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FTC bugged by head lice Web sites

In what could turn into a prickly situation, investigators warn that Web sites boasting sure-fire cures for head lice may not be entirely true and could be breaking federal advertising laws.

    In what could turn into a prickly situation, investigators warned today that Web sites boasting sure-fire cures for head lice may not be entirely true and could be running afoul of federal advertising laws.

    Federal Trade Commission investigators recently surfed about 28 Web sites touting head lice treatment products that were "100 percent effective" or that could be used to eradicate lice "in a single application."

    The claims appear highly improbable, and as a result, investigators have warned site operators that they could be subject to consumer redress if product claims aren't backed by scientific evidence.

    "We wanted to send a message that Web-based advertising is subject to the same rules as offline ads," said Phyllis Marcus, the commission's staff attorney.

    The warning signals a continuing concern for investigators, who in the past have brought action against drug companies that engage in deceptive advertising.

    Two years ago, the FTC ordered three brick-and-mortar drug companies to stop making false claims about their products. The actions against Del Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer and Care Technologies ended in settlements.

    The operation is part of an ongoing commission project called Operation Cure-All, in which regulators dredge the Net for bogus health cure claims.

    Just last week, three Internet companies that offered products claiming to cure everything from arthritis to cancer settled federal fraud charges and agreed to repay their customers.

    With summer camp outings just around the corner, the commission decided to focus once again on head lice products.

    Head lice is most prevalent in school children who easily catch the parasites from classmates. The ugly word is enough to strike fear in every parent, sending them frantically searching for remedies to annihilate the six-legged, sesame seed-sized critters crawling around their children's scalps.

    But in the panic for a cure, many parents fall victim to deceptive claims often found on Net health tip sites, commissioners said.

    "We want parents to apply a little skepticism when they look at health remedies online," Marcus said.