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FDA targets rogue Internet pharmacies

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is pressuring a number of Internet service providers to shut off nearly 12 dozen Web sites alleged to be selling counterfeit or unapproved prescription drugs.

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The FDA's office of criminal investigations said it sent 22 warning letters to the operators of the sites, and alerted the appropriate ISPs and domain name registrars that the sites were selling phony pharmaceuticals, all without requiring a prescription. The agency said none of the sites represent pharmacies located in the United States or Canada, as most claim.

According to the letters sent to owners of the 136 targeted sites, the online stores hawked everything from powerful controlled substances, including Valium and Xanax, to lifestyle drugs like Viagra and Levitra. Some sites even offered prescription drugs that have not yet been approved for distribution or sale in the United States, such as the anti-obesity drug Acomplia.

"Many U.S. consumers are being misled in the hopes of saving money by purchasing prescription drugs over the Internet from illegal pharmacies," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, these drugs are often counterfeit, contaminated, or unapproved products, or contain an inconsistent amount of the active ingredient. Taking these drugs can pose a danger to consumers."

Many of the sites named in the complaint, such as wellknowndrugs.com and 24-7meds.com, already have been yanked offline. FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley said at least 90 of the sites named in the letters have been taken down so far.

For more on this enforcement action, Security Fix reached out to John Horton, president of LegitScript, an Internet pharmacy verification service. Horton said Legitscript has tracked all of the sites named in the FDA letters back to a pharmacy affiliate program named Rx-commission.com, an organization that bills itself as a leading prescription drug affiliate network that offers a "full range of Popular & Brand Generic Products across All major categories including: Weight Loss, Anxiety, Sleep Aid, Men's Health etc."

Rx-commission.com did not immediately return messages seeking comment. I will update this blog post in the event I hear back from them.

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Horton said Rx-commission is one of dozens of affiliate programs in existence today that handle everything from processing of purchases to order fulfillment. Affiliates often use pre-fabricated templates to set up Web sites advertising various prescription drugs for sale. Horton said while some pharmacy affiliate programs are promoted through junk e-mail, Rx-commission.com affiliates have typically promoted their sites using a variety of methods aimed at manipulating Internet search engine results.

"This particular program has been around since at least 2006, and the drugs you get if you order from them all come from India," Horton said. "Our own buys and analysis indicated that the proprietors of this program are definitely outside of the United States and have a strong Russian connection."

While LegitScript is currently tracking some 55,000 Web sites promoting rogue Internet pharmacies connected to competing pharmacy affiliate programs, Horton called the FDA action a great first step, and praised the agency for putting the sites' domain name registrars and hosting providers on notice as well.

"If those registrars don't shut the websites down, the registrars themselves could be held responsible," Horton said. "The FDA should be applauded for taking this approach."

By Brian Krebs  |  November 19, 2009; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  Cyber Justice , Fraud , Web Fraud 2.0  
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Comments

Aside from any concern I may have about the FDA acting to protect Big Pharma's revenue, I am disturbed that the FDA is implying that their letters create some legal obligation on the part of ISP's and even domain registrars.

Can the FDA demand that an ISP terminate a customer, or that a registrar "confiscate" a paid-for domain name? I rather doubt it. Then again, I often over-estimate how free this country still is.

Posted by: DupontJay | November 19, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Enforcement is fine.

But the law needs to be changed so that pharmacists can dispense more common medicines more easily, sometimes without a doctor's prescription, at least until such time as the health care/insurance is functional again in this country.

If you are on a limited income, and get sick, in many cases you should be able to get the medicine you need from the pharmacist without incurring the time and expense of a visit to the physician.

Many other countries run their pharmacies in this manner. And if congress is going to continue bumbling over health insurance reform, the least they could do is allow greater access to phamaceutical remedies.

As well, more generics drugs and foreign comparable medicines should be sold in the US. Many physicians are directing their elderly patients to purchase prescriptions in Canada or Mexico, because the elderly are on fixed incomes and the prescriptions cost two or three times the cost of similar prescriptions sold in Canada or Mexico.

Admittedly, these are only band aid solutions. But if Congress is unable to confront the escalating cost of health care and dysfunctional health insurance programs, the least they could do, was make many common prescription medicines easier to obtain.

Posted by: blindspots | November 19, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Bad news for people who are too embarrassed to ask their doctors for stoner or boner pills.

Posted by: js_edit | November 19, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Aside from any concern I may have about the FDA acting to protect Big Pharma's revenue, I am disturbed that the FDA is implying that their letters create some legal obligation on the part of ISP's and even domain registrars.

Can the FDA demand that an ISP terminate a customer, or that a registrar "confiscate" a paid-for domain name? I rather doubt it. Then again, I often over-estimate how free this country still is.

Posted by: DupontJay | November 19, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse


That's a thoroughly stoopid comment. I guess you think that FDA so loves to help Big Pharma that they yanked phen-fen, and a dozen other block-buster drugs, took over their manufacturing plants, and clawed back profuits? I suppose you also think that BIG PHARMA makes a lot of money paying off lawsuits, eh?

I do not think FDA can force ISPs to terminate customers, but they can hold them accountable for complicity in fraud, distribution of counterfeit goods, and failure to meet cGMPS.

Posted by: law1946 | November 19, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

It's true that the lack of health coverage in the US is a problem. But that has nothing to do with these pharmacies.

Have you checked the prices on their drugs? They're all generics (even the ones that aren't legally available off-patent), but they generally cost much MORE than the same generics available legally in the US.

They're running a scam to fleece uninsured people who haven't actually looked into getting medical care through the various safety net programs that are available -- people who have no idea what the legal prices are. What's more, the odds of customers actually getting real drugs in appropriate doses manufactured under hygienic conditions are remote, even at these higher prices.

The criminal organizations running these sites aren't some noble group of Robin Hood pharmacists thumbing their noses at the law in order to deliver health care to the poor. They're leeches sucking the last drop of blood from those who have already been beaten down by the rest of our flawed health care system.

And yes, I do think a registrar has to follow the laws of the country in which it is located. Once made aware that a domain is being used to carry on illegal activity, a registrar that allows the domain to continue to be used that way becomes an active participant in the crime.

Posted by: AlphaCentauri | November 19, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I love what DuPont Jay, Law1946, and blindspots say about this, another hamhanded FDA action. You do have to have a script to buy, and I myself experienced an inability to fork over 150 dollars to a physician for much needed medication. There is also the problem of affording patented, highly expensive drugs - Big Pharma has many ways to extend a patent well beyond its expiration date, and we are the victims of that when a bottle of Celebrex STILL costs 75 bucks for 60 at cheapest prices. It's a nightmare, especially in these days when insurance companies can deny you coverage and pharma cards are a thing of the past. I am not happy with this.

Also, check how generic drug manufacturers in India have been harassed by Big Pharma, ostensibly for "poaching" on their territory. There are allegations of murder - not so outlandish a concept when you consider the millions of dollars at stake. Big Pharma lobby owns the Senate, and I despair of there ever being change.

Posted by: liska33 | November 19, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Well, which is it? Is FDA concerned about safety and efficacy or is FDA concerned about PhRMA profits? As a prescription drug user I want to be assured that the drugs I take are authentic and have been determined by competent authority to be safe and effective. Some outfit on the Internet e-mails me regularly wanting to sell me all kinds of pills. Pssst! Hey, buddy. Wanna buy a gold watch?

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | November 19, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Prescription drugs are responsible for more deaths than any other single cause, from Elvis, Micahel Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and millions of other Americans. The FDA and FTC have no business attempting to regulate the internet. They are not even capable of safeguarding medicine.

The FDA and FTC are pawns of the drugs companies they are supposed to regulate. Physicians and drug companies bury their mistakes every day with the help of the government.

Posted by: alance | November 19, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Another move that proves that we have a gov't for the corporations, by the corporations and of the corporations.

Posted by: lip111 | November 19, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

The headline is grossly misleading.

Are these really "counterfeit" drugs?

I know what "counterfeit" money is. It has no value.

But if these pharmaceuticals are manufactured by chemical companies that know what they're doing, and especially if they were manufactured by reputable pharmaceutical companies who just happen to be located overseas, I have a hard time accepting the description "counterfeit".

In fact, almost all of the pharmaceuticals sold in America are manufactured overseas. Just go to prove the pharmaceutical companies are blowing smoke when they say they have to charge more for their product in America than any other company to recoup their costs. Heck, the only jobs they're creating in America are the salesmen clogging doctors' waiting rooms, and lobbyists clogging K street.

Maybe it's time for a separate set of rules. Truly American companies get favored status. Multi-nationals who are just out to game the system are treated like the parasites they are.

Posted by: seattle_wa | November 19, 2009 10:09 PM | Report abuse

The issue here is not drug safety but copyright infringement--i.e. profits. India is not a signatory of the GATT nor WTO treaties. Manufacturers there are copying American and European drugs and selling them back here at a steep discount.

Posted by: werowe1 | November 19, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Brian

Why hold a comment for approval just because it mentions specific pain killing drugs ???

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | November 20, 2009 3:57 AM | Report abuse

Some of you question how "counterfeit" these drugs are, and I personally hate when a press release or other official statement refer to these drugs using that term.

There is a ton of research out there which makes clear: These drugs either contain no active ingredient, or they contain a tiny, ineffective amount, and they usually contain dangerous particles including metal shavings and what is known as "filler product."

In essence: you are spending your money on a non-drug, or a drug that has so little active ingredient as to be useless.

These sites - and I specifically call out "Canadian Pharmacy" and "My Canadian Pharmacy", since they are both the most widely promoted of these criminal sites - know that they sell crap pills, and they don't care.

People have died from taking these pills, by the way. That hasn't stopped these "affiliate" programs from continuing to profit, year over year.

Also to those of you going all "big brother" regarding the shutdown of domain names: My colleagues and I have been possibly the sole workforce out there communicating with domain registrars who consistently claim that they "can't" shut these domains down, when we know this to be a complete lie. The domains are registered in bulk, using arguably, provably fake contact information, to the tune of tens of thousands per day, using registrars typically located in mainland China. I can see if it was a legitimate pharmaceutical website, registered to a legitimate company anywhere in the world, but that's not what we're dealing with here. We are talking about a large-scale operation, executed by members of organized crime, notably all based in Russia or Ukraine.

The FDA should be applauded for this press release and (at least hopefully) any significant action taken against this very serious criminal activity.

SiL / IKS / concerned citizen
http://ikillspammers.blogspot.com/

Posted by: killspammerz | November 20, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

We're not talking about legitimate pharmacies in Canada that ship to the US if you have a prescription. We're not talking about pharmacies in India that follow Indian laws that just happen to be different from US laws.

In this case, we're talking about websites that purport to be pharmacies but are complete frauds. The street addresses for the pharmacies, the pics of the physicians and pharmacists who supposedly run the operations, the pharmacy licenses, the pictures of the buildings, the Better Business Bureau and PharmaChecker seals, all are completely fake -- why would you expect the pills to be real? Why would you think their pills are a bargain at any price, when they have registered the sites with stolen identities and stolen credit cards and are hosting them on trojan-infected computers without the knowledge of their owners?

Anyone who is defending these websites as if they are run by some kind of folk heroes needs to spend some time reading the spamwiki, starting with http://spamtrackers.eu/wiki/index.php/Canadian_Pharmacy and http://spamtrackers.eu/wiki/index.php/My_Canadian_Pharmacy

Posted by: AlphaCentauri | November 20, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

. . . (the FDA) protect Big Pharma's revenue . . . Another move that proves that we have a gov't for the corporations, by the corporations and of the corporations.Geez, you people do not have a clue. These are Russian crime syndicates who are behind this and so much spam in the world, who also deal with selling credit card information. Do you really want to buy some unknown drugs from these guys and give them your credit card information too?

Posted by: roye1 | November 23, 2009 8:29 PM | Report abuse

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