(CNN) The prices may look tempting, but ordering from an online pharmacy is often a bad deal, according to Interpol and the U.S Food and Drug Administration, announcing a crackdown Thursday on thousands of websites.
The FDA said it has shut down 1,677 sites for selling counterfeit or substandard medication, or for selling drugs without appropriate safeguards. Other sites received regulatory warnings. Officials said they also arrested 58 people and seized more than $41 million worth of illegal medicines.
Several sites had sleek interfaces and names that could easily be confused with legitimate pharmacy retailers. For example, the FDA shuttered Walgreens-Store.com; the well-known drugstore chain’s website is actually Walgreens.com.
“It impacts consumers every day,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “These products can have none of the active ingredient that people need for the treatment of their disease. They can have too much or too little (of the ingredient); they can have toxic ingredients, and they can prevent patients form getting the actual medications that they badly need to treat their disease.”
The most common scams advertised popular drugs such as Viagra, Levitra, Celebrex and Avandaryl. The recent crackdown, labeled Pangea VI, involved the cooperation of more than 100 countries, according to Interpol.
Hamburg acknowledged it’s difficult to know the scope of the online pharmacy problem but maintained, “We still do have the safest drug supply in the world.”
At some locations, FDA and customs agents use handheld scanners with ultraviolet and infrared radiation to detect suspicious packaging and ingredients. Confirmation of whether a product contains fake ingredients must be done in a laboratory. The scanners are in use at a handful of locations that handle a large volume of imports such as the Los Angeles International Airport.
The FDA also works closely with private pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, that run investigations and turn over evidence to law enforcement. Pfizer declined to say how much it spends on tracking counterfeits or how many people are working on the investigations.