Fake Internet Cipro Ads Spur Concern Among Government, Industry Groups

As federal and state health authorities urge doctors to curb the writing of prescriptions for anthrax-fighting antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, a second campaign is being launched to keep unscrupulous online marketers from duping consumers seeking to get the drug any way they can.

Increasingly, health agencies and healthcare industry groups are warning about email promotions promising to deliver ciprofloxacin, which Bayer AG markets under the name Cipro, without requiring a prescription. These promotions, according to the groups, are dangerous in that they not only could contribute to heightened fear about the anthrax scare, but they could also push unsafe knockoffs or entirely ineffective products.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, an medical trade consortium, is just one group cautioning consumers to buy only from online pharmacies they know and trust. Similarly, sources close to the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration say both government agencies are looking into reports of fake Cipro offers on the Web.

But efforts by all three are hampered in large part due to the anonymity the Web provides, they say.

“The protections offered by the Internet often serve to cloak the identity and origin of many online pharmacy sites, making it almost impossible for the consumer to determine where their drugs originate,” said NABP president Richard Markuson. “While it is not our intention to panic anyone, it does not seem wise in these treacherous times to risk purchasing drugs from an unknown source.”

Accordingly, the NABP, whose Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site program works with state and federal agencies to shut down illegal or unsafe online pharmacies, said consumers should look for a seal that guarantees that a site or email marketer is safe. Similarly to other seal programs such as TRUSTe, an authentic VIPPS seal links to the NABP’s database of pharmacies.

The hunt for online swindlers aiming to profit from consumer demand for prescription drugs is not new. In the past, the agencies have sought to curb the sales of fake Viagra and fraudulent panaceas. In 1999, the FTC, FTA, Health Canada and state attorneys general and health departments teamed up to launch Operation Cure.All to target Internet health fraud. In June, Cure.All filed charges against a host of alleged Internet con artists, many of whom settled with the agency and agreed to refund customers, it said.

Yet, say the agencies, the problem is compounded by the sheer number of adults that turn to the Web for health information — and are potentially susceptible to scams. According to a poll conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive, about 100 million adults say they regularly use the Internet to find health-related information.

“The Internet provides many benefits. But, its unique qualities — including its broad reach, relative anonymity, and ease of creating new Web sites or removing old ones — pose new enforcement challenges,” said Bernard Schwetz, the FDA’s acting principal deputy commissioner. “FDA and the FTC are working together to protect the public from those who try to take advantage of consumers through this new technology.”

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