since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a good opportunity to focus on the need to raise awareness of this disease which costs thousands of lives each year. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, about 440 Mississippians die each year from breast cancer.

So, a few years ago, a few companies started a cause-related marketing campaign to bring attention to the cause and support some charities — especially at first the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. It took off, and in a big way. Komen and other organizations have raised millions using this strategy.

As with any good idea, a lot of people and companies want on the “pink” bandwagon, because getting on board with a good cause can mean big awareness…and big bucks. (Just think back a few weeks, when everybody was dumping ice-cold water on their heads; suddenly everyone was trying to get in on the action.) But all of this supposedly well-intentioned pinkage has also caused some concerns; how do consumers know whether a company is actually donating to the cause, and how much?

This phenomenon has taken on the title of “Pinkwashing” (implying that even bad companies can hide behind a veneer of goodwill). Groups have even sprung up to battle the hype. Breast Cancer Action, on its “Think Before Pink” website, claims that, although a lot of companies use pink in their marketing campaigns, some of those don’t donate a dime to breast cancer research. In addition, the group warns, it distracts from the true cause, building “shallow awareness,” spreading misinformation about the disease and even promoting products that might actually be causing cancer, not fighting it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column warning consumers to be careful before jumping in on the “pink” bandwagon; it’s time for a refresher.

You might argue we are really just talking about a few cents here and there, but it adds up. Remember, it’s your money, so it’s worth doing your homework.

The Better Business Bureau has a lot of good information in this news release.Here are some additional tips:

First of all, take any claims with a grain of salt. Remember, anybody can slap a sticker on a product if it will make you more likely to buy it. So check out the claims before you buy. Any reputable company should be willing and able to tell you how much they have donated and when. If they won’t tell you, keep looking.

Don’t choose a charity based on a marketing promotion. If you’re basing your choice of a charity to support on the beauty of their packaging, many experts warn it’s probably not a wise way to do it. Without knowing the charity’s track record, what they do with the money, and how much they actually give to the cause, you could be throwing away your money. Instead, go to one of the charity watchdogs, such as the BBB Wise Giving Alliance or Charity Navigator.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance has a list of 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability, which examines the percentage of money a charity spends on programs, its governance, fund-raising, informational materials and effectiveness. AndCharity Navigator has a list of charities that claim to support breast cancer research, and how they actually stack up.

Keep it local. Just about every church, temple or synagogue knows people who are battling breast cancer. Many hospitals have support groups, and often, people who are fighting breast cancer have specific organizations they trust and support, so do your homework.

And how about this for an impact; instead of making a donation to a national organization, perhaps you could find one of these people and help them directly, or let them tell you where they would like you to help. One of the best compliments you can give someone is to support a cause they love. It’s just one man’s opinion, but that’s how to make a real difference

How good is that sunscreen you bought today?

via Consumer Watch: How good is that sunscreen you bought today?, clarionledger.com, 5/27/2014

With millions of Americans hitting the backyard barbecue or the sandy beaches this holiday weekend, there is going to be a lot of the familiar pungent smell of sunscreen. Americans purchase millions of bottles of sunscreen each year to battle the effects of too much sunshine.

Fears of melanoma and other sun-related health issues have been largely responsible for driving up the demand for sunscreen in recent years. Indeed, it’s a risk to which we should pay attention: The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that as much as 90 percent of melanomas are related to ultraviolet exposure from the sun.

Conventional wisdom holds that, the higher the “SPF” (Sun Protection Factor) number on the container, the more protection you get. However, there is much more to the story than a simple number. Recently, Consumer Reports published an article about sunscreens, putting 20 popular brands to the test to determine their effectiveness and conducting a survey of adults to see how much they really understand about sunscreens and the risk of problems later.

But first, a little science. The sun generates massive amounts of radiation in its 27-million-degree core, much of which fortunately is intercepted by the earth’s atmosphere. (Otherwise, we’d cook.) Some radiation does make it through, however, and keeps the earth warm enough to sustain life. It’s also critical to our health that we get some sun exposure; solar radiation helps our bodies create necessary vitamins, and sun exposure has even been linked to a chemical that protects us against heart attacks.

However, too much of anything can be harmful. Scientists have found that there are two basic types of UV radiation from the sun which can be dangerous: UVA and UVB. Sunburns are caused by UVB, while aging and wrinkling are largely caused by UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin. Both have been linked to skin cancer.

Consumer Reports noted that people are confused by SPF ratings. There is a fairly complicated set of variables that go into an SPF number. Logically, it would seem that a SPF-100 sunscreen would be twice as effective as a 50-SPF sunscreen. However, that’s not true. Typically, the report notes, an SPF-50 sunscreen will shield you from 98 percent of UVB rays, while the SPF-100 product will shield you from 99 percent of UVB rays. It’s a small difference, which probably doesn’t justify the significantly-higher price.

Here are some of Consumer Reports’ other findings:

· Don’t assume that if a sunscreen is “for kids”, it’s gentler. Although a lot of adults buy kids’ sunscreen products because they believe they’re gentler and safer, the FDA actually doesn’t recognize that distinction, so basically there is no way (other than taking the package claims at face value) to determine whether this is actually true.

· Most people misuse sunscreen. Nearly a third said they wait until they’re in the sun to put on sunscreen. But sunscreen needs 15-30 minutes of advance time to absorb and begin working before you go out into the sun.

· We’re not using enough. Experts say it takes about one ounce of sunscreen, or about two tablespoonfuls, to cover your face and body. Most people only use half that much, so they don’t get full protection.

· Although Consumer Reports tested 20 sunscreen products, they would recommend only seven. And only two of those: BullFrog WaterArmor Sport InstaCool SPF 50+ and Coppertone Sensitive Skin SPF 50 — actually provided the level of SPF protection promised on their labels after being immersed in water. However, most sunscreen products will provide at least some protection from the sun, so something is better than nothing.

· Some products in sunscreen might be potential health hazards. For example, titanium dioxide, which is present in some spray-on sunscreen products, is a potential carcinogen.

Below are the seven sunscreen products recommended by Consumer Reports:

  • Banana Boat Ultra Defense Max Skin Protect SPF 110 (overall score of 99/100) — $11.99
  • BullFrog WaterArmor Sport InstaCool SPF 50+ (95/100) — $10.43
  • Neutrogena Ultimate Sport SPF 70+ (93/100) — $9.59
  • Up & Up (Target) Sport SPF 50 (90/100) — $7.99
  • Well at Walgreens Sport SPF 50 (87/100) — $8.29
  • Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 (81/100) — $10.99
  • Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 (80/100) — $9

So, here are a few practical tips for using sunscreen, from the American Cancer Society, which has a great infographic.

Look for broad-spectrum protection (both UVA and UVB), of at least SPF 30. It should be water resistant and provide 40 minutes of total protection. And check the date: sunscreen can expire.

Apply it generously. One ounce (about a palmful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck and face. Don’t forget your ears, hands, feet and underarms.

Reapply at least every two hours, more often if you’re dipping in the water or sweating.

Think before pink

via Think before pink | Consumer Watch, clarionledger.com, 5/3/2013

Pink is big business these days — and I’m not talking about the singer. The color pink has recently become synonymous with breast cancer charities, and it seems corporate America has gotten into the act. While much of the money being donated around everything from pink planes to pink windshield covers is going to benefit known breast cancer research and support programs, donors shouldn’t assume that their money is actually going to the cause they want.

Yesterday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman obtained a court’s consent to shut down Campaign Center, Inc., a fund-raising firm affiliated with a charity called the Coalition Against Breast Cancer. The bogus charity raised around $10 million in donations supposedly to fund cancer research, but records show that the company spent just $632.00 for a total of 40 mammograms in that same period.

The ruling [PDF] bars Campaign Center and its owner from charitable fundraising in the state, and orders both the company and owner to pay restitution to victims of the scam; the amount will be determined at a hearing scheduled for May 20. The Coalition Against Breast Cancer has already reached a separate agreement with the AG’s office to repay $1.55 million in restitution.

According to the AG’s investigation, Campaign Center was the principal fundraiser for the Coalition and kept up to 85% of the money raised for the supposed charity. Investigators learned that CABC, in spite of its purported goal of cancer research, outreach, and education, was not affiliated with any cancer institution, and spent less than one-half of 1% of donations on anything related to breast cancer prevention or detection. (Consumerist.com)

The story of this “charity” is an object lesson into why donors should exercise extreme caution before giving to a cause. Donors should thoroughly check out the charity’s track record. There are several good ways to do this online, for example through the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and Guidestar. Also, check out charities through the Secretary of State’s Office. It’s your money. Please, think before you go pink!

– See more at: http://web.archive.org/web/20130601161002/http://blogs.clarionledger.com/consumerwatch/2013/05/03/think-before-pink/#sthash.wY28zW89.dpuf