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Commentary: Illegal Online Pharmacies: A Potentially Fatal Threat to Consumers

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Over 96% of websites claiming to sell prescription medications are out of compliance with U.S. pharmacy laws and practice standards—a statistic that may come as a surprise to the average American consumer.[1] While this statistic may seem irrelevant to Americans who have never considered using the Internet to purchase products such as antibiotics or allergy medications, prescription drugs are among the most sought after e-commerce products — the 13th most purchased product online behind categories such as furniture, baby products and household supplies.

Getting a prescription filled online is not necessarily bad; it can be convenient and sometimes cheaper. However, there are important factors to consider when purchasing pharmaceuticals over the Internet: (a) the sellers of online medications are atypical; (b) medicine from unsafe sources can be toxic; and (c) the criminal networks behind these websites don’t care about your health – only your money. The newly formed Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) is working hard to address all three factors, and underscoring the importance of knowing who you are buying from.

While most consumers think they can spot a “good” versus a “bad” pharmacy website, they are often indistinguishable. Internet-based prescription drug dealers (or “illegitimate online drug sellers”) are very good at mimicking legitimate online pharmacies — even going so far as to display forged, seemingly authentic pharmacy licenses on their websites — which is why intuition alone is not enough. Most importantly, one should know a legitimate online pharmacy will always require a valid prescription. This means a prescription obtained by a practitioner who has examined the patient at some point. Illegitimate online drug sellers may require a prescription, but source the drugs from unverified supply chains, unregulated for safety or authenticity. Alarmingly, some physicians are not trained to make this distinction and unknowingly promote illegitimate online drug sellers to patients.

So who buys medication online? Although the “typical” online medication buyer is over the age of 55, there are growing numbers of young adults buying online without a prescription. 1 in 6 American adults, approximately 36 million people, are estimated to have bought medication online without a valid prescription.[2] This can be a deadly or life-altering prospect. Craig Schmidt, a 30-year-old plastics salesman, purchased Xanax (an anxiety drug) and Ultram (a pain drug) from an online pharmacy without ever seeing or speaking to the doctor that prescribed the medications. The Xanax tablets that Schmidt received contained quadruple the active ingredient that a doctor would prescribe. As a result of this overdose, Schmidt nearly died and has been left permanently impaired with widespread brain damage that inhibits him from driving or even walking without stumbling.[3] Unfortunately, stories like Craig Schmidt’s are not as uncommon as one would hope.

In 2010, the U.S. market alone accounted for an estimated $75 billion in sales for counterfeit drug makers; a lucrative prospect for criminal networks. There has also been a rising trend of malware appearing on illegal pharmacy sites – designed to steal your information and used for credit card or identity theft. GoDaddy.com took action on 47,000 illegal pharmaceutical sites last year alone and 27,000 of them contained malware.

How can this problem be fixed? The prevalence of illegal online drug sellers has made it virtually impossible for the law enforcement community to address the problem alone. So, in late 2010, CSIP was created to provide a first-ever private sector solution, and among the first public-private partnerships, formed to protect consumers from rogue Internet pharmacies. The mission of the organization is four fold: to educate consumers about the threat of illegal pharmacies, to work with law enforcement to eliminate the criminal networks, to share information among companies about illegal sites and to aid in building a “white list” of safe sites.

Currently, CSIP members include 11 corporations who are part of the Internet ecosystem. These companies will be announcing their partnership with U.S. Government agencies to tackle the problem of illegal online drug sellers at the White House on July 23, 2012. The event will kick off CSIP’s public education campaign, which will include a website with: a URL checker where consumers can confirm the legitimacy of online pharmacy websites, search engine advertising and public service announcement videos.

To learn more, visit the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies’ website at www.safemedsonline.org.

Marjorie Clifton, Executive Director, Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies


[1] NABP 2012.

[2] the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (2011).

[3] Epstein, K. “Online Extra: The Deadly Side Effects of Net Pharmacies.” Business Week. Web. 18 Dec. 2006. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_51/b4014070.htm>.

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