FDA Cracks Down on Illegal Online Pharmacies

By Paul Fuhr 09/28/17
More than 3,500 websites relating to "rogue pharmacies" were shut down due to illicit drug sales.
man using a laptop and holding a bottle of pills

The marketplace for illegal online drugs just got smaller. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it has cracked down on nearly 500 online pharmacies which were illegally selling prescription opioids and other potentially dangerous drugs.

The FDA’s actions were coordinated by Interpol as part of the global Operation Pangea, an annual worldwide event aimed at curbing the sale and distribution of unapproved drugs, now in its tenth year.

Since 2008, the operation has seized 25 million illegal drugs and closed more than 3,500 “rogue pharmacy” sites. This year alone, the FDA seized 100 website domains for online pharmacies and issued 13 cease-and-desist letters to another 400 sites. Additionally, the agency grabbed 500 packages purchased from a number of these sites. 

"Consumers go to these websites believing that they are buying safe and effective medications, but they are being deceived and put at risk by individuals who put financial gains above patient safety," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb remarked in a press release about the latest operation, dubbed “Pangea X.”

The effort, which involved 123 countries, saw over 400 people arrested and $51 million of medications seized. Among the drugs confiscated were “dietary supplements, pain pills, epilepsy medication, erectile dysfunction drugs, anti-psychotics, and nutritional products,” according to Quartz.

While the operation delivered a blow to the illegal drug industry, over 2.5 million people remain addicted to drugs and alcohol worldwide, suggesting that more sites will emerge elsewhere. “The ease with which consumers can purchase opioid products online is especially concerning to me, given the immense public health crisis of addiction facing our country," Gottlieb added. "Some of the websites sold unapproved versions of multiple prescription opioids directly to U.S. consumers."

For its part, the FDA knows its work is far from over. In the same press release, the FDA announced an “Enforcement Operations Work Plan” designed to fight the sale of illegal drugs to U.S. consumers. The FDA has already tripled its staff at international mail facilities in order to catch packages containing illicit prescription drugs, as well as doubling the number of people working for its Office of Criminal Investigations.

“In addition to health risks,” the FDA observed, “illegal online pharmacies can pose other risks to consumers, including credit card fraud, identity theft and computer viruses.” The agency has also launched an awareness campaign called “BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy,” which helps consumers avoid illegal online pharmacies. The site details not only the dangers of buying drugs from fake pharmacies but how to distinguish those sites from the real ones. It also provides site visitors an interactive map to confirm that an online pharmacy is actually licensed within the U.S.

“Fake online pharmacies can manipulate their websites to appear legitimate, so checking the pharmacy’s license through your state board of pharmacy (or equivalent state agency) is an important step to know whether you are using a safe and legal online pharmacy,” the site notes. Sadly, no matter the number of campaigns and operations created to combat illegal drug sales, the problem will never go away completely—at least not any time soon. In fact, as the opioid epidemic grows and shifts in size and complexity, so too will the efforts of online drug sellers.

While “rogue online pharmacies are often run by sophisticated criminal networks,” as Commissioner Gottlieb said, information will help. The more that people know about illegal online pharmacies, the harder those criminal networks will have to work in order to profit off the epidemic gripping North America.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.