FTC Targets App Marketers That Claim to Detect Melanoma

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There’s an app for almost everything –- but don’t bet your life on one that promises to detect skin cancer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently settled lawsuits with two companies that marketed melanoma detection apps –- Mole Detective ($4.99) and MelApp ($1.99). Both companies are now prohibited from making health claims about these apps or any future ones –- unless those claims are supported by “reliable scientific evidence” in the form of human clinical testing.

“Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

MelApp and Mole Detective were supposed to calculate a mole’s risk of being melanoma as low, medium or high –- even in the early stages -– based on photos taken with a smartphone and information provided by the user.

“App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

In its lawsuits, the FTC said the companies did not have adequate evidence to support such claims and therefore were deceptively advertising their products.

NBC News contacted New Consumer Solutions, LLC (maker of Mole Detective) and Health Discovery Corp. (maker of MelApp) for comment. We did not hear back from them.

Not doctor-recommended

With melanoma, early detection is critical, and delayed treatment can be fatal.

New York dermatologist Dr. Darrell Rigel, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, worries that a cancer-detecting app –- one that hasn’t undergone rigorous scientific testing, like the tools in a doctor’s office –- could give someone a false sense of security.

“You could have a mole that should be seen by a dermatologist, biopsied and treated, but the app tells you things are OK -– when they’re not -– so you don’t do it,” he said.

Dr. Laura Ferris, a dermatologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told NBC News she is pleased with the FTC’s action. Ferris co-authored a study, published online in JAMA Dermatology in 2013, that looked into the accuracy of such cancer-detecting apps.

“Our study showed these apps are not accurate,” she said. “They missed melanomas and many of the melanomas they missed were actually quite obvious, so that’s very concerning.”

The study did not name the apps tested, but Ferris told NBC News they were similar to the two named in the FTC’s legal action.

“Even the best of them missed about 30 percent of melanomas and the worst one missed more than 90 percent,” she said. “Anything that misses something that has this window of curability like melanoma and falsely reassures somebody that they don’t need to get their mole looked at or see a doctor really has the potential to be a deadly tool.”