Illicit Pharmacies Use Search to Bait Buyers

Rogue online pharmacies routinely hack search results to divert patients seeking legitimate drug information, according to a new study.

Rogue online pharmacies routinely hack search results to divert patients seeking legitimate drug information, a new study shows.

When patients Google their medications, odds are they'll be sent to an illegal online pharmacy that sells the drugs, new research shows. In a study of top search results for 218 drug-related queries, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that 1 out of every 3 searches are manipulated to divert users to illicit online drug sellers.

The sellers use a bait-and-switch tactic to lure customers, first bringing unwitting searchers to what appears to be a long list of legitimate results for the drug they entered. When a user clicks on a link, however, he or she is routed to a different site where the medication can be purchased illegally. For example, lead author Nicolas Christin explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a search using the terms "Cialis no prescription" yields multiple entries, one of which is the official site for Cialis, Eli-Lilly's erectile dysfunction drug.

Separating the authentic results from those planted by rogue sellers is no easy task, said Christin. The decoy sites are distinguished by official-sounding domain names that appear unrelated to illegal online pharmacies. Several have URLs ending in ".gov," ".edu" or ".org," leading even Web-savvy users to believe they're connected with nonprofits or universities.

Nearly one-third of the search results Christin and colleagues collected were for 7,000 legitimate Web sites that had been infected to automatically redirect users to a few hundred rogue pharmacy sites, according to the report. Christin said the method is more effective than email spam, another tried-and-true method for targeting likely buyers.

"We have known for some time that unauthorized online pharmacies have been using email spam to tap the wallets of unwary online consumers, but that method did not blanket enough customers so now the online thieves are infecting websites to redirect unwary consumers to hundreds of illegal online pharmacies,'' Christin said.

The interference makes researching drugs online risky business for patients, who may be better off seeking drug information from government sites, such as MedlinePlus or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or better yet, getting face-to-face guidance from a pharmacist. Likewise, buying drugs is best done in person or from authorized online pharmacies that are certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, Christin told the Post-Gazette.

"It's like playing Russian roulette," he said of purchasing drugs on rogue sites. "Most of the time you'll get something. You may get what you want, but it may be in the wrong dose. Or it may be something totally different. And sometimes you get nothing at all."

For other articles in this issue, see:

  • Profiteers Cash in on Drug Shortages
  • Too Few Health Workers Get Flu Vaccine