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Beware the folk-remedy scammers in neighborhoods

Updated: December 25, 2013 6:36AM

In many Mexican neighborhoods in the Chicago area, you can find herbal and folk remedy stores called botanicas.

Mainstays in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, these stores pop up all over the U.S. in those immigrant neighborhoods.

Some of the shops are similar to American wellness stores that sell herb-based supplements and homeopathic remedies, an industry that rakes in billions.

Botanicas also sell spiritual or religious trinkets and statues to emphasize a holistic experience.

Some stores sell oils or soaps that are supposed to spice up your love life or bring good luck. Such remedies, along with Tarot card readings, are popular with superstitious folks and seem harmless. If you don’t believe in the stuff, you walk past it without giving it a second thought.

But it’s time to raise a red flag on some of these businesses, especially those boasting that they have gurus with healing powers. For them, herbs and supplements are a facade for another money maker: counseling the sick and the indigent.

You can find some self-proclaimed healers through store-front displays and advertisements. Looking through Spanish-language newspapers, I found an ad for a store that claimed to have a miracle man. Stop suffering over lost love or money, the advertisement urged. Fight for the love of your life. There were many other similar ads.

The stores claim to cure impotence, cheating spouses and drug addiction. They display testimonials in which people claim they came into money or were cured of illnesses. Almost all of the stores invoke the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or a saint by name or picture. One store is named for a pope.

Such ridiculous ploys would be humorous if they weren’t effective.

“They play with people’s lives,” Rev. Donald J. Nevins of St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village said of such wellness stores. “They make all sorts of promises.”

Complaints about the stores typically are not discussed publicly because people are ashamed. Nevins said he often hears them in the privacy of confession.

Some promises are similar to those made by irresponsible proponents of wellness outlets in mainstream America: go the herbal or alternative route to cure your high blood pressure or diabetes. These can be erroneously viewed as viable options, especially by those without insurance or feeling despair over their illnesses.

Their distress can be easily exploited.

Speaking of botanicas, Nevins said: “They are claiming powers they don’t have and are leading people away from solutions.”

Whether their intent was to change their fortunes or rid themselves of disease, people can find them themselves tethered to the services of so-called healers known to aggressively hound customers looking to drop their services. Nevins said some warn of a catastrophic injury to a loved one if treatment is stopped.

Nevins has addressed the subject with parishioners to warn them about pitfalls associated with these businesses.

To some degree the topic of the stores is taboo. Discussing them is akin to airing dirty laundry. But if it helps get rid of them, I am all for it.

One Spanish language newspaper that features these advertisements, Hoy, had a front-page item last week on the devastating tornadoes that struck central and southern Illinois with a warning to watch out for scammers misrepresenting themselves as contractors.

This other scam with wellness stores that has gone on for years? The newspaper seems to be OK letting that go.


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