PITTSBURGH - The prescription drugs look real, but the FDA says many of them are not. They’re coming from illegal online pharmacies operating outside of the United States. Consumer investigator Robin Taylor discovered just how dangerous it can be to order drugs from them.
It can be tempting to order prescription drugs online because the prices are so much lower, but it's not a good deal if you're getting counterfeit drugs, and the FDA says the chance of that is extremely high.
The websites promise deep discounts on medications, stating that no prescription is needed. But the FDA found many of these online pharmacies are selling dangerous, unapproved drugs that are fake, expired or even contaminated.
"The products that these individuals get can actually do more harm. There have been products associated with arsenic in them and even rat poison," said Dr. Scott Drab, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Earlier this year, a bogus batch of the cancer drug Avastin was shipped to doctors and clinics.
"Patients and even clinics thought they were getting the brand name cancer drug and actually it was a counterfeit," said Drab.
In other cases, the FDA says consumers got fake versions of Adderall, a popular medication for attention deficit, and fake Tamiflu, used to treat influenza.
"What we're talking about here is a situation where these are not exactly the same drugs," said Drab.
Investigators also caught websites selling dangerous medicines that can result in sudden death, such as Domperidone, along with popular drugs like Viagra, for erectile dysfunction, that should not be used without a prescription.
"It's a craps shoot because you don't know what you're getting," said Joseph Bettinger, a pharmacist and the owner of Hieber’s Pharmacy.
The FDA found 23 percent of patients buy prescriptions on line, but only 3 percent of online pharmacies follow federal and state laws.
Before ordering from an online pharmacy check for the VIPPS symbol that shows the pharmacy is licensed in the United States.
Better yet, use your insurance company's mail order service, or stick with a local pharmacy.
"I get a very stiff fine if any of my drugs are expired on the shelf. When you go out of the country that does not apply," said Bettinger.
Signs of a risky online pharmacy are: extremely low prices; no prescription required; and an address that is not in the U.S.
The FDA has cracked down of more than 4,000 illegal pharmacies, but new websites continue to pop up.