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Is Online Therapy a Scam or is it Legit?

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

Although online therapy is growing in popularity, many people are still reluctant to undergo online treatment and are skeptical about the authenticity of online mental health services. There is no denying that fraudulent activities are prevalent online which makes it difficult for consumers to trust online therapy sites and apps.

Transacting online can be nerve-wracking, and having to do so to be able to seek help may add up to the distress you are currently feeling. That is why I have prepared this article to discuss online therapy credibility and explain how most of these online services handle your personal and financial information. 

I want to reassure you that the majority of online therapists are legit and that websites for online therapy are trustworthy. There may be phony online therapy sites constructed by unlawful people but I will also be helping you in improving your discernment skills in order to detect the red flags and avoid fraudulent online therapy sites.

Why Do People Consider Virtual Therapy?

The prominent shift from in-person therapy and online therapy can be greatly attributed to the pandemic. However, based on numerous research conducted by experts, this transition has been steady since the early 2000s when the internet was expanding. This demonstrates that some people have always been inclined to undergo treatment online rather than in person.

Recent studies have highlighted the convenience and accessibility of online therapy as one of the primary reasons why people are willing to try it. You can seek help from the comfort of your own home, eliminating the need for travel and allowing for flexible scheduling. If you have mobility issues, limited transportation options, or live in remote areas with limited access to mental health services, online therapy is an accessible option.

People are also more comfortable with the relative anonymity online therapy provides. You may feel more comfortable discussing sensitive or personal topics when do not feel as perceived as to how it is in person. Online therapy lower barriers to seeking therapy and encourage open and honest communication.

Furthermore, there are instances where clinics that have therapists that only practice certain types of therapy that may not be the approach fit for your needs. You may refer to our extensive lists of online therapy sites that may cater to you, from individual therapy to marriage counseling. Such allows you to connect with therapists from different geographical locations, providing access to a diverse range of specialties and expertise.

Online therapists provide evidence-based practices. I have provided information regarding types of therapy that are available online like talk therapy and CBT which have been proven to lead to positive outcomes. 

The convenience, accessibility, privacy, and effectiveness of online therapy are some of the reasons why you should also consider and opt for this modern approach to seeking help for your mental well-being.

Is the Whole Online Therapy Industry a Scam?

Given that there are online therapy sites that work with the largest insurance providers, it is safe to say that the online therapy industry as a whole is not a scam. However,  it is important to recognize that even the most prominent names in the field are not exempt from issues and controversies. 

As mentioned, online therapy has gained significant popularity and has been proven to be a legitimate and effective form of therapy since peer-reviewed journals also continuously publish research regarding online therapy. Nonetheless, it is crucial to approach the industry with a critical eye and be aware of potential concerns.

I have collated and thoroughly examined issues tied to well-known online therapy providers. This is done mainly for informational purposes only, not to defame or reduce the credibility of these websites. My aim is to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the industry landscape and to raise awareness about potential concerns.

All of the statements that will be provided in the following sections are publicly available information and reported incidents which you may look up and read for yourself – though, I will provide links that will redirect you to the full reports. 

Getting Started With Online Counseling - Key Considerations

There are a lot of considerations you should take before choosing to undergo online therapy. Just like in-person therapy, you are expected to make an informed decision so that you will not waste your time and money as well as emerge as a healthier person after the online therapy sessions.

First and foremost,  it is crucial to conduct thorough research on the online therapy platform or provider. All the therapy websites I have reviewed are reputable and established platforms that have a track record of providing quality services. So I highly suggest that besides your own personal probing, you should also read our reviews and the feedback provided by other users.

Secondly, with all the information you now have at hand, it is important to verify the credentials and qualifications of the online therapists from the therapy sites you have researched about. You should ensure that they are licensed professionals with expertise in the specific area of concern. Checking for these therapists’ relevant certifications and memberships in professional organizations is highly recommended as well.

If you come from a minority group, you should also assess whether you require specialized treatment modalities or if you highly prefer to be in touch with a therapist that has the same cultural or linguistic profile as you. Always keep in mind that there is no need to rush: take the time to explore different providers and find the one that aligns with your needs. 

You should also make sure that you know which type of therapy is most suited to your needs and preferences. Hence, before committing to online therapy, it is advisable to have a preliminary consultation or session with the therapist of your choice. This is to gauge whether the treatment process they have oriented you about is beneficial to you. There are a couple of online therapy websites that allow you to do that, though for some you cannot choose your therapist nor have a test run. 

By taking these steps, you can make informed decisions and be sure that you will have a safe and effective online therapy experience that meets your specific needs and preferences.

How to Make Sure an Online Therapy Site is Legit

To start, it is essential that you verify the credentials and qualifications of the therapists associated with the site. There are a lot of ways to look for information about their licensing, certifications, and professional affiliations as the associations or organizations they usually list may also be found on the internet. Most of them also have a client support team you may contact.

Besides the therapists themselves, you should always be discerning about the reputation of the online therapy site. I have written reviews for a lot of online therapy websites and some other review sites have also published their own reviews, so it is a good step to start with those. Although positive feedback and experiences can indicate the credibility and effectiveness of the platform, you should also make sure that those testimonials are written or given by real people.

Online therapy is under the healthcare clause and therefore, an online therapy site should follow industry standards and guidelines for confidentiality and privacy. One easy way to check it is if they state they are HIPAA compliant. Besides that, reading policies is very important as well. They should state how they protect the security of your personal information and how they ensure secure communication with you during therapy sessions.

Transparency is also the best way to know whether online therapy is a scam. These online therapy websites should fully disclose their therapeutic approach, treatment modalities, and the evidence-based techniques they employ. As much as possible they should also walk you through how they operate and their commitment to ethical practices.

Unlawful individuals or groups either do phishing or scam you directly for money. You should highly reconsider if an online therapy website does not provide transparent billing practices. Before transacting, it is advisable to verify their payment and billing procedures.

Trusting your gut feeling and intuition will also protect you from compromising your safety and privacy. Always keep an eye out for red flags and know that when it comes to things like this, you can never be too careful. There is no wrong in exploring other options once you start to feel doubtful. 

BetterHelp Scandals and Issues

BetterHelp is widely recognized as a top therapy provider and has been operating successfully for over 10 years. You can read my full BetterHelp review to see why I still consider it the best online therapy site available. That said, I feel that makes it even more important to openly discuss the issues this company faced in the past.

In an article published in 2021, YouTube personalities were found to be promoting BetterHelp without adequate disclosure of their financial relationships with the company. It is problematic because of the ethical issues of having influencers when endorsing products or services related to mental health.

Related to their services, in a separate article released a few months back, BetterHelp’s patients have voiced out their complaints regarding unprofessional and sketchy therapists, with some alleging unqualified practitioners. Their testimonials were mainly laden with concerns about therapists inadequately trained to address their mental health needs.

The most recent controversy connected to BetterHelp is stated in a report which mentions the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) imposed a fine on the company. This penalty amounted to $7.8 million with the main reason behind being the mental healthcare provider’s involvement in deceptive marketing practices. BetterHelp has been accused of misleading consumers by making false claims about the availability and qualifications of their therapists, as well as the effectiveness of their services.

To summarize, these BetterHelp controversies shine a light on the ethical issues surrounding an industry that is relatively new and unregulated. Similar to how other products and services are promoted, the company has also applied marketing techniques that are deemed improper considering mental healthcare is not as “simple” as those services.

While the complaints about the quality of care are concerning, they have been far and few between. We constantly keep an eye and reevaluate our rating of BetterHelp, but for now i’m still confident in my estimation of them being the best therapy site.

Talkspace Scandals and Issues

Just recently, a lawsuit against Talkspace has been published. The article states that allegedly, Talkspace engages in deceptive practices by charging users for therapy sessions they do not receive. Details about the lawsuit reveal that the online therapy site secretly bills users for full sessions despite providing shorter or incomplete sessions.

In relation to that, around three years ago, Talkspace was investigated due to the possibility of compromised patient safety and whether the therapeutic approaches used by therapists are appropriate to execute through the platform. 

Criticism about the credibility and effectiveness of messaging-based therapy is not something online therapy providers like Talkspace can evade. Last 2022, Senator Elizabeth Warren questioned whether this method of treatment can provide the same level of care as traditional in-person therapy. There was also a call to further scrutinize and regulate these services to ensure the well-being of individuals seeking mental health support.

In conclusion, the quality of these online therapy websites may not be on par with in-person therapy but that does not mean that it is not effective. Talkspace and other online mental healthcare platforms continuously move towards raising the credibility of online therapy, improving the security measures to ensure patient data is guarded, and delivering adequate care and support.

While text based therapy may not be effective enough, it does provide solace for some. In addition, Talkspace does offer a full suite of services just like any other therapy site does. While their aggressive promotion of the cheap text therapy product is questionable, Talkspace does provide enough value to patients so calling them a scam is unfounded. You can read my Talkspace review and see what i like and don’t like about this company.

Cerebral Scandals and Issues

At the center of the more sensitive issues surrounding online therapy is Cerebral. Last year, ex-employees claimed that the platform’s telemedicine service was involved in overprescribing ADHD medications. It is alarming that the company was claimed to have been incentivizing doctors to prescribe ADHD medications without proper evaluation or consideration of alternative treatments.

In a similar article, it was mentioned that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were involved in the thorough investigations. Risks of abuse, misuse, and diversion were highlighted. It was also reiterated in the report that it is important to adhere to medical guidelines and ensure proper evaluation and prescription of controlled substances, particularly in the telehealth industry.

Unsettling comments regarding Cerebral’s practices being “extremely dangerous” were said in an article published in 2022. The news spotlighted that there are members of the staff who are providing services despite having expired licenses and are simply underqualified. Given the environment surrounding mental healthcare, some personnel are required to provide support to suicidal patients despite the lack of training.

The severity of these scandals even caused American gymnast Simon Biles to terminate her endorsement contract with Cerebral. Additionally, these controversies support my claim that while the online therapy industry itself is not a scam, it is essential to be aware that certain companies within this sector may employ unethical marketing tactics to promote their services. 

It is crucial for you to exercise caution and remain vigilant when engaging with online therapy platforms, ensuring they thoroughly research and evaluate the credibility and reputation of each provider before making any commitments.

So Should You Try Online Therapy?

Online therapy is a relatively new and evolving field, and it becomes increasingly clear that stricter regulation is necessary to ensure consumer protection and maintain high standards of care. 

While many online therapy companies have good intentions, there is an inherent tension between the profit-driven nature of corporate entities and the imperative to prioritize patients’ well-being. 

Ongoing monitoring of the industry is crucial, as it allows for the identification and mitigation of potential risks. Despite the challenges and criticisms, it is important to recognize that online therapy has its merits.

The industry is perpetually making strides in the right direction, with the positive impact of online therapy outweighing the negative aspects.