Counterfeit Drugs Online: What to Know and How to Protect Yourself

Counterfeit drugsThe world of counterfeit drugs is shady yet ubiquitous. All kinds of medicines have been counterfeited, from cancer drugs to antihistamines. And thanks to the Internet, consumers and counterfeiters can easily connect and do business seamlessly. The risks, of course, could be deadly. But even if the fake drug you buy online doesn't kill or even hurt you, the transaction itself can reveal your financial and medical information to questionable (at best) characters.

"We live in an economically difficult period of time, and so consumers are looking for bargains everywhere, and especially in areas where they have monthly expenditures, such as drugs," says Fred Felman, chief marketing officer of MarkMonitor, an online brand protection company that has investigated the market for online counterfeit pharmaceuticals. This demand for inexpensive drugs, combined with the sophistication of the counterfeiters, especially in using the Internet, provides the perfect environment for counterfeiters to exploit consumers.

"A simple Internet search of 'cheap' plus any medication name will yield results that include illicit pharmacies that will allow you to purchase these at a substantial discount," Felman explains.

But you can protect yourself from counterfeit drugs, and one of the first steps is understanding why these fakes pose a public health concern.

What's Really Inside?

Many counterfeit drugs are visually indistinguishable in appearance from the real things, but are nothing like them. They can be blank pills that fail to treat a condition. They can have the same active ingredients, but perhaps in a different dosage. Or they can have additional active ingredients that don't interact well together. They can even contain banned substances. All these can not only fail to treat a patient but also potentially be dangerous and lethal.

But even if the fakes are exact duplicates, Felman adds, the origins and preparation methods are unknown. They could have been prepared in dirty factories, been mishandled, shipped improperly or have become expired.

According to the World Health Organization, fake medicines are found everywhere in the world, particularly in regions where regulatory and enforcement systems are weakest, such as many African, Asian, and Latin American countries. In most industrialized nations with effective regulatory systems and market control, counterfeiting is extremely low -- less than 1% of market value.

In the U.S., the incidence of drug counterfeiting is rare, the Food and Drug Administration says. In recent years, however, the FDA has seen growing evidence of efforts to profit from drug counterfeiting around the world by increasingly well-organized counterfeiters backed by sophisticated technologies and criminal operations. Especially online. Just this past year, the FDA warned consumers about counterfeit versions of GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) weight-loss medicine Alli and Genentech's flu treatment Tamiflu, both of which were bought online and both of which contained different active ingredients than the authentic drugs.

No. 1: Fake Viagra

Felman says companies fight this problem every day. Indeed, counterfeit medicines are a global problem requiring global solutions, Pfizer (PFE) says. The world's largest drugmaker tells DailyFinance that counterfeit versions of at least 40 Pfizer products have been detected in at least 92 countries. Not only that, 21 fake Pfizer medicines have been detected in the legitimate supply chain of at least 46 countries, including the U.S.

During 2009, authorities from 44 countries seized more than 11.1 million counterfeit doses – tablets, capsules and vials, Pfizer added. Viagra remains the company's most frequently counterfeited product, says Pfizer spokesperson Christopher Loder, with Lipitor second.

Felman gives an example of a typical counterfeit drug transaction: "We purchased an anticholesterol drug 18 months ago. The phone number was from Dallas, but the IP address from Russia. The drugs themselves were shipped from India. . .the credit card was processed in Israel." Felman adds, "This clearly is a global operation, but you have no idea. It could have been someone sitting in their attic in Iowa."

According to the WHO, in over 50% of cases, medicines purchased over the Internet from sites that conceal their physical address have been found to be counterfeit. The extreme difficulty in tracing the manufacturing and distribution channels of counterfeit medicines makes their circulation on markets difficult to stop, despite global and national task forces.

How to Protect Yourself

Given the current scale of the fake drug industry, how can consumers safeguard themselves? Mostly it comes down to the consumer knowing how to shop for drugs online. But that's not easy because the illegal pharmacies do an excellent job using search engine optimization to make sure their sites come up on top of Web search results, Felman explains.

And the sites are often beautifully produced. Sometimes they even hijack portions of legitimate sites. "It's easy to get duped," says Felman. "It's not hard to find them, and they look like they're worth doing business with."

So, before you even go online, Felman suggests contacting your health insurance company, if you have one. Often, the company can help you save money "with ways to buy the drugs in bulk, or buying more than one month's supply, or having a renewal plan that can actually reduce your cost substantially," he says. Also, some drug companies provide financial help for people who can't afford necessary medications.

If you do purchase drugs online, Felman and MarkMonitor's Communications Vice President Te Smith offer these helpful tips:
  • Make sure you buy from a legitimate pharmacy. Start with a trusted source such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies, which lists pharmacies and veterinary pharmacies that are accredited to do business online through the VIPPS accreditation program (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites). You can check any pharmacy's VIPPS accreditation, although this is by no means an exhaustive list of legitimate pharmacies. Another source is LegitScript.
  • For offshore pharmacies, Canada agencies and LegitScript also certify pharmacies.
  • If the pharmacy site demands a prescription, is located in the U.S., provides a physical address and contact information for a pharmacist to consult with, it's probably legitimate, the FDA adds.
The following practices should immediately raise alarm bells:
  • Sites that demand no prescription, offer "doctor consultation" or a questionnaire instead of a prescription.
  • Sites that sell by the pill, an illegal practice in the U.S.
  • Sites that offer free pills with an order. For example, buy $50 worth of drugs and get some Viagra.
  • Sites that provide no physical address or are located outside the U.S.
  • Sites found in the VIPPS Not Recommended Sites list.
  • Sites that offer foreign or non-FDA-approved drugs.
  • Sites that offer no pharmacist consultation or require the patient to sign a waiver.
  • If you got to the site through spam or e-mail solicitation.
No matter how tempting the deal sounds -- or how legitimate the site looks -- keep in mind the dire consequences that can result if the folks on the other end are crooks.


Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Intro to Retirement

Get started early planning for your long term future.

View Course »

Banking Services 101

Understand your bank's services, and how to get the most from them

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

24 Comments

Filter by:
rxrights

Yes, we live in an "economically difficult period" but also we are suffering because big pharmaceutical companies are gouging U.S. consumers with their inflated prices. Americans pay more than anyone in the world for our drugs.

Americans need access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. I commend your column for listing tips on how to buy safely online. Other good resources on this topic include Roger Bate's research and the website pharmacychecker.com.

Melissa, RxRights.org

December 16 2010 at 12:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Randy

The problem with internet drugs are many fold . First examine the Hypocrocy of the Nations . Allow beer , liquor and Medical (ha) marijuana . Just these three drugs alone cause 70% of all auto accidents .Then a Nation comes on and says "watch out for counterfeit drugs . All State and Federal employees get what ever they want. The rest of society is left Shopping due to $6.00 per hour wages . When you are sick and a Doctor wants $200.00 cash for ten minutes work , then a drug store wants $65.00 for the drug . You can see the problem .. so why be-little the poor people for shopping around .Repeal National Health Care !! and in its place provide National Drug Centers where all Americans pay the same ...10% above cost .

November 23 2010 at 11:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Randy

The problem with internet drugs are many fold . First examine the Hypocrocy of the Nations . Allow beer , liquor and Medical (ha) marijuana . Just these three drugs alone cause 70% of all auto accidents .Then a Nation comes on and says "watch out for counterfeit drugs . All State and Federal employees get what ever they want. The rest of society is left Shopping due to $6.00 per hour wages . When you are sick and a Doctor wants $200.00 cash for ten minutes work , then a drug store wants $65.00 for the drug . You can see the problem .. so why be-little the poor people for shopping around .Repeal National Health Care !! and in its place provide National Drug Centers where all Americans pay the same ...10% above cost .

November 23 2010 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hanknad

I have gotten drugs filled by an Israeli company magendavidmeds. According to your site and your VIPPS accreditation process they do not qualify as an acceptable com,pany to purchase prescription drugs from. Can you tell me why that is.Their prices are good and the meds are packaged and look the same as U.S. products

November 22 2010 at 4:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
upedkk

I had a sever cough for two months and went to four (doctors?)at an HMO. All they wanted to do was fix my high blood pressure with drugs I am allergic to. Not one of them understood that my heart is arithmic so it stops beating about as much as it beats. When they tried checking my blood pressure they would increase the pressure of the metter when my heart stopped because there was no pressure. Duh. If they used an automated tester it allways showed an "ERROR". Pills are claimed to fix everything. The next thing will be pills that set broken bones and fix high blood pressure at the same time. A non believer. Not one of the (doctors?) I spoke to ever heard me tell them that I had a coughing problem as they took my blood pressure while I coughed ever sew seconds. It must be arrogance or stupidity. I suspect the latter, maybe both.

November 22 2010 at 2:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cresults4u

It is really quite simple. The article says how to avoid counterfit drugs, well how about not taking any drugs at all. Amazing how many people in the US pop pills every day just to get by. My toe hurts, I need drugs. My finger hurts, I need drugs. Too many addicts in this place, get off the dope, and stop poppin pills, thats how you can avoid it.

November 22 2010 at 12:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cresults4u's comment
Rooster

I envy you! I pray for a simplistic answer to my physiological situation. I can't find a skilled surgeon willing to take on my problem or consider the procedure anything more than "exploratory" with some potential! Thats giving me a 5% chance at reasonably long term survival. No guarantees, no promises of improvement in QOL! This option coming from head Thoractic surgeons in San Francisco and Mayo Clinic! Mayo was fascinating during their 50 some hour of thorough evaluation and study of my biology and psychological state. Unfortunately, as YOU put it, my finger still hurts, and in order for me to maintain a tolerable state, "acceptable quality of Life", I can't stop popp'in pills or "get off the dope"!!! Was there any other informed suggestions you might share with this counties disabled?

March 14 2011 at 10:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
CUBS FAN

Canada cares for ALL it's citizens. Don't expect that here. The top dogs here get all the money - medicine while you get *hit and shoved in it.

November 22 2010 at 11:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
eyeforeye42

And we need to sell drugs made in America the same cost as we sell them anywhere else in the world as when we sell them cheaper elsewhere, we are in effect dumping. Remember President Reagan railing Japan in the 80's for unfair competition and dumping cars on our market cheaper than they sold them in Japan? They're doing it right here with drugs and giving the cover that they need to for R&D. Nonsense! If they needed money for R&D, they wouldn't be outlandishly paying their executives $millions. That is all a smoke screen. Worse, the last administration and GOP nixed reimporting the same drug sold outside the country for cheaper so to pad the pockets of big pharma and their lobbyist friends as a cost to all pill takers.

November 21 2010 at 6:20 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
dxman7

My best suggestion: Take good care of yourselves by ajusting some areas of the life-style, avoiding junk foods and junk drinks, and refusing unnecessary prescriptions. Experts have found that approximately 80% of diseases com from food and drink. Hundreds of drugs are created every year with a mainn objective: to make $$$,$$$,$$$'s.

November 20 2010 at 11:34 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
pattyhar

It's really quite simple: don't buy foreign drugs, don't buy cheap generics from anywhere, and quit blaming drug companies for everything wrong with the US!! Do your homework, folks, and quit believing everything you read and hear. You will be the same people who, in a few years, will wonder and complain about the lack of new drugs to treat or cure their or loved ones' conditions. Too bad, you made it happen!

November 20 2010 at 9:55 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply