RALEIGH (WTVD) -- There are fresh warnings from both state and federal health officials about the risks of buying prescription drugs online.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 97 percent of online pharmacies are "illegitimate and unsafe," involving "highly sophisticated criminal enterprises" that sell medicine that "does not work, or worse, is dangerous to your health."
Elaine Marshall, North Carolina's Secretary of State, explained to the ABC11 I-Team that online pharmacy schemes also target consumers' credit card numbers and identities.
"It is a fallacy that they're in Canada," Marshall said, referring to the popular notion that cheaper prescription drugs are available north of the border. "You can have all kinds of websites, and put up nice pictures, storefront locations and what have you, and they just don't exist. They're made up things."
Jonathan Harward, Pharmacy Manager at Josef's Pharmacy in Raleigh, said counterfeit drugs pose significant health risks to consumers because it's possible the drugs are not the proper dosage, not stored correctly, or may have unknown ingredients.
"If you were to get a counterfeit drug and you were to take it, and you had a side effect - even a life-threatening side effect - we don't know what that was," Harward warns. "So it's going to take more time for the doctor to reverse the effects or treat the effects of what happened to you.
The recent case of CanadaDrugs.com further exemplifies the many risks involved with online pharmacies. The company, which boasts that it has filled more than 7,000,000 prescriptions since its founding in 2001, will shut down on July 13 as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. The indictment, obtained by the I-Team, highlights how investigators found pill bottles with no instructions and labels only in foreign languages; further investigation found CanadaDrugs.com selling two counterfeit cancer drugs with no active ingredients.
Under the terms of the plea, the company must forfeit $29,000,000 of the proceeds of their illegal scheme and pay a fine of $5,000,000. The court also sentenced CanadaDrugs.com's Chief Executive Officer individually to pay a fine of $250,000 and five years of probation with the first six months in home confinement.
"FDA regulations are in place to protect patients and help ensure the medicines they receive are safe and effective," said Catherine A. Hermsen, acting director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations. "The U.S. drug supply is among the safest in the world, but when drugs from outside the FDA's closed supply chain enter the U.S., patients are put at risk. For the protection of consumers, the FDA will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who attempt to evade FDA's regulations."
For consumers wishing to purchase their medicine online, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission identify the following signs of a safe online pharmacy:
*Require a valid prescription from a doctor or another licensed health care professional.
*Are licensed by your state board of pharmacy or equivalent state agency. (To verify the licensing status of a pharmacy check your state board of pharmacy.)
*Do not appear on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy's "List of Not Recommended Websites." (Just because the online pharmacy does not appear on this list does not mean it is safe.)
*Have a U.S. state-licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.
*Are in the United States and provide a street address.
Additionally, the N.C. Secretary of State's Office is promoting the website VerifyBeforeYouBuy.org, which enables users to simply enter a web address into a search bar and the tool will quickly determine whether the online pharmacy is certified and from a safe source.
"This is directed to help individual citizens," Secretary Marshall insisted. "It is intended for consumers, it is health and safety issues by the medical community."
I-Team: Online pharmacy shutting down after selling fake cancer drugs