In the past decade, online pharmacies have gained extreme popularity due to their convenience and cheap prices. Many Americans face exorbitant health care costs, so anything they can save on prescription drugs is great. Unknowingly, many of these consumers are actually being ripped off when they think they are just getting a good online deal, putting them at significant risk. Unlike, say, a fake Rolex Watch sold on the internet, fake medication can mean life or death. With the help of Interpol, the FDA has been conducting massive worldwide sting operations which have exposed hundreds of online pharmacies selling dangerous, expired, or counterfeit prescription drugs.
The FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb said: “Consumers go to these websites believing that they are buying safe and effective medications, but they are being deceived and put at risk by individuals who put financial gains above patient safety.”
Many of these “rogue pharmacies,” as they are called by the FDA, are not licensed and often sell medications that are not FDA approved. Even worse, many of these sites also partake in credit card fraud, identity theft, and malware or computer virus spreading. Some of these sites may even seem legitimate and have good reviews, but when packages are intercepted by the FDA, the “medicine” is contaminated or “cut” with illicit substances. Online pharmacies have also played a role in the opioid epidemic, as some of them sell opioids directly to consumers without a prescription. There are so many of these sites that it can be hard for the government to track. As one is shut down, a new one will open up.
The worldwide sting operation, known as Pangea X, is in its 10th year and is aimed at combating the unlawful sale and distribution of illegal and potentially counterfeit or substandard medical products on the internet. The sting has closed more than 3,500 rogue pharmacy sites and seized 25 million illegal drugs. In 2017, the FDA issued cease-and-desist letters to 400 websites, seized 100 website domains, and intercepted 500 packages purchased from online pharmacies. Pangea X has resulted in 400 arrests and $51 Million in seized medication worldwide. The majority of medications confiscated were dietary supplements, opioid painkillers, nutritional products, and antipsychotics. The FDA Commissioner has said that he is especially concerned with the sale of opioid painkillers. The United States is in the midst of a severe opioid addiction epidemic and many of these opioids sold on online pharmacies are unapproved by the FDA and can be even more powerful than typical prescription painkillers.
The FDA has launched a campaign called BeSafeRx, which is aimed at helping consumers learn about online pharmacy fraud and how to avoid it. Here are some resources provided by the FDA. BeSafeRX can help you learn about the dangers of purchasing medication online, teach you how to identify fraudulent online pharmacies, and provides consumers multiple tools to confirm that an online pharmacy has proper FDA licensure. Additionally, the FDA has tripled staffing at international mail facilities and doubled the cybercrime and port of entry special agents for their Office of Criminal Investigations. The extra personnel will help catch packages of illicit drugs entering the US and those who send them.
According to the FDA, these are some major red flags of an illegal online pharmacy:
- Allow you to buy drugs without a prescription from your doctor
- Offer deep discounts or cheap prices that seem too good to be true
- Send spam or unsolicited email offering cheap drugs
- Are located outside of the United States
- Are not licensed in the United States
Any one of these signs should cause concern and you should go through extra steps to make sure the pharmacy is legitimate. These are some signs of a legitimate online pharmacy:
- Always require a doctor’s prescription
- Provides a physical address and telephone number in the United States
- Offers a pharmacist to answer your questions
- Has a license with your state board of pharmacy. Here is a tool to help you find your state’s licensing database.
Not Worth It
Even if the price is tempting, it is not worth the risk of getting counterfeit medication. Even if medication is real, it may have slight variations that cause it not to be FDA approved. These slight variations can make a huge difference for some people or for some drugs. According to the FDA website, “Medicine that is approved for use in the United States has been reviewed for safety and effectiveness by the FDA. Medicine that may be approved in other countries or produced by unknown sources may have slight variations or different ingredients that could cause you to get sicker, develop a resistance to your medicine or cause new side effects. If you take more than one medication, these differences could also affect the way other medicines work or cause harmful interactions.”