There are, however, cases of criminal organizations operating purported online pharmacies to defraud consumers.
Last year, the FDA announced that it, in partnership with international regulators and law enforcement, had taken action against more then 9,600 websites that illegally sold "potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines to consumers." More than $41 million worth of illegal medicines worldwide were seized in the action.
"Many of these websites appeared to be operating as a part of an organized criminal network that falsely purported its websites to be 'Canadian Pharmacies,'" the FDA said at the time.
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"These websites displayed fake licenses and certifications to convince U.S. consumers to purchase drugs they advertised as 'brand name' and 'FDA approved.' The drugs received as part of Operation Pangea were not from Canada, and were neither brand name, nor FDA approved."
As part of its BeSafeRx program, the FDA does warn consumers that "Buying from fake online pharmacies can be dangerous, or even deadly. Before you order medicine online, it is important to know the risks of buying from fake online pharmacies."
In light of such problems, the company PharmacyChecker.com was created to give consumers some peace of mind when shopping for prescriptions online from overseas pharmacies, while at the same time charging pharmacies for being listed on the company's site.
"We check the legitimacy and license of the pharmacy," said Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com. "To make sure that the pharmacy is selling approved drugs."
In addition to confirming a pharmacy is licensed in its home country, PharmacyChecker.com also posts customer reviews and ratings of pharmacies.
Levitt contends the NAPB and the drug manufacturers, while correct in warning about "rogue" pharmacies, are also motivated by "a business interest" in opposing all medication importation into the U.S. "Often the rationale is protecting the drug companies and U.S. pharmacies because the prices on drugs are lower in other countries," he said.
Levitt said he expects higher demand by Americans for international pharmacy medications with the rollout of Obamacare insurance plans this year, which will enable many more people than before to visit a private doctor, and get prescriptions.
Some of those people, he said "are going to go to the pharmacy and they're going to find out the copay is beyond their reach, the drug isn't in the formulary," or list of medications covered by their Obamacare plans. Those people, faced with high costs of medications in the U.S., are potential customers of international pharmacies, he said.
Levitt noted there is not a similar company or agency "set up to check the legitimacy of drugs" being sold from non-U.S. pharmacies.