A moving target of as many as 40,000 active online pharmacies, a huge majority of them fly-by-night start-ups, may sell products at a cut-rate price but they may also deliver expired, contaminated and fake drugs that can harm consumers, the FDA said today.
"You have no guarantee of the safety, efficacy or quality of those products," Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told ABC News. "You want to go to an online pharmacy that is licensed, located in the United States, [and] importantly, that will ask for a prescription from a doctor."
"This a real problem. In fact, it is a growing problem, it is a problem that we are doing everything we can ... to try and protect the safety and security of the drug supply chain," Hamburg said. "The consumers have a role to play, as well, and that's why we want them to be informed about how to recognize a safe and legal online pharmacy so they can get those drugs that they really do need."
In May, the FDA surveyed more than 6,000 adults and found that almost a quarter of Internet shoppers bought prescription drugs online, and three in 10 said they weren't confident they could do so safely.
What many consumers don't realize is they are more likely online to get fake drugs that are contaminated or past their expiration date, or contain no active ingredient, the wrong amount of active ingredient or even toxic substances such as arsenic and rat poison.
They could sicken or kill people, cause them to develop a resistance to their real medicine, cause new side effects or trigger harmful interactions with other medications being taken.
Just how easy is it to set up an online pharmacy?
Two University of California, San Diego medical researchers showed ABC News how they set up their own fake drug store using search engines, Facebook and Twitter to draw potential buyers, and no pharmaceutical degree or any medical license, is required to set up any of these websites.
Timothy Mackey, a doctoral student in the joint doctoral program between San Diego State University and the University of California, San Diego created a fake pharmacy in less than 15 minutes and for less than $80.
"We basically created a Web app which is very descriptive and has a medical professional, a picture of a person that we just purchased, and we were able to post it online without any verification or requirements at all," Mackey said.