Zika Scams: How Some Businesses Use Zika Outbreak to Sell False Hope

With rising fears of the Zika virus comes rising fraud.

Couple of days ago, August 3rd, news channels reported that at least 41 U.S. service members have contracted the Zika virus.

The same day, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a press release warning consumers of products that falsely claim to prevent or protect against Zika.

The release gives the names of seven products that Schneiderman’s office have written to demand that they cease-and-desist their deceptive advertising, including:

  • Wildheart Outdoors Natural Mosquito Repellent Bracelet
  • MosQUITo Repellent Bracelet Wristband Band
  • Neor Mosquito Repellent Bracelet
  • Kenza High Quality Zika Mosquito Repellent Smiley Patch
  • Mobile Pro Gear ZIKA Shield Mosquito Repellent Bands
  • STAR Ultrasonic Pest Repeller
  • iGear iGuard 2.0 Ultrasonic Insect Pest Repellent

Schneiderman also says that he understands New Yorkers are afraid, and looking for ways to protect themselves and their families, but warns that these companies are taking advantage of consumer’s fears by selling a false sense of security for a very real threat.

At this time, there is no cure for the Zika virus – and products claiming to be cures are deceptive.
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While the seven companies that have been called out might heed the Attorney General’s demands, our experience with similar Ebola-prevention scams leads us to believe that battling scammers is like fighting a hydra: for every head you cut off, more appear.

To help you better protect your family (and your wallet), here’s a list of what kinds of mosquito protection products don’t work, followed by instructions on how to build a Center for Disease Control (CDC)-approved Zika prevention kit. But first…

What Is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus—which you can get from mosquitoes or from having sex with an infected person—is linked to severe birth defects in infected expectant mothers, most notably microcephaly in babies, a condition where the head is unusually small.

If you’re not pregnant, there’s only a one-in-five chance of showing symptoms of a Zika infection, which include fever, rash, and red eyes. Despite that Zika doesn’t pose a serious risk to those not expecting, there’s growing fear over the risk of infected individuals introducing the Zika virus into new regions as they travel from one area to another.

Related: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Zika Virus & Travel

According to The Washington Post, as of August 1st, there have been 1,661 reported cases in the continental U.S. and 4,728 cases in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa—meaning that the only way you haven’t heard of the Zika virus is if you’ve been living under a rock. Moving on...

Don’t Waste Your Money on These Zika-Prevention Products

Information is your first line of defense against unscrupulous businesses selling products that promise to prevent or protect you from the Zika virus. Here’s a list of what to watch out for:

Zika wristbandImage via Amazon. Has since been removed.

Mosquito Repellent Wristbands and Clip-Ons 

Consumers looking for a less messy (and smelly) alternative to bug spray might find themselves considering the many wristbands or devices that claim to repel mosquitoes by diffusing natural or chemical repellents in the air.

These mosquito repellent products are sold everywhere, including superstores like Kmart, Walmart, and Target. To use, you either place the band around your wrist, or clip the diffuser to your belt or chair, and supposedly enjoy a several-foot bubble of protection.

But there are several reasons why mosquito repellent bracelets and clip-ons just don’t work.

Many of these products use essential oils, including geranium, rosemary, lemongrass or even the popular citronella to ward off mosquitoes—but these oil-based repellents aren’t considered effective by the CDC.

Additionally, because they’re considered to pose minimal risk to people or the environment, the Food and Drug Administration imposes fewer regulations on the companies that use them, including that they’re not required to submit their products for a rigorous scientific review.

That isn’t to say that the FDA just lets egregious claims slide. The agency charged the makers of “Mosquito Shield Bands”—whose wristbands contained mint oil that allegedly made a five-foot bug barrier—with marketing in a deceptive manner, without “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to prove their claims, in 2015.

According to Joseph Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, even if a bracelet or clip-on had effective bug spray in it, there’s no way that it could emit enough repellent to protect your whole body.

Natural Mosquito RepellentsImage via Consumer Reports

Natural Mosquito Repellents

Natural mosquito repellents claim to offer chemical-free protection that’s equal to DEET. Very simply, they don’t.

Consumer Reports tested the five natural repellents shown above—All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor, Burt's Bees Herbal, California Baby Natural Bug Blend, Cutter Natural, and EcoSmart Organic—and found that they lasted one hour or less against Aedes mosquitoes. (That’s the kind that can spread Zika.)

It’s also worth noting that, despite its name, EcoSmart Organic does not contain certified organic ingredients or bear the Department of Agriculture's organic seal.

According to Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett, “The only products that provide effective protection from mosquito bites contain DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, and an insect repellent called IR3535—all other products are a waste of money and may put you at risk of being bitten.”

Instead of reaching for an all-natural product, the New York Attorney General advised consumers to look for EPA-registered insect repellents containing at least one of the following active ingredients:

  1. DEET
  2. Picaridin (also known as KBR 3023, Bayrepel and icaridin)
  3. IR3535
  4. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
  5. Para-Menthane-Diol

Also, be warned of repellents that claim to be specifically formulated to protect against Zika.

For example, a website called ‘anti-zika.com’ (that’s since been taken down) was offering $6 ‘anti-zika’ repellent with a formula that they claimed to be specifically designed to combat the Zika virus. The website said that their product had similar ingredients to mainstream brands, but no details about their ‘specifically designed’ formula were given.

If you’re unsure which repellent to buy, view this PDF to see a list of EPA-registered insect repellents, including their active ingredient and how many hours of protection each can provide. Consumers should note that only products containing an EPA-registered insect repellent have been recommended by the CDC as the safe and effective way of protecting against the Zika virus.

Don’t like the idea of bug spray? In Is That Going to Kill You? Why Our Fear of Chemicals In Cosmetics Is Unfounded, we talk about why chemicals don’t deserve their bad rap.

Ultrasonic Mosquito Repellent Devices​Image via DHGate

Ultrasonic Mosquito Repellent Devices

Ultrasonic mosquito repelling devices sound like a brilliant idea, promising to keep you pest free without smelly lotions, chemical gases, smoke, or rolled-up newspapers. Unfortunately, these high-tech-sounding devices don’t do diddly – something that scientists confirmed almost five years ago.

A 2010 review article examined 10 field studies, in which ultrasonic repellent devices had been put to the test, and concluded that they “have no effect on preventing mosquito bites” and “should not be recommended or used.”

The reviewer even went to so far as to say, “Given these findings from 10 carefully conducted studies, it would not be worthwhile to conduct further research on EMRs [electronic mosquito repellents] in preventing mosquitoes biting or in trying to prevent the acquisition of malaria.”

It’s worth noting that the FTC is also investigating several ultrasonic repellers for false advertising. Despite conclusive evidence that ultrasonic mosquito repellent devices don’t work, companies keep on making them.

Today, dozens of apps claiming they can turn smartphones into mobile mosquito repellents are available to download for Apple and Android handsets. As you can see from the above video, they’re just as utterly ineffective.

Anti-Zika Condoms

Capitalizing on the potential to spread Zika through sexual activity, Australian company, Starpharma Holdings Ltd. is marketing a condom that they claim will help provide additional protection against the virus. They’ve even arranged to supply the Australian Olympic team with their product during this summer’s games.

However, they may have jumped the gun. According to MarketWatch, Starpharma admits that it hasn’t applied for, or been given, regulatory certification for use against Zika.

The CDC has stated that there’s no evidence that anti-Zika condoms protect against the virus any better than ordinary ones. Not only is there no proof that anti-Zika condoms aid in prevention, but there’s also some suspicion that the antiviral used could increase your risk of transmitting HIV.

The CDC adds that, when used correctly, standard condoms should prevent transmission. If you’re concerned about transmitting Zika through sexual activity, learn more about what the agency advises here.

Mosquito-Control Spray Scams 

As Zika spreads, more homeowners are calling pest extermination companies who offer chemical control methods like fogging. This has led to a spike in unlicensed mosquito-spraying contractors to start advertising their services.

To avoid hiring a fly-by-night fumigator, the CDC urges consumers everywhere to verify that a contractor is licensed by their home state. Consumer Reports offers up some additional questions to ask when screening a prospective exterminator:

  1. Do you have a plan to protect non-target organisms? The chemicals used when spraying for mosquitoes can also kill insects that are beneficial to your garden, including ladybugs, bees, and butterflies. A professional sprayer should be able to tell you their strategy to minimize the drift of chemicals into areas that aren’t at risk for mosquito breeding.
  2. Do you make follow-up visits to ensure that your treatment worked? Professional pest control companies will take steps to follow up and confirm that their services worked to reduce your pest problem.
  3. Do you use a misting system? According to Consumer Reports, these systems aren’t EPA-approved, and can actually contribute to insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.

Of course, the first question should be to see any pest control company’s license or certification (which should be current) to ensure that they meet the legal requirements for a pest control business.

How to Build a CDC-Approved Zika Prevention Kit

If you’re concerned about contracting Zika and would like to take steps beyond regularly applying bug spray, the CDC has compiled a list of items that can help reduce your risk:

1. A Bed Net

The kind of gauzy nets that hang over your bed, mosquito bed netting is a useful secondary line of defense for those who sleep in a room that isn’t well sealed.

2. Standing Water Treatment Tabs

These tablets can be used to kill mosquito larvae in any standing water around your home, such as toilet tanks in an infrequently used bathroom. When used correctly, they aren’t harmful to pets. However, you should never use treatment tabs in water that you drink.

3. Permethrin Spray

This is an insect-killing repellent that can be applied to your clothing for additional repelling power. Some brands offer protection that lasts weeks, or until the item is washed. Note that, due to the strong chemicals used in Permethrin spray, it should only be applied to your clothing for extra protection against mosquitoes – never directly spray the product onto your skin.

The CDC also suggests ordinary (not anti-Zika) condoms for anyone who is concerned about the transmission of Zika through sexual activity. However, they caution that there’s still much we don’t know about the virus, and the only surefire protection is abstinence.

Remember, Only Buy Insect Repellent With EPA-Approved Ingredients 

At this time, there is no cure for the Zika virus – and products claiming to be cures are deceptive. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced that researchers are working on a vaccine. However, the earliest it will be released is 2018.

EPA-approved active ingredientsImage via CDC

The CDC states that, for now, your best possible Zika protection remains a repellent with DEET or one of the other four EPA-approved ingredients, and provides the following tips for proper application:

  • Always follow directions on the package.
  • Use only an EPA-registered insect repellent.
  • Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
  • If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen first and insect repellent second.
  • When used as directed, these insect repellents are proven safe and effective even for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

For further information on how to best protect yourself from mosquito bites, visit the CDC Prevent Mosquito Bites page.

How to Best Protect Yourself From Anti-Zika Scams?

As we mentioned above, information is your first line of defense. We’ll update this page with new anti-Zika scams as we’re made aware. However, the chances are high that you’ll encounter a few as well.

Help us keep other readers informed by sharing your experience with an anti-Zika scam. If you’ve considered purchasing an anti-Zika product or bought a mosquito-prevention product that failed to work, please tell us in the comments below!


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