The prices may look tempting, but ordering from an online pharmacy is often a bad deal, according to Interpol and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, announcing a crackdown Thursday on thousands of websites.
The FDA said it has shut down 1,677 sites for selling counterfeit or substandard medication, or for selling drugs without appropriate safeguards. Other sites received regulatory warnings. Officials said they also arrested 58 people and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicines.
Several sites had sleek interfaces and names that could easily be confused with legitimate pharmacy retailers. For example, the FDA shuttered Walgreens-Store.com; the well-known drugstore chain's website is actually Walgreens.com.
The most common scams advertised popular drugs such as Viagra, Levitra, Celebrex and Avandaryl. The recent crackdown, labeled Pangea VI, involved the cooperation of more than 100 countries, according to Interpol.
At some locations, FDA and customs agents use handheld scanners with ultraviolet and infrared radiation to detect suspicious packaging and ingredients. Confirmation of whether a product contains fake ingredients must be done in a laboratory. The scanners are in use at a handful of locations that handle a large volume of imports such as the Los Angeles International Airport.
Counterfeits are not isolated to online sales, and it is extremely difficult to know how many deaths and serious illnesses they cause. Unless a patient's adverse reaction is dramatic, the medication is usually not tested, so the vast majority of counterfeit ingredients likely go unnoticed.
But many experts agree the problem is daunting. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy recently performed an analysis of more than 10,000 websites, and found that 97% did not fully comply with state and federal regulations. It said 88% did not require a valid prescription, and almost half sold medicines lacking FDA approval.
Association of Boards of Pharmacy's website features a list of approved online pharmacies as well as those to avoid.