As skeptics, it is frustrating for us to see the con artists and snake-oil salesmen hammer us with their pitches about “herbal remedies” and “natural cures” and homeopathy and all the other false medical claims that are made on TV, on the Internet, and nearly everywhere you look (not to mention all the spam ads that promise penis enlargement or enhanced sexual stamina). Most of the time there seems to be no regulation or oversight on these obviously useless products that prey on desperate people and give them false hope for a “cure”—and no one seems to check whether these people have ever successfully cured anything. Even more frustrating is watching the flim-flam art of faith healing, where modern-day Elmer Gantry types prey on people exploiting not only their vulnerabilities from their poor health, but also their religious blinders. Most of us have heard about the time when James Randi exposed the crooked Rev. Peter Popoff on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. As this video shows, Popoff seemed to know amazing little factual details about his flock as he “healed” them, and was making millions of dollars off them—until Randi and his collaborators used their own radio receiver to pick up and record the transmissions that Popoff’s wife was sending to the Reverend’s tiny hidden earpiece. She was prompting him with details that these same people had filled out on “prayer cards” just before the service, and Popoff promptly used this information to amaze and dupe his flock. You would think that Popoff would be completely discredited and his career finished after being exposed as a crook, but apparently not so. After going bankrupt and spending only a short time out of sight, he’s back and raking in millions again ($23 million in 2005 alone) doing the same thing. Now his con is selling little vials of “miracle water” and “prayer bracelets” and asking for donations with promises that God will bless you if you pay him. And his flocks are apparently unaware or uninterested in his previous exposure as a crook. (If you want a good laugh, take a look at this hilarious video of faith healer Benny Hinn recast as the evil Sith Lord and Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars movies).
So it was with great joy that I saw in the Sept. 28 Los Angeles Times that one of these con artists had finally been caught and punished. Her name is Dr. Christine Daniel, and she ran a clinic in the San Fernando Valley not far from here. For years, she had been marketing her snake oil as “C-Extract”, “the herbal treatment”, and “the natural treatment”, and other bogus names, when it turned out these products were no more than sunscreen preservatives and beef extract. She has a legitimate MD (Temple Med School, 1979) but is also a Pentecostal minister. She peddled her products on evangelical networks like TBN, promising both that these treatments would cure people with terminal cancer, and that she was doing God’s work. She charged her customers up to $6000 a week for treatments with completely ineffective substances. Apparently enough bilked patients were mad at her that the law finally took action last year. On September 27, 2011, a federal jury convicted her of peddling expensive phony treatments to desperate patients, and sentenced her to 150 years in prison and a $5.5 million fine.
It’s nice to know that at least one sleazy doctor selling false hopes will go to the slam and never hurt another patient, but why does this case seem like the exception to the rule? Why don’t we hear of more faith healers being exposed and bankrupted like Peter Popoff, and how do con artists like Popoff manage to come back, even though their sordid past is easy to look up for anyone with a computer? Why are there not more prosecutions of “alternative medicine” peddlers and others who make demonstrably false claims, and who have left a trail of sick and dead patients behind them? Is it because such prosecutions are expensive and lower in priority than prosecuting violent criminals? Or is it because the “doctor” needs to leave a long trail of angry ripped-off patients and dead bodies behind before the district attorney will take notice?
Even more disturbing, only a year ago one of the patients Dr. Daniel ripped off sued her in court, and apparently won. Her office was already under investigation for tax evasion, wire fraud, mail fraud, and tax evasion, all of which were part of her recent conviction. Yet if you Google “christine daniel md” you will get a whole bunch of sites which list different doctors, their practices, their patient satisfaction ratings, and any complaints or other charges against them (like malpractice). Not one of them mentions her long history of shady dealings. I guess I wouldn’t trust them if I wanted a recommendation for a doctor, because they clearly don’t bother to keep track of misconduct, but are simply shills to bring in more patients.
So I pose this question to those of you out there with medical and/or legal training: why don’t we see more prosecution of these doctors peddling false medicine? Why do faith healers seem to be immune to charges of fraud? Is it because of the expense of prosecution and the D.A.’s focus on violent criminals taking priority over con artists? How does a faith healer escape the same scrutiny when they too leave a trail of broken promises and unhealed people who were lied to, all in the name of religion?
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