It’s almost too easy: With a couple of clicks of a mouse and a credit card, anyone can order prescription drugs online. Scores of online pharmacies offer easy access to an array of medications -- often at bargain prices – delivered right to your mailbox.
These days, it’s estimated that one out of every six people in the United States are filling their prescriptions online.
But do you really know what you’re getting?
Unit 5 took an exclusive look inside the world of counterfeit medicine: Drugs made to look exactly like real Xanax, Cialis, Valium or Viagra – but which actually contain anything from baking soda, paint and dirt, to amphetamines, or even poison.
A building adjacent to the southeast runway at O’Hare International Airport houses the international mail facility for the United States Postal Service. There, every piece of mail, unloaded from every international flight, goes to this heavily-secured facility, where it’s all screened and x-rayed by agents of the United States Customs and Border Protection.
The building is Chicago’s first defense against the scores of cartons and packages which pour in, every single day, with counterfeit drugs.
"We’re hunting for the things that are going to do people harm," said Brian Bell of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "Every piece of mail that’s presented to us goes through the x-ray, and if we detect an anomaly, we’re going to open it up and look at it."
And what they find -- on a daily basis -- is an astonishing variety of pills and supplements and powders -- much of it from China -- which they then test in their labs. Often, the "medication" is actually some kind of benign powder. Other times it contains the drug it’s advertising to be, but at as much as eight times the prescribed level.
In essence, there’s no way to know what’s in these pills.
On the day that Unit 5 toured the facility, inspectors found vials of an unidentified substance labeled as human growth hormone; packages wrapped as birthday presents which actually contained more than 56,000 "Valium," and a gigantic carton packed with box after box of Cialis. It all looked exactly like the real thing, but it wasn’t.
Carmen Catizone of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies estimates that Americans bought $75 billion of counterfeit drugs in 2011.
"We’ve seen drugs that are used for heart disease, blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer that have been counterfeit," he said.
The problem, he said, often starts online, with dozens of web-based "pharmacies" which look legitimate to anyone surfing the web.
"We’ve looked at over 8,000 websites," he said. "Ninety-six percent of those websites are illegal or fake websites.
Many may market themselves as "Canadian pharmacies," but in fact are nothing more than an overseas computer server, distributing pills made in truly appalling surroundings.
"They’re made in probably the most dangerous, unsanitary conditions you would ever imagine," says Catizone. "You wouldn’t even let your pets walk around in places like these next to toilets; places where live animals are moving; unsanitary, dangerous, rat-infested areas."
Bell said U.S. Customs investigates the major suppliers of counterfeit drugs in an effort to stop them at their source. The drugs that they do intercept are all destroyed. But the buyer must still beware.
"If you’re purchasing your medication through a legitimate, reputable pharmacy, with a prescription through a legitimate doctor, chances are you’re going to be getting a legitimate product," says Bell.
And consumers don’t have to completely avoid buying their medicines on the web. They just have to find a trusted online pharmacy, many of which do exist.
The N.A.B.P. keeps an updated list of approved online pharmacies on its website.