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A shopper tries out the new Apple iPhone 6 at the Apple Store on the first day of sales of the new phone on Sept. 19, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.  Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Beware Apps That Promise a Cancer Diagnosis

Feb 24, 2015

Given the questionable sales pitches that seem to drive Internet marketing for some apps, this statement uttered by an FTC official on Monday might seemed understated: "Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace."

But some messages are beyond the pale. The official, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, was referring to a couple of mobile-phone apps whose providers have claimed, without offering any proof, are able to detect the presence and severity of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

The regulator on Monday announced actions against the makers of two such apps: Mole Detective and MelApp. The apps have been marketed with claims that, by analyzing user-taken photos, they can determine whether the risk of melanoma his high, medium, or low.

Although the apps, which were sold for $4.99 in 2011 and 2012, advised users to see a doctor if they had any serious concerns about their health, the FTC says they were sold as "diagnostic" tools. (The caveat about seeing a doctor apparently didn't contain a caveat of its own, stating that if you should see a doctor if you're worried about cancer, there is obviously no reason to buy and download an app.)

According to the FCC, thousands of people downloaded the pieces of software.

PHOTOS: The Rise of Mobile Phones from 1916 to Today

A German field telephone station in the Aisne department of northern France during World War I.
1916 A German field telephone station in the Aisne department of northern France during World War I.Paul Thompson—FPG/Getty Images
A German field telephone station in the Aisne department of northern France during World War I.
French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday in a scene from the film 'Point de Chute' (aka 'Falling Point').
An early mobile phone during the Iranian Embassy siege at Princes Gate in South Kensington, London.
Bob Maxwell, general manager of Englewood-based Mobile Telephone of Colorado, places a call on FCC-approved radio frequency while driving to work.
THE A-TEAM -- "The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair" Episode 5. (l-r) Eddie Velez as Frankie Santana, Robert Vaughn as General Hunt Stockwell, George Peppard as John 'Hannibal' Smith.
Bill Clinton,  Ray Flynn
Whoopi Goldberg during ShoWest in Las Vegas.
A farmer with his family sitting on a Bullock Cart and talking on a mobile Phone, in Delhi.
World Trade Center Terrorist Attack.
A rebel militiaman speaks on his mobile phone after capturing territory from government troops on March 25 2 in Ben Jawat, Libya.
A youth films the aftermath of tear gas police fired at protestors in Muhammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square on November 23 in Cairo.
Audience members take pictures of President Barack Obama at Florida Atlantic University on April 10 in Boca Raton, Florida.
A teenager takes a selfie in front of Queen Elizabeth II during a walk around St. Georges Market in Belfast.
1916 A German field telephone station in the Aisne department of northern France during World War I.
Paul Thompson—FPG/Getty Images
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The company that marketed MelApp, Health Discovery Corp., will pay $17,063 as part of its settlements. New Consumer Solutions, which developed and marketed Mole Detective, will pay $3,930. That app was later purchased by the British firm L. Health Ltd., which has elected not to settle the FTC's case against it because, it says, the original developer had guaranteed the app didn't violate U.S. law.

Mole Detective shot up in popularity after it was featured on "The Dr. Oz Show," according to a report in the Washington Post. L. Health Ltd.'s Avi Lasarow said that the app "always stated that it should be used for educational purposes…"

None of this activity means that smartphone apps aren't already becoming powerful aids for diagnosis and health management. In the case of something like skin cancer, a doctor could surely review photos to determine whether or not a patient should come in for an examination. The key word there is "doctor."

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