Prescription drugs can be expensive, and who doesn’t want to buy them for the lowest possible price?
That’s what has driven the growth of online pharmacies, along with convenience and privacy.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers about the possible dangers of Internet pharmacies. Some websites sell prescription and over-the-counter drugs that might not be safe to use and could put people’s health at risk.
While some websites operate legally with proper safeguards, many rogue websites often sell unapproved drugs, or drugs that contain the wrong active ingredient, drugs that contain too little or too much of the active ingredient, or drugs that contain dangerous ingredients.
The World Health Organization estimates that medicines purchased over the Internet from outlets that conceal their actual physical address are counterfeit in more than 50 percent of cases.
Nearly one in four Internet consumers has purchased prescription medicine online, according to a new FDA survey. At the same time, nearly 30 percent said they lacked confidence about how to make safe online purchases. The risk of purchasing from a rogue seller is high, with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy reporting that less than 3 percent of online pharmacies meet state and federal laws.
As an example, the FDA said that consumers who purchased Ambien, Xanax, Lexpro and Ativan online didn’t receive the drug they ordered. Instead, they were sent what was identified as a foreign version of Haldol, a powerful anti-psychotic drug. As a result, they needed emergency medical treatment.
Take RxNorth.com, the website of Mediplan Health Consulting Inc., a Canadian pharmacy which was run by founder and owner Andrew Strempler from the remote Manitoba farm town of Minnedosa. When a Palm Beach Post reporter visited Strempler in 2003, the company was shipping 2,500 prescriptions a day. It reported $70 million in sales that year.
Fast forward to this past June. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami charged Strempler, 38, with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and two counts of mail fraud.
If convicted, he faces a maximum of 60 years in prison and must forfeit $95 million that investigators suspect he acquired by scamming customers.
How can consumers know if the online pharmacy they’re buying from is legitimate?
The FDA launched a national campaign in September to raise public awareness about the prevalence of fraudulent Internet pharmacies.
BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy provides resources for patients and caregivers to better understand who they are buying from, and to make sure the medication they buy matches what their doctor prescribed.
Patients should only buy prescription medicine through online pharmacies that:
• Require a valid prescription from a doctor or other health-care professional;
• Are located in the United States and provide a physical street address and telephone number;
• Have a licensed pharmacist available for consultation;
• Are licensed by the patient’s state board of pharmacy. A list of these boards is available at the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, nabp.net.