BACKGROUND: Websites of many rogue sellers of medications are accessible through links in email spam messages or via web search engines. This study examined how well students enrolled in a U.S. higher education institution could identify clearly unsafe pharmacies.
OBJECTIVE: The aim is to estimate these health consumers vulnerability to fraud by illegitimate Internet pharmacies.
METHODS: Two Internet pharmacy websites, created specifically for this study, displayed multiple untrustworthy features modeled after five actual Internet drug sellers which the authors considered to be potentially dangerous to consumers. The websites had none of the safe pharmacy signs and nearly all of the danger signs specified in the Food and Drug Administration s (FDA s) guide to consumers. Participants were told that a neighborhood pharmacy charged US$165 for a one-month supply of Beozine, a bogus drug to ensure no pre-existing knowledge. After checking its price at two Internet pharmacies-$37.99 in pharmacy A and $57.60 in pharmacy B-the respondents were asked to indicate if each seller was a good place to buy the drug. Responses came from 1,914 undergraduate students who completed an online eHealth literacy assessment in 2005-2008. Participation rate was 78%.
RESULTS: In response to "On a scale from 0-10, how good is this pharmacy as a place for buying Beozine?" many respondents gave favorable ratings. Specifically, 50% of students who reviewed pharmacy A and 37% of students who reviewed pharmacy B chose a rating above the scale midpoint. When explaining a low drug cost, these raters related it to low operation costs, ad revenue, pressure to lower costs due to comparison shopping, and/or high sales volume. Those who said that pharmacy A or B was "a very bad place" for purchasing the drug (25%), as defined by a score of 1 or less, related low drug cost to lack of regulation, low drug quality, and/or customer information sales. About 16% of students thought that people should be advised to buy cheaper drugs at pharmacies such as these but the majority (62%) suggested that people should be warned against buying drugs from such internet sellers. Over 22% of respondents would recommend pharmacy A to friends and family (10% pharmacy B). One-third of participants supplied online health information to others for decision-making purposes. After controlling for the effects of education, health major, and age, these respondents had significantly worse judgment of Internet pharmacies than those who did not act as information suppliers.
CONCLUSIONS: At least a quarter of students, including those in health programs, cannot see multiple signs of danger displayed by rogue Internet pharmacies. Many more are likely to be misled by online sellers that use professional design, veil untrustworthy features, and mimic reputable websites. Online health information consumers would benefit from education initiatives that (1) communicate why it can be dangerous to buy medications online and that (2) develop their information evaluation skills. This study highlights the importance of regulating rogue Internet pharmacies and curbing the danger they pose to consumers.