It’s an unfortunate truth that snake oil salesmen lurk behind every corner of the internet, waiting for the next conspiracy or wellness fad so they can swoop in with cure-all wares and rob people of their hard-earned cash. It’s also true that people generally fear the unknown—and new technology slots neatly into that category. So it’s really no surprise that the dawn of 5G has spawned an entire online market of scams.
Amazon, Etsy, and eBay all host thousands of products that claim to “protect” you from the harmful effects of 5G. They range from so-called Faraday cages, which are basically mesh office file organizers, to thumb drives that claim to create holographic shields against 5G waves. You can find new-agey jewelry made of shungite, silver-laced neck gaiters parading as hoods, and this ridiculous $40 sticker that claims it is 100% scientifically proven to protect you from 5G. There’s what appears to be silver-coated tank tops for $100, baseball caps lined with copper, and bafflingly, a $90 maternity band made of an organic bland of bamboo and cotton that somehow protects unborn fetuses (but not their mothers) from the pernicious threat of 5G.
Searching “5G protection” on Amazon turns up more than 6,000 results. Some of them are regular phone cases. Most are not. Etsy delivers more than 4,400 results, mostly iterations of shungite jewelry or pyramids and the occasional 5G-blocking beanie. The vast majority of products are priced reasonably—$15-30, with some ludicrous exceptions like the aforementioned $40 sticker. Even so, these products don’t have to cost much for scammers to get rich. Apparently, one scammer made $500,000 peddling an anti-5G lotion that turned out to be little more than old Vaseline mixed with old sunscreen.
So what do these bizarre products claim to do? Well, they’re mostly iterations on ways to “shield” you from electromagnetic fields or radiation. A Faraday cage around your router supposedly blocks 5G signals from reaching you except, given the way Faraday cages work, an effective one will block all signals, including wifi. Also, crucially, 5G signals do not come from your wifi router.
Shungite jewelry we found for sale purports to be made from a mineral mined in the Karelia region of Russia. Real shungite is 98% carbon, and has trace amounts of fullerenes, a type of carbon molecule that supposedly blocks electromagnetic frequencies. These pieces of jewelry or ornaments often have a much lower percentage of carbon than advertised and even lower amounts of fullerenes. There isn’t much scientific evidence backing these claims, and researching shungite primarily brings up New Age-y articles spewing quackery, with no citations to actual studies or research. The 5G stickers supposedly generate some kind of shield to protect you from 5G waves. Let us be clear: A sticker that claims to generate any type of radiation-blocking shield is pure science fiction.
As for the anti-5G lotion, well, it was supposed to act as a physical shield for skin, but considering that its ingredients, slathering this stuff on wouldn’t even protect you from UV rays.
The spread of covid-19 led to a surge in 5G conspiracy theories, resulting in a spate of attacks on cell towers, but the health fears surrounding 5G are much older than that. Much, much, older. Dating back to the early 1900s, doctors published newspaper screeds about the dangers of high-frequency currents. This fear, dubbed radiophobia, is the same reason you may have had a relative warn you about microwaves, and if you grew up in the 1990s, you heard the hoopla surrounding cellphones and cancer risk. According to the Conversation, the 5G panic also blends a mix of other conspiracies around government coverups, doctors hiding the cure for cancer, and military mind control experiments.
But while these 5G conspiracy theories were born from similar ones that came before it, according to the New York Times, they can also be traced back to a single graph from one Dr. Bill P. Curry, a consultant and physicist hired by Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, in a 2000 paper titled “Microwave Absorption in Brain Tissue (Grey Matter).”
Curry’s report was initially commissioned when the Florida school district became concerned that purchasing laptops and installing wireless networks for its students could pose health risks. The graph, in Curry’s estimation, showed a real risk that wireless frequencies might result in brain cancer. But as the NYT points out, Curry failed to take into consideration that human skin acts as a barrier to higher frequencies of electromagnetic waves.
But that one paper had consequences. It doesn’t matter that there’s no definitive proof that radiofrequency waves, a form of non-ionizing radiation, don’t have enough energy to break or alter DNA. It doesn’t matter that the World Health Organization says that the “levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low” and so quickly dissipate with distance that they don’t have an affect on human health. It doesn’t matter that the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Food and Drug Administration have both said there isn’t enough evidence to establish a causal link between radiofrequency waves and cancer. When even just one reputable doctor sounds the alarm, it lends an air of authority. If you’re already prone to believe in government coverups? It opens a Pandora’s box that can’t be closed.
But that doesn’t explain why Amazon, Etsy, and eBay allow scammers to sell obviously fraudulent items on their sites. Unfortunately, these types of products aren’t exactly rare on platforms like Amazon.
Over the years, Amazon has transformed from an online big-box retailer to more of a flea market that sells wares of dubious quality and safety. That’s because the vast majority of products sold on the website are from third-party retailers—some of which do honest business, but others simply do not care what they sell so long as they can turn an easy profit. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation found 4,152 listings that had been declared unsafe for sale by federal agencies or banned entirely. Among those listings, the WSJ found that 116 products were fraudulently labeled as FDA-approved, and 80 listings included infant sleeping mats banned by the FDA that Amazon claimed were no longer sold on its platform. CNBC found that Amazon’s marketplace regularly sold expired food, including baby formula, and 6-month-old Goldfish crackers. In this environment, it’s no wonder 5G scam products can be marketed and sold with basically zero consequences.
Amazon does actually have efforts in place to combat counterfeit products, including a Brand Registry and its Transparency service, which uses codes to track individual product units. It also has a program called Project Zero, which allows companies in the Brand Registry to take down counterfeit listings. That doesn’t really address scammy products like those sold to “protect” people from 5G. Gizmodo reached out to Amazon to clarify why scam products with either no or questionable scientific basis are allowed to remain on the site, but did not receive a response.
It’s true that 5G scam products likely don’t cause harm in the way that expired food or illegal supplements (which can also be found on Amazon) might. If you believe in the power of shungite jewelry to ward off 5G, well, you’d probably never know that it’s little more than decoration. However, their proliferation on internet retail and resale sites is illustrative of how little consumer protection there is when shopping online, and how retail platforms are just as capable of being used to spread misinformation as social networks are. Amazon told the WSJ that, legally speaking, it’s not liable for bogus items sold by third-party sellers as it doesn’t actually sell the product and it’s protected against liability for what third-party sellers post on its site thanks to Section 230.
Ultimately, until legislators start regulating e-retailers—or at the very least, start passing laws to better protect consumers—scammers and the sites that enable them will continue to profit from conspiracy theories borne from misinformation. Eventually, 5G paranoia will fade and the market will be less profitable. It’s depressing, but it’ll most likely be replaced with whatever health scare starts trending next. But in the meantime, for the love of god, don’t buy the 5G bullshit.