Another outbreak? Experts warn of flu scams

* Flu-related scams selling unapproved drugs

* FDA contacting suspect sites, threatens action

WASHINGTON, May 1 (Reuters) - Health officials are warning the public about another, less serious outbreak: a rise in flu-related scams, including a growing number of hoaxes.

E-mail pitches for unapproved treatments and equipment such as masks are promising to beat the H1N1 swine flu virus, which has sickened people in at least 13 countries.

The new H1N1 swine flu virus has killed at least 84 people in Mexico and one in the United States, but most cases have been mild, with only a handful of patients requiring hospitalization.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is rushing kits to states to test for the virus -- a sophisticated process because of its strange genetic mix.

That has not stopped opportunistic scammers from trying to sell people products that claim to test for the disease or even cure it. They have launched websites and are sending unsolicited commercial e-mail, or "spam," officials warned.

"These fraudulent products come in all varieties and could include dietary supplements or other food products, or products purporting to be drugs, devices or vaccines," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said.

"We have seen dietary supplements with prevention or treatment claims, various unapproved personal protection devices such as masks, and illegal sales of unapproved versions of antivirals, and antivirals sold without prescription," the FDA added in a statement to Reuters.

Just two drugs are FDA-approved for the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus: Roche Holding AG's


Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline Plc's




Even some makers of legitimate products are tapping into consumer worries about swine flu.

One e-mail making the rounds sells a "Flu Safety Kit" that contains facial tissues, disinfecting wipes and alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The World Health Organization, whose staff has been at the forefront in coordinating efforts to combat the virus, has warned its own staff about potential hoaxes and e-mails.

"Every time there is an outbreak of anything, flu in this case, there are all sorts of ghoulish people who try and do both fear-mongering, and once they have made people afraid, they try and sell them some sort of snake oil," said Sid Wolfe, head of the public advocacy group Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

Officials at the Better Business Bureau offer these tips:

* Do not open e-mails from unknown sources.

* Do not click on any website links in the body of suspicious e-mails or open any attachments.

* A vaccine to protect against swine flu does not yet exist so ignore online offers for vaccinations against swine flu.

* Keep anti-virus and anti-spyware software up-to-date.

* Forward suspicious e-mail to the Federal Trade Commission at (Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Washington and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Editing by Maggie Fox and Peter Cooney)