How to spot an OTC hearing aid scam
6 tips for buying hearing aids online
Now that over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are available across the country, you may be tempted to go online and see what the options are. Unfortunately, it's a bit Wild West, with legitimate OTC hearing aids being sold adjacent to low-quality products, or even downright scams.
The publication Consumer Affairs was one of the first sites to report on the growing problem, noting that some online companies are trying to position their low-quality products as OTC hearing aids. Many of these falsely advertised products have appeared on Amazon. In response to Consumer Affairs' reporting, Amazon said it is taking steps to make sure device sellers are following their medical device guidelines.
Navigating this convoluted process can be stressful. It doesn't help that this was a problem even before the Food and Drug Administration approved OTC hearing aids, as shown by this State of Vermont lawsuit filed against Nano Hearing Aids, which has been accused of misleading consumers in several ways.
How do you avoid falling prey to a similar scam? Some of it is common sense—watch out for telltale signs of fraud, such as promises of miracle cures or deep discounts. Here are six other key questions to keep in mind when shopping online for an OTC hearing aid:
1. Is there a way to customize the sound settings beyond volume?
You should buy a device that has customizable settings, which means you can adjust it based on your unique hearing loss. With professionally-fit hearing aids, which are medical devices, this is handled for you by a licensed hearing care provider. With OTC, you must set up these settings yourself, using a phone or tablet or some other tool to measure your hearing loss.
If the device only uses a volume switch and/or there is only vague mention of the adjustment process, it may not be a legitimate hearing aid, but instead a simple hearing amplifier.
To avoid accidentally buying an amplifier, you'll want to take a look at the company's website and product manual to understand how this fitting aspect works. For example, is there an app that you'll use with your smartphone? Does their website explain how the process works? Do they offer customer support if you're struggling?
2. Is the pricing in line with other OTC hearing aid products?
As of December 2022, our research indicates that OTC hearing aid prices are ranging from about $300-$1,200 per device (per ear). If you notice that the price is significantly lower than what other devices cost, it's best to be skeptical about the quality. Often cheap hearing aids are amplifiers, which do not provide the customized amplification we mention in #1.
3. Does the company make any lofty or unsubstantiated claims?
Be wary of companies that make unsubstantiated claims, including “miracle cures” or “quick fixes” for hearing loss. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are few quick fixes for hearing loss, and an online device is unlikely to be one of them. Also, keep in mind that OTC hearing aids should only be used for mild to moderate hearing loss. If your hearing loss is more severe, you should see a professional hearing care provider near you.
You'll also want to tread with caution if you notice the product's advertising seems over the top or includes a long list of features they don't actually seem to have once you read the fine print. They may just be trying to lure people in with impressive marketing.
4. Is it a reputable brand?
If you'd like to purchase an OTC hearing aid without getting scammed, a safer option is to choose a brand that is already established and/or known for quality. Many audio companies have been around for years and have a strong track record of customer satisfaction. You can also check to see if they have FDA approval. It's easy to check, and if the company makes this claim, you can double-check.
5. What is the return policy? A trial period?
Before purchasing a device, ensure that there is an appropriate return policy, including a reasonable time frame for returns. Also, if a company offers a trial period, take advantage of this, but make sure you understand the fine print on what the trial period includes.
6. Is there a warranty?
When you purchase a hearing aid through a reputable hearing specialist or audiologist's office, a warranty is almost always included as part of the bundled price. This warranty can often be extended, too. (This is just one of many included services when you buy professionally fit hearing aids at a clinic, along with things like fast repairs and readjustments such as custom settings for music or other soundscapes.)
So far, it's looking like OTC hearing aids come with shorter and simpler warranty periods, though it varies by manufacturer. No warranty at all? Best to avoid the product.
If you're feeling shaky about OTC hearing aids
If you're unsure where to begin or feeling unsure about the whole process, the best place to start is by visiting a hearing care professional for a comprehensive hearing test. You do not need a prescription to visit a hearing aid clinic. During the appointment, your audiologist or hearing instrument specialist will go over which options are best for your particular situation and lifestyle needs.
No matter which option you decide, you're taking a good step forward: Hearing aids provide many health benefits. Research shows over and over that people who wear hearing aids have lower rates of cognitive decline, loneliness, falls, and depression. The sooner you get help for your hearing, the better.