'Caveat Emptor' Warning Accompanies Online Drug Market

Online advertisements offering drugs without a prescription will indeed deliver -- though buyers best beware of the product delivered to them, warn critics.

Not only are these Internet pharmacies (search) dealing medications illegally, but in many cases the drugs are counterfeit, overpriced and in some cases, dangerous.

“By ordering online, you’re playing Russian roulette,” said Richard “Bo” Dietl, an ex-New York City detective who now runs a security firm that just completed an extensive investigation of more than 1,400 online druggists.

His investigation found that more than 350 of the Web sites investigated do not require any prescriptions. In most cases, the customer need only fill out a medical questionnaire, sign a waiver stating the buyer is over 18 years of age and agree to some version of a “customer responsibility statement.”

Dietl’s investigators placed 50 orders and found that not only can minors purchase powerful pain pills and anti-depressants like Prozac (search), but in many cases, the drugs were shipped from Third World countries and from addresses that do not exist. Worse still, some deliveries contained placebos (search) in place of the drugs.

“Bogus drugs can be sent to unsuspecting customers, putting their lives at risk,” Dietl told Fox News. “These sites allow for easy access for children to purchase diet pills, anti-depressants, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, pain medications and controlled substances without a prescription.”

Dietl suggested that even terrorists could use the slippery system to deliver ”deadly poisons, disguised in the form a name brand medicine, to the unsuspecting public.”

Though some state laws are tougher than others, it is illegal for anyone in the United States to sell prescription medications without a state license and a licensed pharmacist on duty to fill the orders. Furthermore, it is illegal to import drugs from other countries or to sell generic drugs that haven’t been signed off on by the federal Food and Drug Administration (search).

But some operators, like NumberOneRx.com, say they are above board. They claim to have “affiliations” with licensed pharmacies in every state and employ a team of doctors to vet each order.

“We do everything by the books,” said Mike, manager of the Miami-based Web site. “We’re a legitimate business.”

U.S. officials don’t buy it, saying only Web sites that accept authentic prescriptions or put customers in touch directly with licensed pharmacists in the United States are legitimate.

The rest, said one FDA commissioner, are violating the law.

“They are bogus in that they uniformly lie to the consumer about what they are, what they can offer and by claiming what they do is legal,” said William K. Hubbard, associate commissioner for planning and policy at the FDA.

States and the FDA have tried to crack down on the illegal online drug industry. As of June, the FDA has recalled products, imposed injunctions and offered warnings. Prosecutors have succeeded in 102 convictions; another 95 criminal investigations are currently open.

But the political will to put more muscle behind the efforts has been lost amid appeals to give Americans access to cheaper, legal drugs from foreign countries.

Such drug re-importation measures passed both the House and Senate this summer and a final bill is expected to be included as part of Medicare legislation now in conference. The provisions would allow FDA-approved drugs produced domestically but exported to Canada and several other nations to be re-imported by consumers at the discounted price offered outside the United States.

“A universal drug benefit provision would allow for seniors to get cheaper medications through Canada, and you’ll lose those nefarious storefronts,” said proponent Carmen Catizone, head of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Several members in favor of the re-importation bills told Foxnews.com that Americans have been flocking to online pharmacies because domestic prices are unaffordable. And while lawmakers support government efforts to bust illegal peddlers, they want to ensure that their constituents – especially seniors – still can access medications through legitimate, alternative sources.

“It’s an incredible phenomenon – millions of Americans are availing themselves to online prescription drugs,” said Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fla. Deutsch called the online medication market a “safety valve for millions of Americans.”

“[The illegal marketplace] can be dealt with and it will be dealt with," Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Foxnews.com. "All we want in Congress is to make sure the American people are treated the same as in other industrialized countries -- right now we're paying through the nose."

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have for years heard testimony about both online and offline medication scams, counterfeit drug smuggling and even deaths due to bad drugs, and they want the full force of the law behind efforts to eliminate the risks. Despite the effort, Congress has been slow to act.

“This has been an issue for years and years,” said a Republican committee aide who did not want to be named. However, there’s a continuous “butting of heads over the illegal prescription drug issue and people who want to get their drugs cheaper. And we’re just losing the battle.”

Meanwhile, Dietl said he is considering a class action suit on behalf of the victims of illegal online pharmacies, some of whom are children.

“This could be a whole generation of children that don’t have to deal with drug dealers, that don’t have to deal with anybody – they can deal online,” he said.