Consumers who turn to websites that claim to be operated by Canadian pharmacies are taking a big risk, federal health officials warn. They say many if not most of the supposed Canadian pharmacy sites are bogus and the drugs they sell are frequently counterfeit, stolen, outdated and dangerous.
The Food and Drug Administration last year seized hundreds of rogue websites. Special Agent Daniel Burke, senior operations manager in FDA's Cybercrimes Investigations Unit, said unsuspecting consumers may be buying medicines that do not have the active ingredients that make them effective, or may have undisclosed ingredients that could endanger their health or even be life-threatening.
"Consumers are able to buy prescription drugs, unapproved drugs and potentially counterfeit drugs without a full understanding of the risks that they take when they do that," said John Roth, director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, in a press release. "What worries me is that people naively believe that these medicines are safe."
In June 2013, the FDA and other state and federal agencies seized and shut down 1,677 illegal pharmacy websites. Many of the websites appeared to be operated by a criminal network that represented itself as various Canadian pharmacies.
The medicines sold on these websites were described as "brand name" or "FDA-approved" when they were neither. Products purchased by federal agents bypassed safety controls required by FDA, including that they be used with a valid prescription and under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.
Some of the illegal sites used the names of well-known U.S. retailers to trick consumers into believing that there was an affiliation with those stores. Examples include www.walgreens-store.com and www.c-v-s-pharmacy.com.
The banner of FDA's Cybercrimes Investigation Unit is now displayed on the seized sites to identify them as illegal.
Burke says it was dogged online detective work by federal investigators who monitored site traffic, "followed the money trail," and tracked the bogus sites back to an operation based overseas. An estimated 10,000 such sites are believed to be part of this network, he said. The U.S. investigators turned over their findings to local authorities via the international police organization Interpol.
Burke estimates that there are 40,000 to 60,000 domain names that could be tied to illegal online pharmacies at any given time, and that this number is in a constant state of flux.
He and other operatives have gone undercover in other countries, with the cooperation of foreign law enforcement, to lure out the suppliers of these illegal medicines and to track down the site operators.
The drugs that these rogue pharmacies sell typically come from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central America. The site operators are in the U.S. and all over the world.
Websites that illegally sell prescription drugs also potentially present non-health related risks, such as identity theft, computer viruses or credit card fraud. FDA asks consumers to report suspected criminal activity at www.fda.gov/oci.
"Consumers should also beware of offers that some sites make to attract customers, such as offering a commission or a referral bonus for bringing in new customers. They might offer 'bonus pills' with a purchase," says Burke. "They're unscrupulous."