Saline Disguised as 'Efficacious Medicine,' Elderly Chinese Frequently Fall Prey to Health Product Scams

Saline Disguised as 'Efficacious Medicine,' Elderly Chinese Frequently Fall Prey to Health Product Scams
A pricy health drink was found to be normal saline mixed with culture medium, when police in Beijing identified and arrested a group of fraudsters selling health products. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There are many scammers in China who are skillfully and specifically targeting the wallets of the elderly. For example, saline mixed with growth medium used for bacterial culture and that costs 100 yuan (about $14.50) to make, has been sold for tens of thousands of yuan (about $1,450), and camellia seed oil has been touted as able to cure all diseases.

Chinese state media reported on Aug. 23 that Beijing police arrested a group of fraudsters specializing in organizing community gatherings for the elderly, posing as experts to give them medical examinations and consultations, and then selling “efficacious medicine” that "can cure all diseases" at high prices.

The group admitted that when they read on the internet that the medical field is researching multi-purpose drugs for the treatment of many chronic diseases, they spotted a “business opportunity” and set up a company to hype the concept of “miraculously efficacious medicine.” They mixed normal saline with a culture liquid, and sold it to the elderly at highly inflated prices.

Previously, Shanghai had also reported cases of fraud in which camellia seed oil was touted as a “cure-all” health product  that can be applied to skin or taken orally to solve a wide range of health problems including insomnia, hair loss, and headache. Hundreds of elderly people became victims of the scam.

A Shanghai woman, Ms. Qian, shared her mother’ story with Chinese media.

Qian’s mother added a sales person as a friend on WeChat. The person often chatted with her using text messages or voice calls. After the elderly woman got a good impression, the person frequently recommended that she use a certain brand of camellia seed oil.

On June 23, the sales person picked Qian’s mother up at her residence and took her to a seminar at a biotechnology company in Shanghai. After intense brainwashing, Qian’s mother spent 13,000 yuan (about $1,900) on the spot and bought 38 pounds of camellia seed oil. The price she paid was much higher than the market price.

Various Factors

Health product fraud in China that targets the elderly has been repeatedly banned. So why are such scams occurring again and again? When contacted for comment, a staff member at Beijing’s Haidian District Public Security Bureau told The Epoch Times that the elderly attach great importance to curing illnesses and keeping fit, but they are not very knowledgeable about how to discern good products from bad, or genuine from fake. The fraudsters seize on this characteristic attitude of seniors, and create various methods to promote their sham products.

“The fraudster’s usual practice is to change the packaging of ordinary products and sell them at inflated prices. There are also cases where fake products were sold as medicines, as in the case of normal saline sold as a health product,” he said.

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long history of chaotic management of its medical and health care system," Chong Sheng (a pseudonym), a commentator living in Guangzhou, China, told the Epoch Times. “With one group identified and arrested, the other groups move to a different location and continue to commit the same crimes using different tactics.”

Chong pointed out that the CCP has spent a lot of effort on monitoring and blocking the internet and cracking down on dissidents, and the CCP officials don't care about the losses of ordinary Chinese citizens.

Ge Hui (pseudonym) from Yantai City, Shandong Province, told The Epoch Times that before the COVID-19 pandemic, he had seen mini-buses picking up seniors at community gates and taking them to seminars. All attendees get a souvenir, which is an effective sales trick to attract the elderly, as they like free gifts.

Sometimes free lunch boxes are provided at the seminar, sometimes the sellers take the seniors to tourist places like Penglai City and Weihai City, free of charge, and promote their "health products" during the trip. The elderly people thought they had enjoyed a free trip, but in fact the sellers were after their money, Ge said.

Ge has seen how the fraudsters brag about their products at the seminars.

"Ordinary products are touted as magical medicines. In every seminar, they make the audience feel that their products are unique and can cure all illnesses. Every time, some people bought their products, but some time later would find that they had little effect. It’s all fake and deceptive, and the price is very high,” Ge said.

Kane Zhang is a reporter based in Japan. She has written on health topics for The Epoch Times since 2022, mainly focusing on Integrative Medicine. She also reports on current affairs related Japan and China.