Fake Online Pharmacies Are Sending FDA Warning Letters to Patients

Jack Murtha

Can healthcare disruption stop these extortion scams?

The dangers of healthcare’s digital transformation don’t only come from hackers with cutting-edge technologies. Sometimes, patients fall victim to standard scams that have gone high-tech, a scourge that has gripped patrons of shady online pharmacies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In an attempt to rake in money through extortion, criminals are sending fake FDA warning letters to customers who tried to buy medications online or over the telephone from bunk digital pharmacies, the agency said. Noting that the FDA typically sends such warnings only to drug manufacturers and distributors, officials said the perpetrators are linked to an “international extortion scam.”

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“Consumers who aren’t involved in manufacturing or distributing FDA-regulated products should be on alert that if you get an FDA warning letter, it’s probably fake, and probably a scam,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement. “We know the confusion and concern that these fake warning letters may cause and want to assure consumers that we generally don’t take action against individuals for purchasing a medicine online, though we regularly take action against the owners and operators of illegal websites.”

The scam further illustrates a problem that has plagued healthcare’s digital transformation: Although medicine’s migration to the internet and increased focus on data have reaped benefits for patients, malicious actors have proved capable of gaming new vulnerabilities in the system.

In this case, the online pharmacy market includes many legitimate websites that require valid prescriptions and have privacy and purchasing safeguards. But the internet is also home to illegal pharmacies, which tend to operate with little regard for patient privacy and safety, instead peddling drugs with reckless abandon or cheating customers.

Scammers who forge FDA warning letters are taking advantage of the naiveté of consumers who are only beginning to participate in digital healthcare—and those who intentionally seek to illegally cop drugs from unlicensed online pharmacies.

“Many of these illegal websites appear legitimate, and it can be hard to tell the difference between a legally operating online pharmacy and a rogue website,” Gottlieb added. “We understand the temptation to buy online, and there are ways to do it safely, including only buying from U.S.-licensed pharmacies that require a prescription.”

The news comes at a time when the pharmacy space is bracing for a potentially momentous change: the arrival of Amazon. The online retailer announced last month that it had bought PillPack, a leading digital pharmacy, in a move that firmly answered lingering questions of Amazon’s intentions to enter the market. Just as the tech giant helped instill trust in online retail years ago, it could enhance the perceived and actual legitimacy of the online pharmacy by way of its brand and proven ability to protect customer privacy and all but block out unsavory competitors.

For now, however, online pharmacy scammers continue to illegally sell prescription drugs and send false letters warning of customers’ suspicious activity and potential legal action. (The FDA is investigating these letters through tips sent to this mailbox.) Healthcare leaders and providers and patients can learn more about how to avoid falling victim to dangerous drugs and extortion plots here.

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