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Cellphone ‘cancer app’ comes under FTC fire

It seemed too good to be true — a $4.99 cellphone app that could help you figure out if moles growing on your body were cancerous.

And according to the Federal Trade Commission, that’s exactly what “Mole Detective” was: too good to be true.

A lawsuit filed by the FTC Monday alleges that two Chicago-based firms that marketed the iPhone and Android app violated federal advertising rules, by making untrue or unsubstantiated claims about its effectiveness in determining the risk of melanoma.

The firm, which developed the app, New Consumer Solutions, and its owner, Kristi Zuhlke Kimball, have agreed to settle the case, but another, which bought the rights to it, L Health Ltd., plans to fight the suit, the FTC says.

The app was available on the Apple app store and the Android Google Play marketplace from January 2013 until December 2013, raking in at least $50,000 in sales, the feds say.

Users were supposed to use the cellphone’s camera to photograph moles on their body. The app would then use algorithms to analyze photos to determine the risk that the moles could be cancerous.

“Early detection is critical,” one advertisement for the app read. “Mole Detective helps you to detect skin cancer earlier by helping you track the top five symptoms of the cancer right at home.”

Though the makers of the app included disclaimers that users should always defer to the judgment of a medical professional, the FTC says their claims about the app’s effectiveness still crossed the line.

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

Reached Monday afternoon, Kimball declined to comment.

The settlement with Kimball and her company prohibits them from claiming that a device, such as an app, can detect or diagnose melanoma, “unless the representation is truthful, not misleading, and supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing of the device.”

It also prohibits them from making any other misleading or unsubstantiated health claims about a product or service, and requires them to pay back $3,930.

Avron Boris Lasarow, who runs L Health — a U.K. business whose U.S. base is in Chicago — also was named in the suit. In an emailed statement, Lasarow said he bought the rights to the app in good faith, believing that it did not violate advertising law.

He added that it got a lot of downloads after it was featured on the Dr. Oz show, but that the app, which has not been available since the FTC investigation began, always came with a warning that “it should be used for educational purposes only.”

The Georgia-based makers of a similar app, called MelApp, also settled with the government in a related case, the FTC announced Monday.