BANEY: Rogue Internet drug sellers put us at risk

New legislation can help protect consumers from criminals

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In December 2009, my sister Ali decided to refill her supply of allergy medication, a drug she had taken for years, by using what she assumed was a legitimate Internet site. On Christmas Eve, after taking the drug, she became violently ill and suffered intense migraine headaches. Ali had thought she was buying her usual prescription medication. Unfortunately, her trusted medicine is not what she received.

After Ali recovered, she learned that the website she used did not meet the rigorous Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) accreditation standards put in place by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

Ali’s case, while personally scary for me and my family, proved to be relatively benign. But other families haven’t been so lucky. Chicago native Todd Rode died after taking medication he purchased online from a foreign country, and Craig Schmidt, a 30-year-old plastics salesman, purchased two powerful drugs online without ever seeing a doctor. Mr. Schmidt’s experience almost cost him his life, and he still suffers debilitating after-effects, including permanent brain damage. Other cases show medication received from rogue online sites can have the wrong dose or even the wrong medicine. Tainted medications from illegal online drug sellers have been found to contain dangerously high levels of arsenic, tin, aluminum and even rat poison.

While Ali, Todd and Craig represent only three customers of illegal online drug sellers, the opportunity for other consumers to face the risk of illness and even death is ever-present. Recent research conducted by the Partnership at Drugfree.org found that 1 in 6 Americans - 36 million people - purchase prescription medication via the Internet without a valid prescription. When consumers purchase from a website that does not adhere to U.S. law governing the use of prescriptions, they bypass all the protections put in place to protect them; namely, that the medicines are safe and have been prescribed by a physician, and that the prescription has been dispensed by a licensed U.S. pharmacist in a licensed U.S. pharmacy.

A lack of oversight and accountability over the Internet has opened the door to the criminal operation of illegal online drug sellers who prey on U.S. consumers. The NABP has found that at least 92 percent of entities offering to sell drugs online are illegitimate and operate in clear violation of U.S. laws that were put in place to protect patients. Current data indicates approximately 80,000 websites that do not meet the U.S. standards for legitimacy, such as VIPPS, have offered prescription drugs in the last year.

The Internet allows these illegitimate online drug sellers to operate without much fear of consequences. The small packages of fake drugs are often shipped through three or four locations, masking their true origin and making them hard to track or control. Even more chilling is that these rogue drug sites often trace back to complex organized criminal networks that are manufacturing unregulated and dangerous medicines and are knowingly peddling these dangerous drugs to consumers around the world. Rogue Internet drug sites are often a major source of funds for criminal networks.

The growing problem of illicit sales of medications online has garnered legislative attention. Last month, Reps. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican; John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat; Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican; Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, and eight other members of Congress introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is companion legislation to a bill authored in the Senate earlier this year.

The bill addresses a number of important intellectual-property issues. It also helps protect consumers against the public health threat of illicit sales of medications online. The bill encourages private companies to stop doing business with illegal online drug sellers that endanger public health. Included are companies that host these sites, provide associated advertising or help facilitate their payment transactions. If enacted, this legislation could help shut down the worst-of-the-worst rogue Internet drug sellers.

The Stop Online Piracy Act’s public health provision is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to protect Americans from these criminal online drug sellers. Consumers need to remain ever-vigilant in researching the websites where they buy medications. The private companies that facilitate Internet commerce must continually guard against their services being abused by rogue drug sellers. And law enforcement must move swiftly when illegal sites are found to investigate them and shut them down in accordance with the law.

The Internet is a positive force for advancing knowledge, providing information and facilitating commerce. Indeed, purchasing medications online can be a convenient alternative to other options. However, illegal actors intent on skirting U.S. laws to make a profit can and do put consumers in danger every day. Only by working together will we be able to protect ourselves and our loved ones, like my sister Ali, from this threat lurking just a mouse-click away.

Libby Baney is a vice president at B&D Consulting and adviser to the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacies.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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