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The Real Cost of Cheap Online Meds

April 26, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of Stuart F. Delery, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. If you are like most people, you probably think intellectual property (IP) is an abstract business or legal concept that does not affect you. But if you are one of the estimated 36 million Americans — and growing — who purchase medication through online pharmacies, IP may be protecting you from unknowingly gambling with your own health. Online pharmacies are prolific. And appealing. For the many Americans who do not have health insurance or cannot afford certain medications, the Web seems to offer a cheaper alternative. Many of these sites are designed to appear legitimate, often featuring a picture of smiling pharmacist in a white lab coat or claiming to be based in Canada. But these sites often are not what they seem. Neither are the drugs they sell. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of drugs sold online are counterfeit. This means that these drugs are designed and packaged to look exactly like medicine you know and trust — medicine which required years of research and development, went through a stringent approval process, and was manufactured by trained professionals. These counterfeit drugs lack those safeguards; they aren’t made in quality-controlled laboratories, but in hidden rooms with unsanitary conditions. In order to replicate the look of legitimate drugs, they bear shockingly sophisticated labels and packaging, down to the serial numbers on blister packs and holograms. If that seems like a lot of trouble to go through, one need only look at the revenue for counterfeit pharmaceuticals worldwide to understand why — fake drugs raked in an estimated $75 billion last year. All of us are looking for quality medicines at a better price. But these counterfeit pharmaceutical websites are run by criminals who trade on your trust of approved medicines and the quality assurances you have come to expect from them. Take the case of Hazim Gaber, who ran an online pharmacy selling a highly-sought after cancer drug, DCA. Or so his customers thought. The pills these cancer patients received in the mail contained nothing more than starch, dextrin and lactose. For good measure, each shipment included a fraudulent certificate of analysis from a fictitious laboratory. The medicine Gaber sold was useless. But, more often, counterfeit medications are actually harmful. More typical of a hardware store than a pharmacy, these products often include chemicals you might not even want in your house, let alone your body — toxins like rat poison, highway paint, floor wax, and boric acid. As just one example, customers have received ‘Xanax’ pills containing a substance used to manufacture sheetrock. IP protections are a critical tool in protecting Americans from this threat. IP is not simply about downloading music or billion dollar fights over microchips. It is about making sure what you buy is actually what it claims to be. That is why the Department of Justice is working hard to fight these criminal counterfeiters. Established by Attorney General Holder, our department-wide IP Task Force is working to combat the growing number of IP crimes, strengthening IP protections through heightened civil and criminal enforcement, greater coordination with state and local law enforcement and, because we know we cannot fight this within our borders alone, increased focus on international enforcement efforts. As part of that initiative, within the Civil Division, we have formed a team of attorneys dedicated to handling counterfeit pharmaceutical cases, particularly those trafficked over the Internet. Working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and many other partners, we are succeeding in safeguarding IP rights and protecting consumers’ safety. And, thanks to the Department’s efforts, criminals like Gaber are off the Internet and behind bars. Most importantly, we are working to educate consumers about how they can protect themselves. A recent study showed that fewer than 11% of online pharmacy sites ask for a prescription. Before you purchase any medicines online, make sure the site (1) requires a prescription; (2) provides its name and address; and (3) has a licensed pharmacist you can actually speak to. And if you suspect an online pharmacy is selling counterfeit medicine, report it here. With your help, we can keep patients safe, protect legitimate businesses, and keep products like rat poison and highway paint where they belong – far away from our medicine cabinets. You can learn more about this Administration’s efforts to inform the public about intellectual property crime at www.ncpc.org/getreal.

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Updated April 7, 2017