CLEVELAND -- Are you one of the millions who look to buy cheaper medications from online pharmacies? Chances are good that unless that online pharmacy is verified, you are not only getting ripped off, but you may also be putting your health at risk. A Channel 3 News investigation exposes the world of counterfeit medication.
Fueled by easy Internet access, world supply routes and little prosecution, sales of counterfeit prescription drugs have exploded. It is estimated $75 billion worth of counterfeit drugs were unknowingly purchased last year. In one well-documented case, a counterfeit version of the cancer drug Avastin was widely distributed in the U.S. last year.
Used to treat cancers of the colon, lung, kidney and brain, the fake Avastin did not contain any of the active ingredient. And earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors that a fake version of another drug, Altuzan was being distributed in the United States. In this case, the fake also contained no active ingredient.
We went online and bought medications from websites we thought looked legitimate. We purchased two very popular medications that are also among the most commonly purchased online: the cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor and the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra.
We found the sites by doing a simple Google search of the drugs names and "online pharmacy."
Each of the sites offers an array of prescription drugs, from name-brand to generic. Photos of people in lab coats, looking like doctors or pharmacists are displayed on the pages. Some proudly display the American and Canadian flags. But our first clue that something was amiss was drug names like "female Viagra" and "Viagra super active." Viagra is not approved for use in women. Also, two of the sites offered free samples of drugs with our purchase -- such as Cialis, which is another erectile dysfunction drug.
We ordered Lipitor and Viagra from each of the three sites and waited for our medicine to arrive. A few weeks later, our packages arrived from exotic locations like China, India and Pakistan, not Canada The first thing we noticed were the customs forms on each of the packages. One said the package contained "plastic beads." Another said "cards" and then a third said "harmless medicine."
When we opened the packages, the drugs looked like the real thing to our eyes. But right away we noticed one glaring problem. We had paid for brand name Lipitor. Instead we were sent a generic version. In one order, we were also cheated on the number of Viagra pills we purchased, receiving only half our order.
Aside from customer service issues, we still wanted to know: Were the pills real or counterfeit? So we took our samples of drugs and sent them to Pfizer's lab in Groton, Conn., for analysis.
Brian Donnelly is director of investigations for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Not only is he a pharmacist, but he spent 22 years working for the FBI. Donnelly gave us some scary facts about the online medication scheme. For example, the pills we received, likely were not made in one place.
"The active ingredient in the chemical could be in one part of China. The person who makes the tablets could be in another part of China, and then the person who packages it could be a third person," Donnelly explains.
The counterfeiter is concerned with only one thing.
"It's not whether the medication works or not. It's whether or not it looks like the product. They may use floor wax on it to give it a shine. They may use automobile paint to give it color. They've used ink cartridges for color. We've seen boric acid used as a dilutent to give the tablet its size and shape. One of the favorite things for making the tablets is sheet-rock," Donnelly says.
Brian Donnelly's team investigates dozens of counterfeiter operations each year. Working with local law enforcement, they bust the fake labs that are far from the sterile environments where real drugs are made.
"You have no idea how that drug's been manufactured. You have no idea how it's been stored," Donnelly says.
In one bust, investigators recovered thousands of fake pills waiting to be sold. They had been left in garbage bags.
"You are playing Russian roulette when you push the button to make that purchase," according to Donnelly.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy reviewed more than 10,000 pharmacy sites and found that only 3 percent were in compliance with pharmacy laws and standards.
You may think you are logging on to a local website or even a Canadian website. But it's actually known as an affiliate, and probably based in another country, for example Ukraine.
"So maybe you started with the site here in the United States, but as soon as you hit 'cart' you've gone to the Ukraine," Donnelly explains, outlining one particular scenario. From there your credit card information is recorded. That information is filtered to another country, such as Estonia, where they charge you and possibly corrupt your credit card.
"We make purchases all the time as part of our investigations. And routinely our investigators' cards are taken advantage of," Donnelly says.
As your credit card is processed in one part of the world, your order is sent to another, often times in China or India, where it is packaged up and sent to you.
We are anxious to find out if our medicine is real or counterfeit. In many cases it's impossible to tell with the naked eye whether a pill is authentic or a fake. In fact, many of the "fakes" look better than their real counterparts.
Using a device called a TruScan, agents are able to analyze and authenticate pharmaceuticals in the field. A laser examines the chemical composition of all the drug's components to confirm whether a drug is real or fake.
"As you can see, it failed. So this is counterfeit. It's counterfeit," Donnelly says showing us the results of one of our Viagra pills.
Tests on the rest of our medication yielded even more disturbing information. In one batch, lab technicians found the anti-inflammatory medication diclofenac mixed in, for no apparent reason.
"When you get something that's contaminated with another drug, you have the potential for getting someone sick," Donnelly cautions.
Earlier this year the FDA took action against more than 9,600 websites that sold potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicines worldwide. The websites displayed fake licenses and certifications.
Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FDA and the Office of Criminal Investigation are all working on shutting counterfeiters down. But they tell us it is a never-ending job.