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The US Food and Drug Administration said it has completed a sweep of illegal online pharmacies that targeted 136 websites that appeared to be illegally selling drugs to American consumers.

In a campaign dubbed the International Internet Week of Action, the FDA issued 22 warning letters to operators of the websites. It also included notices to service providers and domain name registrars that their customers were selling pharmaceuticals in violation of US law.

"Many US consumers are being misled in the hopes of saving money by purchasing prescription drugs over the internet from illegal pharmacies," FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said. "Taking these drugs can pose a danger to consumers."

Websites peddling Viagra, steroids and other pharmaceuticals have emerged as a major source of spam over the past few years. In addition to clogging inboxes, the sites can put customers' health at risk because the drugs are frequently counterfeits. According to a study released in August, almost 90 percent of online drugstores advertised on Microsoft's Bing search engine violated federal and state laws, usually for not requiring a doctor's prescription.

Curtailing the practice has proved difficult. Spammers frequently use multiple layers of linked and redirected domains, so that even when one domain name is taken down, they continue to lead to new replacement addresses.

The FDA said the notices sent to service providers and registrars may give them grounds to terminate service to their customers. ®

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