Technology Scams

Why do some people in the technology community seem so susceptible to snake oil?

I suspect it's because of two things.

  1. We trust our friends' judgement.
  2. We are experts in our fields and, therefore, trust our own judgement in matters we don't fully understand.

Compare and contrast the following two statements.

On the announcement of the original iPod, one influential pundit declared...

"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."
Source:'s original iPod discussion

On the search for the Higgs Boson, Stephen Hawking said

"I have a bet of $100 that we won't find the Higgs [Boson]."
Source: BBC News and The Times

One is someone who has studied markets and technology trends, the other who has studied physics. Both are highly respected in their field.

However, one is making social and economic predictions, the other mathematical and scientific predictions.

One is backed up by data, the other by "anecdata".

In reality - we're comparing apples and appletinis. There's a superficial relationship - both are making predictions - but a whole world of difference between what those predictions mean and what backs them up.

The Fallacy Of Trust

When someone - even someone we trust - brings us a new idea, it often pays to be sceptical. This doesn't mean dismissing anything new out of hand. This doesn't mean demanding unreasonable standard of proof. This doesn't mean ridiculing anyone who disagrees.

It means asking some very basic questions to determine their credibility.

When I am trying to assess whether a new product is a scam, I usually ask the following questions.

  1. What's my gut reaction? Does it fit in with my understanding of the world?
  2. Does it ask for belief rather than proof? Am I just expected to just accept someone's claims?
  3. Does it introduce a totally new piece of knowledge into the world? Extraordinary things can happen - but they are rare.
  4. Does it rely on endorsements from celebrities?
  5. Are they asking for money?

This is usually enough to see through most charlatans.

Recent Scams - Airnergy, PowerBands, Valkee

I'd like to take three recent examples of products which bear scepticism.

I pick these because I know some otherwise very intelligent people who have taken these scams on trust. Because they either trust the friends who endorse them - or because they believe they are an expert in one field, so can't be fooled in another - they've ended up backing the wrong horse.


The Pitch

This pocket sized device will harvest stray WiFi signals from the room and use them to charge your phone's battery.

Gut Reaction

There are lots of "ambient energy" devices - piezo electrics, solar power, kinetic energy etc - so it seems reasonable that you could harvest WiFi energy in a similar way.

But surely there can't be that much of it?

It seems like it could work - but only if you ignore the basic laws of physics.


No proof was forthcoming. Several physics experts pointed out that the total amount of energy emanating from a WiFi access point wouldn't be enough to trickle charge a phone. The physicists backed up their work with equations and links to proof. RCA asked for faith.


Proponents claimed what they had done was revolutionary and such a trade secret that they couldn't possible reveal how they'd done it.

When it was pointed out that they had discovered a whole new branch of physics and could probably win a Nobel Prize rather than sell a $40 gizmo, they again told people to believe rather than look for proof.


Using the good name of RCA really propelled this scam. Why would a company like RCA endorse such a product unless it was real? Sadly, like many celebrities these days, RCA doesn't really exist.


$40 for a product. True, not a lot of money, but considering how much it costs to charge a phone, it's extortionate. To fully charge an electric car costs just a few pounds - paying $40 to save maybe $10 on a lifetime of phone battery charging is a false economy at best.



I was in email contact with the inventor. Here's what he had to say:

On August 27, 2010 4:28 AM, Terence Eden wrote:
Hi Hank,
Just wondering when the Airnegy will be released.
Or was it a hoax all along?
On 09/12/10 10:32 PM, Hank Caskey wrote:
Hello Terence,
Our team was showing this product to retailers and carriers at IFA. It is still coming.
Date: January 17, 2011
Just wondered if Airnegy will be at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year?

And I never heard back...


The Pitch

Wear a hologram on your wrist and you'll get measurably better sporting performance.

Gut Reaction

No. What could possibly cause this? This doesn't fit in with anyone's understanding of how the world works.


None whatsoever. Indeed, the company is so brazen as to state

Power Balance does not, and has never, made any scientific or medical claims about its products.


Just... what? Mumbo-jumbo dressed up in highly compelling language.

It would require such a huge leap in understanding of physiology that it bears really close study.


Multiple. All from celebrities - none from sports scientists.


Oh yes. Total cost of production, a few pennies - retail cost of £30!


What's interesting is that there maybe a psychological boost via the placebo effect. But independent testing showed no performance increase. The full report from the BBC is worth a read.


The Pitch

If you shine a light into your ears, you'll recover from depression, get over jet-lag, and have superior mental performance.
This is backed up by scientists.
Valkee - a scam

Gut Reaction

From the earliest human civilisations, "medicine men" have been selling snake-oil. Powerful tonics which cure all manner of ailments.

Indeed, Coca Cola was originally sold being able to cure many diseases, including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence.

So, it pays to be sceptical of any new medical advance - especially one which claims so much.

It's not impossible - and it is backed by seemingly reputable scientists - but does its central claim "feel" right? Shine a light in your ear and feel better...?


This is an interesting one. They claim that several Finish University scientists are working on this.

The VALKEE bright light headset has been researched in a series of clinical tests by the University of Oulu. In a recent clinical trial, 25 severely depressed patients were treated with a daily dose of 8-12 minutes of light with the VALKEE bright light headset. Over a period of four weeks nine patient out of ten experienced total relief of symptoms, which is a revolutionary result. Currently VALKEE is being studied for seasonal affective disorder in open and placebo-controlled studies. In addition, the research is being conducted for other depression types.

Want to see the evidence? Well, they won't let you.

They haven't published their data (the first step). They haven't convinced any reputable journal to publish their findings. The data which they claim to have hasn't been peer reviewed.

Indeed, last year, they were saying

please be patient and expect to get answers to many of your burning questions during the early part of 2011.

Of course, that hasn't stopped them selling the device before they've completed clinical trials.

Let us, for a moment, take a look at the scientific claims on their "evidence" page - there are only three.

  1. "Valkee has CE Class II(a) medical device certification." All this means is that they have certified the device not to cause any harm. Incidentally, the certification covers everything from tongue-depressors to heart-valves. So that doesn't tell us much.
  2. The research paper is a single page - which, admittedly, isn't uncommon when introducing an idea. But it is a long way from proof. There's room to mention the blind trial - but not the results.
  3. Finally, their last (single page) paper hints that they've found particles in cadavers which may be sensitive to light. No indication that they actually are.

So, this adds up to "We have a tongue depressor, which we think may cure depression, but you can't see the statistics. Look! We found a thing in the brain!"

It's not terribly convincing, is it? If they had proof, they would show it. Instead, they're asking for our faith. And our money.


Anyone can quickly figure out three things.

  1. The brain isn't designed to get light in to it. If your brain is receiving light; there's a hole in your head. That's not healthy!
  2. Drawing a straight line through one ear canal to the other on a human skull does not intersect the brain in any meaningful way. Indeed, here's the diagram from Valkee's own paper.
    Valkee Brain
    There's not much there with which to interact.
  3. Even if the brain was receptive to light, and the ear canal was the perfect way to do it, how strong would a light have to be to pass through skin, bone, and blood vessels? Take an LED and hold it to, say, the palm of your hand. How much light gets through?

To believe that the Valkee works would mean believing several highly unlikely things. However - unlikely things do happen. So let us not dismiss it straight away.


Lots of very successful people have poured money into the venture - including Former Nokia Executive Vice-President Anssi Vanjoki, and Esther Dyson. The website and marketing is replete with testimonies from anonymous CEOs and other luminaries.

Anonymous isn't another word for "fictitious" - but it should raise alarm bells. While Esther Dyson is an extraordinarily clever person - is she a scientist? Or has she simply been conned in the same way that many intelligent people were conned by Madhoff?


This device includes two LEDs, some wires, a headband, and a timer. Total cost to you, sir? €185.

Does that seem reasonable? For a device that will totally cure depression? Total cost of manufacture can't be more than €10.


Valkee is a scam - pure and simple. Like all good scams it has the hint of mystery, a soupçon of cure-all, a dash of celebrity, and a strong desire to part you from your money.

Dare To Dream

Business is not science. Too many people treat science as though it can be overcome with sufficient wishful thinking and a good business plan. That's not the case.

Consider the following statements:

  • I can turn lead into gold.
  • I can cram more information into a signal than Shannon's law will allow for.
  • The phone will replace TV.

I don't doubt that someone, somewhen, will be able to do the first two. But it requires such a jump in our fundamental understanding to the laws of the universe that it would require an extraordinary level of proof.

"The phone will replace TV" would have been an idiotic statement twenty years ago - but today it's (almost) a reality.

The key difference is there is nothing in our understanding of the universe stopping phones being TV. Nothing to stop wristwatches replacing phones. Nothing to stop wristwatches transmitting holographic video.

But there is something stopping perpetual motion. There is something which stops light from entering our ears and interacting with our brain.

Don't get me wrong - there are companies and individuals revolutionising business every day. But there are very few who are revolutionising science.

Those that are about to revolutionise the world demand our utmost respect - and deserve to have their claims challenged fairly.

Taking claims on trust is abdicating our responsibility to each other. We have a responsibility to challenge extraordinary claims. To make sure that evidence is supplied. To protect ourselves and our friends.

There are people wearing power-bands, shining light in their ears, and waiting for a Nigerian Prince to deposit a million dollars in their bank account. Don't let that happen to you.

19 thoughts on “Technology Scams

  1. Mike Stead says:

    I'm trying one of these out (cost-free via a friend). Would love to report I felt fabulous after a few goes on a recent longhaul trip, but I can't. Couldn't tell. Maybe I don't suffer from jetlag/SAD as much as I need to to get a benefit (I worked for years as a tech doing midnight-6am shifts, so am used to sleeping when I need to), maybe it's because I *knew* I was using it, so I may have a skeptical 'anti-placebo' effect going on in my melon.

    My wider question is, if it did what it said on the tin, we wouldn't have seen it as a £185 consumer device because every military, airline, maritime and SOL service in the world would have snapped it up. If a £185 device can keep the pilot of a £250M airliner/stealth bomber/supertanker more alert, wouldn't they be *slightly* interested? Air Traffic Control? Special forces? Police? long-distance trucking firms?

    I'm really, genuinely hoping it turns out to be true, because it could make an awful lot of people happier and safer, not just anonymous jet-set CxO's. Still waiting, like you, for that independent double-blind controlled trial.


    1. An excellent point. Of course, one could argue that the reason the Airnergy isn't on the market is because the CIA have bought exclusive rights to it and are using it in their black helicopters...

      Another interesting thing is the number of free Valkee devices they're giving out. It's a fairly common strategy in marketing - and doesn't cost them much - but it strikes me as odd that they'll exchange a positive testimonial for a free device -

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thank you for the post, which again shows the level of emotion that Valkee is creating.

    Just one comment to correct the brain biology reviewed in this post:

    * The University of Oulu team localized (no one had studied this before) the photosensitive OPN3 protein in the 18 areas of the human brain. Most of these areas are within the so-called oldest regions of the human brain, located directly behind the ear canal.

    * Placing these areas (listed e.g. in the paper we published at the Scandinavian Physiology Society Annual Meeting 2011 available at into the picture presented in this post (and the scientific poster at my earlier link) will reveal how directly the bright light via ear canal penetrates these areas. For exactly that reason it was included into the poster: for the brain scientist this picture tells more than thousand words.

    1. Hi Timo,

      Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you'd mind answering a few questions?

      You say that you localised the OPN3 protein. Yet this was first reported in 2001 by the Department of Molecular Genetics, Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London.

      They say that OPN3 was discovered...

      in a wide range of tissues including brain, liver, and retina.

      So, my first question is: did your team really discover OPN3?

      Secondly, when are you going to publish the data from your original experiment?

      Thirdly, you said that we could expect answers in early 2011 - it's now late 2011 - when will your work be published by any peer reviewed journal?

      Finally, the patent for Valkee was filed in 2009 - a few years before you conducted your experiments. Is it usual to file a patent before your research has proven the science?

      I look forward to your answers.

      Many thanks.


      1. Terence -

        Thank you for the very relevant questions. It is good that I cover these: questions are somewhat based on not fully understanding the underlying basic human biology or patent processes - however, no worries, people usually mess up with these details and I am really happy to comment on this.

        1) OPN3 gene expression vs OPN3 protein localization in human tissues

        OPN3 gene expression has been detected earlier, like in the publication you referred to, and even Wikipedia describes it relatively accurately at

        This is, however, fundamentally different to locating the OPN3 *protein* (=end product of the gene being expressed) produced by the active OPN3 gene. Genes are expressed, but expression may have different levels and may or may not produce proteins. However, only proteins take biological action in tissues - in other words, genes can express themselves without the protein being expressed, and therefore not participating directly into a biological process. This is a simplified version of the story but answers your question.

        Very significant in the finding, though, is the fact that these proteins are located accurately in the brain areas that are central to many mood-controlling monoamines such as serotonin. We may be discovering a very, very significant mechanism.

        2) Publishing results

        As Valkee Ltd we would have published the results already while ago. However, we need to give that privilege to the scientists who have done these new findings. They are published then the scientists and the University of Oulu are ready to do so, and the publication schedules of the selected journals allow. In addition, this being a new and revolutionary finding, it takes time to perform the process. -All something very customary to scientific publishing.

        We operate according to high scientific standards and all results will be published: so far we have already published brain photosensitiveness and neuromodulation caused by Valkee ear canal light. These are - in our opinion - stronger than any clinical trial as they tell that we have a mechanism that work with Valkee in our brains.

        So - watch the space, it is all coming soon...

        3) Patents

        The date you refer to is the date when the patent application to became public. It is different than the filing date or priority date. If you study the portfolio more cafefully and read how patent processes work, you will find the public parts of the patent process preceding the 2009 date you noted in your questions.

        I hope this helps you and blog's readers, and that you don't feel that my answers are somehow "aggressive" back to your very valid questions - worth clarifying! I also understand why you had these questions - many not into science as them - but they are really based on not fully understanding the topics.

        Please let me know if I can be of further help!

        Best regards, Timo from

        1. Hi Timo,

          Thank you for your very polite comment. However, you haven't actually answered the questions.

          1) Your team hasn't discovered these proteins. They only believe that they have. No one has replicated your results. Indeed, no one even seems to be working on replicating your results. Why is that?

          2) I'm well aware of how long publishing takes. So are you. Yet you were saying that we would see publication in early 2011. What happened to those plans?

          There's nothing to stop you self-publishing, is there?

          You also say that the one-page poster you've put out is "stronger than any clinical trial". That would be a clinical trial where you claim that 90% of participants experienced total relief from depression?

          Forgive my naïvety... but that sounds pretty strong.

          If you are interested in convincing sceptics - not to mention scientists - why wouldn't you publish this simple data?

          3) I'm sorry that I got my dates wrong with the patent filing - but you've just proved my point. This device was invented long before there was any scientific proof. I'll ask again - is it normal to patent a device before you have tested to see if it works.

          I'll leave you with a final point, if I may.

          Given that no one has replicated your findings of OPN3, and given that no other clinical trials have shown this to work, and given that the total cost of materials is very cheap: do you think it is ethical to sell an unproven "medical device" for €185?

          Many thanks,


          1. Dear Terence -

            This is the last comment from me on this post. I am sure we could go on for ages on this.

            Just one comment on patenting: Yes, it is customary to patent before the full evidence is available. The whole medical/pharmaceutical industry does patents prior to clinical trials for a simple reason: when you trial, you are prior art for yourself and/or expose the invention into public for someone to copy.

            I keep you informed on the next science releases, you can expect them in the near-future.

            BR, Timo from

  3. Terence -

    I really need to respond to this post but I promise this is the last response. 😉 We can then continue during the first two weeks of November when the clinical trials are to be published.

    1) OPN3

    How do you know that no-one is replicating the results? They were published (=first people outside the team knew about them) a month ago. In one month you don't get 10 complete human brains, ethical approval, perform studies and report them.

    I know by fact that there are teams who are now doing exactly that, plus taking them further, to the brain areas not covered by our initial research plus understanding the signalling pathways. We are helping them.

    Scientists understand that what what Valkee has found is revolutionary and opens a new area in science. That is interesting and will create careers. Scientists are jumping into this now.

    One additional item: You should really look what Dr. Deisseroth does at MIT and how that relates to our finding. His "optogenetics" takes another approach but is surrounding the same proteins and controlling the brain with light. He won The Nature Method 2010 Award. See his work at:

    2) Publishing schedule

    We decided to postpone into late 2011 for competitive, IPR and scientific reasons. Once we publish, the IPR window has closed. I already explained this to you in my previous reply. As I said earlier, watch the space during the first two weeks of November 2011.

    We cannot "self publish" science. If you do that, no peer-reviewed journal takes your data anymore as it has been published, it is not novel anymore. This is very typical with all publications.

    We can make claims that we have the data for, and 9 of 10 with total symptoms relief comes from our research that we will publish in November. In depression, "cured" typically means HAMD scores below 8, HAMD being the golden standard in depression trials by bith the EMA and the FDA.

    3) Patents

    I already responded to this. The whole idea of patenting is to patent before you expose the idea i.e. when you become prior art for yourself or give your invention for someone else to take.

    Over and out - focusing now on making world brighter place to live.

    BR, Timo from

    1. Mike Stead says:

      Timo, there is nothing stopping you publishing anything. Nature et al are not sales-driven tabloids, and will not avoid you if you have already released findings.

      Regarding patents, that is nonsense - if you have filed the patent that is all the protection you will ever have. No-one waits for patents to be published/granted before productising - indeed, you are selling product now. That is effectively disclosure. You would have your filing date as precedent in any claim against you or another. Apple got granted patents years after introducing touchscreens, gestures etc, then sued those who copied their ideas when they released products but before the patent was even published (not granted).

      But this is all moot. The proof will be in the pudding you say will be baked and served this month. I assume from your statement this will be in a peer-reviewed journal. Great. Super. I - along with many others - can't wait.



  4. Mike Stead says:

    Since the above posting, I've been contacted by various Valkee staffers or marketers, who have directly accused Terence of being a Troll, of not understanding the science, or patent issues. Now calling someone a troll is to say they deliberately set out to antagonise. I just don't see that in the above questions from Terence. And I don't think any reasonable person would either. The Valkee team are seeing what they want to see, and refusing to answer the well-put questions. Deciding to stick your fingers in your ears and shout "LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" doesn't make the questions go away, Timo, it just makes your silence even more deafening.

    I think we can all agree that SAD and other issues brought on by seasonal changes are a serious matter. Every year many people die or have their lives irrevocably altered through SAD-induced depression/suicide, falling asleep at the wheel, operating machinery etc. So the Valkee promise to increase alertness and offer "total symptoms relief" is a very serious claim, which should not be ignored by the health authorities or indeed any company or government operating vehicles/machinery/staff at high or low latitudes.

    Recently a cancer drug trial - that is, a test on an *unproven* drug - was halted, because it showed just 30% effectiveness. It was considered *unethical* to continue having shown such clear evidence of benefits, when the placebo participants were not going to benefit from the life-prolonging drug. More here:

    If, as they claim, Valkee has proof that 92% of SAD-induced depression victims can have their symptoms "totally" relieved ( ), surely it beholds everyone involved to release these findings now for the medical fraternity to quickly review and act upon. People are seriously debilitated and some die form depression-induced suicide every_single_day. Valkee, you must do the right thing. Publish your 92% effectiveness data now. Let everyone share in the benefits of your technology, with a clear understanding. Let government healthcare agencies see the evidence and purchase your product for use in treating the public. i'm sure you understand that a public healthcare body cannot purchase costly equipment without proof of efficacy. You have that proof. Publish it. Change / save lives now.

    Or am I just another troll? Do I not 'understand science'? YOU made the claims. YOU stand by them. Or is Valkee and its staff/marketers happy to see people be debilitated or die from SAD while you sit on 92%-world-changing proof?


  5. Yuri says:

    Let me make a nice and clean, non scientific statement.

    I've been suffering from SAD since i know the alphabet. I've never enjoyed the christmas time without thinking over it till it nearly burned. I've been using Valkee since a month now and somehow the world is as clear as it is in the spring or summer time. I'm looking forward to the christmas time and feel good. Haven't had a downer since i starting using it, save for the moment i had a nice 60 hour work week for supper with a partying all weekend for desert. Yes i had a downer that week but saw it trough. I'm thinking clearly, feeling good and handing the stuff i need.

    I dont need a paper or graphics of scientific proof to know (knowing not in a scientific way 😉 ) i feel mentally and physically better with Valkee than without it. The brain is a complicated piece of engineering. A scientist can claim something right that may be proven wrong in the future. This works both ways.

    If something works, it's for you. If it doesn't, than its probably not for you. This little piece of (i agree expensive) engineering works for me.

    1. I am really glad that you feel you are free of symptoms.

      I have to disagree with the statement

      If something works, it’s for you. If it doesn’t, than its probably not for you.

      How do you know it's the Valkee working? How do you know it's not the placebo effect? How do you know it's not a coincidence? How do you know it's not the pill you're taking for your bad back which is making everything better? How do you know it's not the fact that you've met a new partner?

      This is what the scientific method is for. We need to be able to test - and then replicate those tests - so we can be sure something does work as intended.

      Like I say - I'm glad that you think it works for you. But if we applied that standard of proof to medicine, we'd be back with leaches and exorcisms.

      1. Yuri says:

        Hello Terence,

        Let me clarify the last sentence you disagree on. Yes i'm certain the factors of life influence the effects of a product. Et al the goal of medicine or helpful equipement is to make the symptoms go away or cure. So the goal is to make people happier in there life. Medicine can work, or wont. Even when cleared by all rules en regulations etc it can fail its duty. A graph or report cant change someones life or cure a decease. Its the combination of factors that make it work. Its more or less the grey area that i was referring to.

        My statement was not to discuss the proof or lack of proof regarding the effects of Valkee.

        I was wondering, what is your background or link with science? You seem passionate about the subject.

  6. Herbert4 says:

    I have been suffering from SAD for the last almost 30 years and I have tried all treatments that were offered, from psychotherapy to drugs and light therapy. This autumn I have been trying out Valkee. For the first time in all these years I am SAD-free. I will have to wait till the end of the SAD season to conclude whether Valkee works for me or not, but it looks very promising.

    Regarding the patent issue I wonder how you can patent such a simple device that does not seem to involve any technical novelty.

  7. Dave says:

    I am interested in Valkee and recently ordered one to see if it works. My depressive periods often begin december and last till may. I have followed this site among others since 2011, and expected more responses and reviews from people after a year. According to Valkee they have sold around 10.000 units, but where are the positive/negative reviews online - from blogs, social networks and other sites giving it a try? Don't get me wrong - there ARE reviews, like the ones above, but they are really hard to find among all marketing shit going on when doing a google search. I don't even find any forum among SAD people where the product is tested and discussed. The Valkee facebook site is not flooding with comments, they are quite sparse. This makes me a sceptic, but well see. In a few weeks I can tell if it works or not...

  8. Johnny says:

    I hope Timo is still reading this blog, because I'd like a short answer to my question. Considering the claimed strong effect of the ear light treatment, your product would be a real sensation in the scientific world. Yet, all science to back up your claims has been published as conference posters (which hardly are very stringently reviewed) or in really obscure journals such as Medical hypotheses and World Journal of Neuroscience. Have you deliberately chosen these journals, and if so, why? Or am I right assuming that the more established journals have simply rejected your papers?

  9. […] That, however, does not mean it is sold illegally. Many light therapy devices, for example such for cosmetic uses, are exempt from FDA regulation. Then they can’t make relevant medical claims. That’s exactly what Valkee Ltd demonstrates: The device is sold as a lifestyle – weight loss aid – sleep promoter – energy booster. Just typical scam claims. It may work on tech people who are prone to fall for such innovations. […]

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