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Quackers: viral tech and fake cures

Editorial Staff

Annabelle Natalie "Belle" Gibson, an Australian, claimed that she was 20 years old when, in 1999, she was told she had cancer. But that was a lie: she was only 8 years old in 1999. That was just the first in this shameful tale of exploitation of those who suffer from the disease. She's been convicted and fined. Many people think this is not enough.

Gibson has been convicted of fraud which, in Melbourne's courts is called "misleading and deceptive conduct." She did not attend her sentencing hearing.

Now 25, evidence was given that she earned AUD420,000 from her popular blog, a book and a mobile phone "app." They promoted a diet and various herbal medications. Part of her sales pitch was that she would give substantial donations to charities or, even, directly to affected families. The court heard that one of the "most serious" examples of a broken promise was saying she would donate a week's earnings to the family of a child with a brain tumour.

The scheme started to unravel in 2015 when the lie about her age became known. Then she admitted in a magazine article that her claims relating to her own diagnosis and cure were false. She was convicted in March this year.

She has been fined AUD410,000 by a judge who described her conduct as "unconscionable" However, the criminal court does not appear to have made a confiscation order.

Some claim that she should have been ordered to give a public apology: that, one assumes, will come as she does have a tendency to be drawn to the limelight.
Others claim she should have been jailed and, based on the size of the fraud alone, that would seem to be a proper sentence.

Her success depended on heavy self promotion on social media but also on others "sharing" her lies and so giving them credibility. Media covered her story and in doing so promoted her lies as truths. There are no good guys in this story: social media sites and media all contributed to raising the profiles of this criminal by failing to ask questions that needed asking.

The case should serve as a warning to all the sellers of quack health products: there are a few TV doctors and health pundits who could fall into the area of risk here. While the case does not expressly say so, it is a clear warning that health fads must have genuine and demonstrable benefits or their promoters, however well meaning, can expect to be prosecuted.

But it should also serve as a warning to consumers. Just check the spam-scams over the past five years, or the breathless promotions pushed out by the "recommended for you" sections of webpages. How many of those are proven to be successful as claimed? The desperate and ignorant are both targets for this type of scam.

Be careful.