Woman's Bid to End Prescription Drug Sales on eBay

Is the online auctioneer doing enough to step dangerous drug deals?

ByABC News
September 11, 2014, 9:36 AM

September 9, 2014— -- Almost everything is for sale on the internet auction site eBay, sometimes including powerful and potentially dangerous prescription drugs.

Nancy White, a Tennessee-based IT manager, said she has filed hundreds of reports with eBay customer service over the past four years complaining about prescription drugs being sold illegally on the site. She began her quest after ordering a skin cream and receiving a potentially harmful prescription medication instead.

“It was alarming, especially after I started investigating the scope of the problem,” she said.

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Every time White makes a complaint, she said the company responds by removing the offending listings. But they’re usually back up within hours and often under the same seller profile, she said.

“They always assure me that this should not happen again and it will not happen again, but I’ve seen the same vendor relist the same drug over and over,” she said.

eBay spokesman Ryan Moore said the company goes through great lengths to protect consumers.

“eBay does not allow the listing of any substance that requires a prescription from a licensed medical practitioner or must be administered by a licensed practitioner. Listings that violate our policy are removed promptly after coming to our attention,” Moore, told ABC News, adding that the online retailer is invested in systems dedicated to monitoring illegal listings.

However, White offered one example of a seller who has relisted the cosmetic cream, retin-A, eighteen separate times. While not the most hazardous product, retin-A does require a prescription. Side effects include excessive redness, blisters or a severe reaction to the sun in those who are allergic to it, according to Gina Caliendo, director of pharmacy at the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

The seller, whom ABC News is not naming, boasts a “100 percent positive feedback” rating. He did not immediately return a request for comment.

White said she concentrates on reporting vendors located in the U.S. Many appear to sell prescription drugs exclusively but some sell other products like e-cigarette devices, candy and even bow ties. Since there’s obviously no “prescription drug category” on the site, sellers typically post under “health and beauty,” “skin care,” “over-the-counter medications” or even “pet supplies.” Images of packaging are often posed to hide the “RX Only” notation, she said.

Some of the more than 50 medications White said she has reported to eBay do have serious side effects. Among them is Yasmin, a birth control pill that carries an increased risk of blood clots compared to other birth control medications. It also increases the risk of stroke, especially in smokers, Caliendo cautioned.

“Birth control is in common usage but no one should be using it without the supervision of a healthcare provider,” Caliendo said.

Another potentially dangerous drug White said she has reported multiple times is the anti-seizure drug, Tegretol. Caliendo said that doctors monitor use of this drug closely as patients are usually stepped up to a full dose over a period of weeks. Blood tests should be performed periodically to rule out potential toxic effects to the liver and bone marrow, Caliendo explained, adding that the drug can be fatal in high doses.

Dr. Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist with the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, said eBay isn’t the only high traffic website that has a prescription drug problem. Several months ago, his wife ordered an acne medication on Amazon that turned out to be the prescription-only antibiotic, clindamycin.

“Many of these large, multinational sites blame the people who use their platforms when in actuality they need to rethink some of their fundamental procedures,” Vox said. “It indicates they aren’t taking upon themselves to look for patterns of abuse on their own.”

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

The Food and Drug Administration, one of the government agencies responsible for the oversight of prescription drug sales, did not respond to several requests for a comment. But Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told ABC News that the agency is serious about stopping the sort of illegal activity described by White.

“We look anywhere and everywhere if there is an indication of drug trafficking, even a large site like eBay,” he said.

Vox said there is currently so little government supervision that only the companies themselves can find out the extent of criminal activities on their site. And he said the global nature of the sites are no excuse for allowing illegal activity.

“Imagine any local flea market operating under similar circumstances where individual vendors were selling illegally,” he said. “Law enforcement would come down hard. This is no different.”

As for why people would risk purchasing potential harmful prescriptions online, Vox said they might not realize they're doing anything wrong.

"They may mistakenly believe that ordering their prescriptions like this is perfectly legal," he said, adding that some might do it to save money or because they don't have access to a doctor.

White said she hopes her crusade results in eBay cleaning up all illegal prescription drug sales.

“I want everyone to see that selling these drugs can have consequences,” she said. “There is a person at the other end of each transaction who could be in danger from what they buy on this site.”