They can cure cancer, reduce cholesterol, end allergies, treat cavities, kill parasites and even eliminate AIDS. "Energy medicine" devices can...

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They can cure cancer, reduce cholesterol, end allergies, treat cavities, kill parasites and even eliminate AIDS.

“Energy medicine” devices can be as small as a television remote control, or as large as a steamer trunk.

Their operators say the devices work by transmitting radio frequencies or electromagnetic waves through the body, identifying problems, then “zapping” them.

Their claims are a fraud — the 21st-century version of snake oil. But a Seattle Times investigation has discovered that thousands of these unproven devices — many of them illegal or dangerous — are found in hundreds of venues nationwide, from the Puyallup Fair, to health-care clinics in Florida, to an 866-bed regional hospital in Missouri.

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These are not the devices in wide use by medical doctors, such as electrical stimulators used for sports injuries. Nor are they the biofeedback devices used at respected alternative-medicine centers such as Seattle’s Bastyr University. Rather, these are boxes of wires purported to perform miracles. Their manufacturers and operators capitalize on weak government oversight and the nation’s hunger for alternative therapies to reap millions of dollars in profits while exploiting desperate people:

• In Tulsa, Okla., a woman suffering from unexplained joint pain was persuaded to avoid doctors and rely on an energy device for treatment. Seven months later, her son took her to a hospital. She died within hours from undiagnosed leukemia.

• In Los Angeles, a mother pulled her 5-month-old son out of chemotherapy for cancer and took him to a clinic where a 260-pound machine pulsed electromagnetic waves through his tiny body. The baby died within months.

• In Seattle, a retiree with cancer emptied her bank account to buy an energy machine. Shortly before she died, her husband, a retired Microsoft manager, examined its software, finding that it appeared to generate results randomly — “a complete fraud,” he said.

Over the past year, The Times investigated these machines and the people behind them.

The investigation took us to where the manufacturers of some of these machines are based, in Hungary and Greece. We found the operators — including a cross-dressing federal fugitive who moonlights as a cabaret singer — making outrageous claims as they peddled their wares. We discovered that the U.S. regulatory system has allowed them to flood this nation with an estimated 40,000 devices.

And we learned that many operators consider our state a safe haven for these “miracle machines.”