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Beware of rogue online pharmacies selling unsafe drugs

Consumer Reports News: September 29, 2010 11:08 AM

It has been 11 years since we first reported on rogue pharmacies, unlicensed online drugstores that peddled medications without a proper prescription or physical exam. Back then we were able to purchase dangerous diet drugs and pills to improve sexual performance simply by charging them to a credit card.

Fast forward to 2010. Despite tough talk by government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and Justice Department, which promised a crackdown, the bad guys are still in business. And thriving. In fact, we recently found drugs, all available without consulting a doctor, that were potentially even more lethal than the ones we previously encountered, including a litany of powerful narcotic pain killers, drugs to treat convulsive disorders like epilepsy, meds for ADHD, and supposed generic versions of big-name drugs such as Avodart, Crestor, Cymbalta, and Nexium, though no such generics for those brand-name drugs have been approved in the U.S.

In some instances, the sources would seem reputable and safe enough, from friendly pharmacies in neighboring Canada. With a little digging, however, we found the real source, places like India and other countries in Asia. Regardless of the source, the dangers of buying from unregulated pharmacies are many—including the possibility that the drugs are counterfeit, contaminated, or otherwise unsafe.

In an effort to rid such sites from its pages, Google recently filed a federal civil suit against advertisers who deliberately violate company advertising policy.

"Like many online services, we have struggled with this problem for years," the company wrote on its official blog. "It's been an ongoing, escalating cat-and-mouse game—as we and others build new safeguards and guidelines, rogue online pharmacies always try new tactics to get around those protections and illegally sell drugs on the Web. In recent years, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of rogue pharmacies, as well an increasing sophistication in their methods. This has meant that despite our best efforts—from extensive verification procedures, to automated keyword blocking, to changing our ads policies—a small percentage of pharma ads from these rogue companies is still appearing on Google."

"Litigation of this kind should act as a serious deterrent to anyone thinking about circumventing our policies to advertise illegally on Google. As we identify additional bad actors, we will add them to the lawsuit. Rogue pharmacies are bad for our users, for legitimate online pharmacies and for the entire e-commerce industry—so we are going to keep investing time and money to stop these kinds of harmful practices."

If you want to purchase prescription drugs over the Internet, there are plenty of legitimate pharmacies to choose from. While greater oversight of online pharmacies is clearly needed, you can begin a search by looking for pharmacies accredited by the VIPPS programs, developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior project editor

Keep up with drug safety news on our blog and with our mobile alerts.

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