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A restaurateur and her son were sentenced last month to federal prison in Florida for running an unlicensed Internet pharmacy which fulfilled orders from a bedroom in her suburban home. Although they operated only two websites, mother and son generated a stunning $1.3 million in sales, Associated Press reports.

What about the legality of offers we get in our mail box from other companies pretending to be Internet pharmacies, we asked ourselves? Are these all bedroom companies too?

Out of curiosity we indexed all the spam from a company called Pharmacy Worldwide or Pharmacy Discounts (http://www.pharmacyzone.biz/webstore). Almost every mail referred to a different address on the web.

That’s not surprising. Many internet pharmacies are not your run-of-the-mill click and brick companies, but multi-level marketing firms. They hunt for individuals like you and to me to set up a website, and to sell merchandise they have to order from them. That’s why you get so much spam. (Many of these firms claim to have zero tolerance towards spam. But when you want to complain to them by filling in a form, the site often reports an error.)

Is it legal to sell prescription drugs through multi-level marketing? We doubt it. Legitimate internet pharmacies display a seal indicating they meet state licensing requirements. We almost never see those at smartvertised sites. Usually, there is no address to write to or a phone number to complain, putting customers in limbo when they want to complain.

Not long ago, we even found a multi level marketing company called Internet Laboratories International hosted from a Brazilian website with the sardonic domain name www.m-la-ta-di.com.br.

It may well be that the real people behind these companies are located in Canada. That’s not just guessing: occasionally, you’ll find a Canadian return address cleverly hidden on these sites.

Manitoba's internet pharmacy industry alone is now worth $1.2 billion a year, thanks to cross-border sales of prescription drugs to the US. An estimated one million U.S. residents buy prescription drugs through Canadian online pharmacies.

Canada has price controls of prescription drugs. Which makes this country a very attractive proposition for Americans to buy their medicine online. Obviously, the US pharmaceutical companies are not amused. Pfizer recently cut off supplies through wholesalers to 50 Canadian Internet pharmacies.

However, not all is well in Canada either. Canadian online pharmacies are under increasing scrutiny. A House of Commons standing committee on health last Thursday heard that Canadian internet pharmacies aren't making people any healthier and may be open to fraud. Often there are no assurances that the doctors who need to prescribe the drugs are authentic. Nor are the drugs they offer always safe.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week reported that nearly 90 per cent of the imported mail-order drugs stopped at the borders of the US were potentially dangerous and possibly counterfeit.

Snake oil vendors seem to pop up everywhere. German customs officers confiscated 40,000 fake tablets of Viagra in a package off a cargo plane from India. And a Chinese Pharmacy Enforcement Unit of the State Health Department scored the biggest seizure so far of Chinese-made imitation Viagra. Guess who were going to sell them?

Before the Internet, drug hucksters ran small ads in newspapers offering toll-free numbers to order prescription drugs. These days, profiteers can launch web sites overnight and reach hundreds of thousands of people just by spamming.

As early as 1998 public health advocates at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), warned consumers to beware of schemes offering to sell fake drugs over the Internet. But despite ongoing law enforcement and consumer education campaigns, the sale of fake medicine on the web has proliferated.

Meanwhile, the FDA says it will tighten requirements for drug wholesalers so it's tougher to sneak counterfeits into legitimate supplies. Companies such as Pfizer will also step up their efforts to fight illegal pharmacies. Our advice: read these guidelines carefully before ordering. ®

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