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Illegal Sale of Drugs Online

By: Benedette Cuffari, BS Toxicology Candidate, ‘16

Initial Prescription Free,” “FDA Approved,”  “Save Thousands!” and “Our Generic Drugs are Identical to Those Sold in the U.S.,” are some of the many advertising tools that thousands of websites around the world have been using to lure customers into buying illegal pharmaceuticals online.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with other federal and international agencies, took action against these illegal websites during the week of May 13th-20th 2014. This week marked the seventh annual International Internet Week of Action (IIWA), also known as Operation Pangea VII, which is a program sponsored by Interpol. Launched in 2008, Operation Pangea is a weeklong initiative that targets illegal websites selling counterfeit and illicit medicines, in order to internationally protect consumers from potentially harmful products.1

In 2014 alone, Operation Pangea detained 19,618 packages in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada, all of which contained unapproved or suspected counterfeit drugs from countries such as India, Taiwan, Mexico, Laos, and Malaysia.2 The value of the seized illegal products was estimated at over $32 million, with medicines including weight loss pills, cancer medication, erectile dysfunction pills, cough and cold medication, anti-malarial drugs, cholesterol medication, and nutritional products.3 In general, some of the most common drugs that are being sold illegally online include insulin, estrogen, bimatoprost, human chorionic gonadotropin, tramadol, tadalafil, and sildenafil citrate. 2

The main concern with illegal websites selling these counterfeit prescriptions is that consumers have no way of knowing whether they are receiving a counterfeit, or even whether the correct active agent is present within the drug product and given in the right dosages. There is a threat to the security of the consumer as well, as buying from these illegal sites also introduces risks of credit card fraud, identity theft, or computer viruses. Furthermore, consumers are left with little or no legal recourse if they experience an adverse reaction to these unregulated medications, or in cases where no apparent therapeutic benefit was experienced. 2

Despite the growing awareness of existing websites selling illegal pharmaceutics, consumers still fall under the trap in the hope of buying cheap prescription medicines.  To counteract these measures, the FDA works to warn consumers of the numerous ploys websites use to entice customers, and has also provided a list of banned online pharmacies on its website. The FDA offers additional information and guidance on how to recognize safe online websites through a program called BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy.2 This campaign is committed to raising national awareness of the dangers of buying prescription drugs from illegal websites, and provides numerous resources to help consumers decipher safe websites from those that are fraudulent. Some major warning signs to look for when considering online pharmacies include sites that allow you to buy drugs without a prescription from your doctor, discounts or cheap prices that seem too good to be true, and websites that are located or licensed outside of the United States. 3

The continuation of programs such as the International Week of Action provide direct and immediate resolutions in order to preserve the health and sustainability of the public. In order to enhance the results of these efforts by the FDA, it is also important for healthcare providers to communicate with their patients about the reality of these online pharmaceutical scams.


  1. Interpol. Operations. Interpol. http://www.interpol.int/Crime-areas/Pharmaceutical-crime/Operations/Operation-Pangea. Accessed January 6, 2015.
  2. FDA. FDA targets illegal online pharmacies in globally coordinated action. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm398499.htm. Published May 22, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2015.
  3. FDA. Know the Signs. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/BuyingMedicinesOvertheInternet/BeSafeRxKnowYourOnlinePharmacy/ucm318486.htm. Accessed January 6, 2015.

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