A new report shows that sponsored links on Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, led to illegal Internet pharmacies. Of the advertisements studied, 89.7% led to what the report calls “rogue” pharmacies that break federal and state laws, as well as Microsoft’s advertising policies in several ways, most notably by not requiring prescriptions for prescription drugs and for selling counterfeits.
The report was published by LegitScript, an Internet-pharmacy verification organization, and KnujOn, an antispam company. The bottom line is that numerous opportunities for accessing counterfeit or unapproved drugs exist on bing.com, and only 10% of the sponsored links in the study directed the authors to what they described as legitimate or potentially legitimate online pharmacies. The following major findings were noted in the study’s executive summary:
- “Despite Microsoft’s stated policy of only sponsoring Internet pharmacies that supply drugs from the United States or Canada, beginning by clicking on one of Microsoft’s advertisers, the authors received prescription drugs, without a prescription, from India. The drugs tested counterfeit.”
- “Most of the prescription drug advertisements sponsored by Microsoft that were reviewed for this report did not require a prescription for the sale of prescription drugs, including addictive medicines and controlled substances.”
- “Some ads were displayed for a legitimate US-based Internet pharmacy, but directed Internet users to a completely different, illegal Internet pharmacy website.”
- “Some rogue Internet pharmacies sponsored by Microsoft are members of ‘affiliate pharmacy networks’ linked to Russian organized crime that operate thousands of fake Internet pharmacies.”
Microsoft, like Google and Yahoo, confirms the legitimacy of any online pharmacy advertising posted on their sites through the organization PharmacyChecker, which, like LegitScript, provides Internet pharmacy verification. In addition to PharmacyChecker’s requirements for its verification program for pharmacy applicants, the three search engines require that all advertisers selling prescription drugs, as well as those that refer users to sites selling prescription drugs, hold a valid pharmacy license and be based in the United States or Canada. Something isn’t working on Bing, as the recent report showed that the authors obtained counterfeit drugs supplied from India.
Microsoft told IDG News Service that “we take these claims very seriously and are currently investigating this issue.” The LegitScript and KnujOn study focuses only on Microsoft, but IDG reports that similar “questionable” ads appear on Google and Yahoo.
The US Food and Drug Administration advises consumers on safe ways to purchase pharmaceuticals online. An FDA article explains how to shop safely by looking on an Internet pharmacy’s website for the VIPPS Seal, or the seal of the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites Accreditation Program, which is maintained by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). According to the NABP website, pharmacies become accredited by adhering to standards and passing on-site inspections conducted by the association. NABP notes that it recognizes that some non-accredited pharmacies may follow their policies for legitimate Internet pharmacies, and that those non-accredited pharmacies are verified by other organizations. NABP says that the only organization approving online pharmacies that adheres to their requirements is LegitScript.
With LegitScript using the same approval criteria as the NABP for Internet pharmacies, its list of legitimate online pharmacies is aligned with FDA’s recommended guidelines for purchasing pharmaceuticals online. Perhaps if Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo used LegitScript to verify pharmacies advertising on their search engines, those ads would also follow more closely with FDA’s recommendations. The current use of PharmacyChecker by the top three search engines could allow consumers access to more illegal pharmacies and counterfeit drugs than if LegitScript and the NABP’s criteria were used to verify online pharmacy advertisers, and this could be putting consumers at risk.
For more about counterfeit drugs online, see this blog post from PharmTech Talk.