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Agencies warn SARS spammers

People hawking products related to the illness could be subject to fines, because their claims are not scientifically backed up, say the FTC and FDA.

Two federal agencies are targeting sites and spammers that promote SARS cures and prevention products, saying they must remove the misleading information or risk penalties.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning that people who hawk products related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) could be subject to fines because their claims are not backed up by scientific evidence.

The commission said it's found 48 sites touting merchandise that claim to protect people against the disease, by offering products such as oregano oil dietary supplements or SARS prevention kits that include things like disinfectant wipes, gloves and masks.

The FTC and FDA said such claims are not supported by scientific proof. "Bogus products from questionable Web sites do no good, and can actually make matters worse by providing a false sense of protection," FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan said in a statement.

The FTC said it's found seven types of SARS-related spam in the in-box it's set up for people to report unwanted bulk e-mail. Both agencies said they sent warnings to the sites promoting SARS products. Sites that ignore the warnings could face penalties including criminal charges, civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation or a requirement that they repay customers.

People worldwide are frightened by SARS, which has hit Beijing hardest. The World Health Organization says the illness has lead to 7,000 reported infections and 650 reported deaths globally.

The trade commission has stepped up its crackdown on spammers offering bogus products during the past year. Last week, it held a forum to discuss solutions to spam and fraudulent mail.

The SARS-related claims are just the latest example of scam artists trying to profit off of news headlines, said the FTC, which warned people to save their money.

The agencies also warned consumers to be cautious about SARS-related claims. "If a medical breakthrough involving SARS has occurred, would they be hearing about it for the first time through an ad or sales pitch?" they wrote.