A hit-and-run pharmacy is lightning fast to start and even faster to disappear -- all before authorities can catch up.
"The bad guys know when they're getting chased, so they just shut down with a minute, and then literally within another hour they've set themselves right back up again," said Brian Liang, head of the Center for Patient Safety at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. "What it's telling us is that there's clearly no enforcement, and Facebook and others in this space are making money off of illicit drug sales."
Liang and Mackey said their mock sites saw more than 1,000 unique users in the 10 months they were active. The outgoing links they included went to a "dead page," and they did not actually sell any pharmaceuticals.
While there are some legitimate online pharmacies, about 2 percent according to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, how can you tell which are legitimate and which are fake?
According to the FDA, watch out for sites that ...
1. ... allow you to buy drugs without a prescription;
2. ... offer deep discounts that seem too good to be true;
3. ... send unsolicited emails offering cheap drugs;
4. ... are located outside of the United States, beyond the reach of regulators.
"If you find out about the website because of spam or unsolicited email, be very, very careful," Hamburg said. "If the price is bedrock cheap and it seems too good to be true, it probably is too go to be true. And if it is not located in the United States and it's offering to ship drugs worldwide, another red flag; don't go there."
Liang added that when they were searching for online pharmacies, the first 10 pages of hits was comprised entirely of fake pharmacies, and they did not come to a legitimate site until page 10 in the Google search results.
The new "BeSafeRx" website allows consumers to check a pharmacy's license through state boards of pharmacy, as well as providing tips for shopping online and seeing the signs of a fake pharmacy.
"We want consumers to be able to get safe, effective, high-quality drugs," Hamburg said. "And if they want to order them online that is terrific, but use a safe and legal online pharmacy.
"The important messages," Hamburg added, "are have a prescription, know your online pharmacy, make sure it is safe and take your medication as directed."
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy also recommends only using Internet pharmacies accredited through Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites or Vet-VIPPS program. It also provides a listing of "Not Recommended Sites."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.