Spam Drugs are Killing People and No One is Doing Anything About It

By Mario Aguilar on at

Open your spam folder right now and there's almost certainly a grammatically questionable spam email offering you V1agra or C1al1s. But while you know that any pills procured from shady online retailers aren't regulated, apparently some people can't stop buying them. Brian Krebs reports that the problem is out of control.

In an excerpt from his new book Spam Nation, Krebs digs into the dark world behind the illegal online prescription drug trade. The pills obviously aren't safe. In one often-cited case, that of Marcia Bergeron, a 57-year-old woman died because the pills she was taking contained uranium and lead.

Though many of the drugs people order online supposedly from Canada, Krebs reports that most of them come from India, China, and Pakistan. The drugs and the pharmacies that sell them aren't regulated, and for this reason, don't abide by any rules. The numbers are staggering. Of the roughly 41,000 online pharmacies out there only about 200 are legitimate. A study of 2,500 internet pharmacies by the pharmaceutical giant Merck found that 80 per cent didn't require a prescription. But that's not nearly as scary as the reality of what the pills actually are:

Merck discovered that nearly 600 of those pharmacies were selling the drugs at a price below the lowest wholesale average price available to any market anywhere, strongly indicating that the drugs were counterfeit—and very possibly unsafe.

You would think that the pharmaceutical makers and the FDA would lead the way on testing drugs, but the reality is that they don't. A Krebs reports that many parties involved are hesitant to test drugs because if it turns out that the counterfeit drugs are safer than we suspect, people might end up buying more of them.

The onus for testing drugs falls almost entirely on academic researchers, who despite having approval to test illegal drugs like cocaine, have trouble getting approval to test pills ordered from spam.

The bright spot of Krebs's report is that it appears that the gears of government have started turning. In a secret meeting at the White House, officials reportedly basically demanded that internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and PayPal take action about the illegal pharmacies thriving on their platforms. The subtext was that if the companies didn't do something, the government would do it for them. [Amazon via Politico]