The Internet offers consumers a vast global marketplace, which is really cool. Personally, I like rare audio recordings by obscure artists, and the net comes to the rescue more often than not. And talk about the savings! I recently purchase a television wall-mount for 60% less than Costco wanted for the same item! Yay me.

But at the same time, we see an endless stream of scams, and hacks, and other problems. One of the perennial things is snake oil. The term usually defines useless stuff pretending to be medicine, and is historically attributed to hucksters who sold the stuff door-to-door in the early 1900s (As an aside, an interesting historical note: Harlan Sanders sold his chicken recipe door-to-door until self-promoting himself to Colonel and making the big-time with Kentucky-fried poultry).

This snippet from Wikipedia refers to one of the first lawsuits against snake oil vendors:

The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.

The United States government in 1917 tested Stanley’s snake oil—produced by Clark Stanley, the “Rattlesnake King”. It was found to contain:

  • Mineral oil
  • 1% fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat)
  • Red pepper
  • Turpentine
  • Camphor

This is similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments or chest rubs.

None of the oil content was found to have been extracted from any actual snakes.

The government sued the manufacturer for misbranding and misrepresenting its product, winning the judgment of $20 against Clark Stanley. Soon after the decision, “snake oil” became synonymous with false cures and “snake-oil salesmen” became a tag for charlatans.


But of course, those were the olden days, and people would be so foolish in these sophisticated times, now would they?

Well, witness the backlash to Anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, who asked a simple question on Twitter, and got an earful of venom sent back to her.

Jenny McCarthy asks Twitter a question and gets schooled on her anti-vaccination nonsense – National Post March 17, 2014

“Dr.” Jenny McCarthy

Dr. Jenny McCarthy

Witness the backlash live on Twitter – check out the hashtag #JennyAsks


As well, famous television weight loss snake oil scammer Kevin Trudeau was recently convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for defrauding his victims.

Kevin Trudeau Sentenced to 10 Years In Prison – NBC, March 17, 2014

“Dr.” Kevin Trudeau



Someone suggested to me that ‘”The Weight Loss Cure They Don’t Want You to Know About” is probably prison food, which should keep Mr. Trudeau nice and slim for the next decade.


I subscribe to a newsfeed published by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and I was taken aback at how many actions they have taken against Snake Oil, mostly online sales, in these past three months. As you can see, pills for weight-loss, and what is euphemistically referred to as ‘men’s health’, are extremely popular.


Most of this garbage can even be readily found at legitimate on-line retailers like eBay and Amazon; a healthy dose of skepticism is what you need when buying a potentiation to make your belly smaller, or your body-parts larger.

One great source of information is Montreal’s McGill University’s Office for Science & Society run by Dr. Joe Schwarcz. He devotes his career to solid, science-backed advice on healthy living and debunking snake oil salesmen, kind of like the James Randi of the food and health set.

We encourage you to check out Dr. Joe’s website here, his Facebook page here, and his radio show here.

As the character Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there!”