Buying medicine online has increased in popularity, but the risks of purchasing online are little understood by consumers.  Purchasing from a rogue pharmacy, often indistinguishable from a legitimate one, can put your health and money in the hand of international scam artists that may send you pills that do nothing or make you sicker.

Marketwatch’s Val Kennedy reports that industry experts say the downturn in the economy is driving consumers to attempt cost savings by using online pharmacies to fulfill medical needs.  However, the online pharmacy world is full of bogus and rogue pharmacies, unregulated by national authorities, and run by international criminal organizations.  What a patient may get when using those sources for life saving medication can range from non-active pills to outright poison.

Says Special Agent in Charge Bruce Foucart of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Business is booming, unfortunately, especially in a down economy, where people think they can cut corners to save a buck.  The problem is the drugs you get might not be potent enough or could even make you sick.”

In addition, fake drugs are estimated to have caused 700,000 deahts from malaria and tuberculosis according to the International Policy Network in a 2009 study.

The best course for consumers to recognize that internet-based pharmacies can be slightly cheaper, but that prices are not very different from local stores. Consumers should not use online pharmacies that dispense drugs without a prescription, which is against U.S. law.

The ICE warns that products can be contaimnated, or contain substitute ingredients that may have unintended negative effects.

In June of 2010, reports Marketwatch, FDA investigators uncovered a rogue internet pharmacy selling Tamliflu without a prescription which wasn’t Tamilfu at all, but a penicillin-like product that would have been deadly to those with penicillin allergy.

Another FDA case from 2011 revealed that the diet drug Alli sold on a website was shipping sibutramine instead, which is not allowable in the U.S. due to safety concerns. After purchasing the medication on line, many people sickened, and even an ER doctor suffered a stroke.

Counterfeits are not easily identifiable by package or label. Modern technology allows local manufacturers to reproduce boxes and packages.

Ilisa Bernstein, a deputy director for compliance at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said,“You have to be cautious about where you’re buying from…because the counterfeiters are so good now in making copies of the real thing. The technology has become more sophisticated.”

Life saving medications like cardiovascular drugs such as Lipitor, Crestor and Plavix as well as chronic condition treatments like antacids and psychiatric drugs. There have also been incidences of fake antibiotics, insulin, and even drugs to treat cancer and HIV.

Counterfeit pain killers, antidepressants, sleep aids, and anti-anxiety pills are also sold online under brand name monikers.

“The counterfeiters rely on the brand name,” said Dr. Bryan Liang, a board member of the Partnership for Safe Medicines. “They go for the hot drugs.”

The organizations selling these fake drugs range from contracted pharmaceutical plants overseas to small operations according to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute.

Dr. Liang said that distributors can be located anywhere and can easily open or shut down a bogus website within hours.

“As soon as law enforcement is breathing down their necks, they close down and just reopen. It could even be the same website, with a slightly different name,” Dr. Liang said.  Online stores that purport to be from one country can not easily be verified by the consumer as truthful.  Often a “Canadian” site is a front for a site located in another country. 

“The Russian mob are big-time players,” said Liang, noting that Eastern Europe was fast becoming a hot spot for counterfeit drug trafficking.

“The risks are lower for them than, say, trafficking cocaine, as the sentences are lower,” said Foucart, confirming that many of the criminal entities involved are based in Russia and Asia adding that counterfeit sites have also been suspected of funneling money to terrorist organizations.

Consumers can protect themselves by purchasing drugs on through a site registered with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and has a VIPPS seal,  a special accreditation given by NABP to online pharmacies that have been carefully screened by the organization. A listing of VIPPS-approved pharmacies can be found on the organization’s website.

By S. Imber