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Scammers Prey on Health Conscious


FDA warns consumers about buying Ambien, Xanax, and other drugs online.

Don't believe everything you hear. That's the message that's coming out of the US Food and Drug Administration this week as the government agency tries to warn consumers about potential scammers.

Criminals posing as FDA special agents and other law enforcement officials have been calling consumers who previously purchased prescriptions via the web or telepharmacies and advising them to contact authorities if they receive a call from anyone saying they are with the FDA. The scammers have told victims that they're breaking the law by making these drug purchases and that they'll be pursued by the authorities if they don't pay a fine. Scammers are asking for the money in the form of a wire transfer and are asking for anywhere between $100 to $250,000.

"The public should note that no FDA official will ever contact a consumer by phone demanding money or any other form of payment," said Michael Chappell, the FDA's acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs in a statement to the public.

Yet, the FDA warns that scammers aren't the only thing to be wary of when purchasing drugs over the Internet or via the telephone. There are many places on the Internet that aren't selling drugs that are approved by the FDA and may contain dangerous substances.

The agency says that unsafe websites often send the wrong drug, sell drugs well below market value, and sell to consumers without a prescription. The FDA warns on its website that several consumers who had ordered the sleep medication Ambien (SNY), the depression treatment Lexapro (FRX), as well as the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax (PFE) and Ativan (BVF) instead received a powerful anti-psychotic and then required emergency medical treatments.

The Federal Trade Commission recently upheld charges against an herbal products company that sold products to consumers containing shark cartilage under the guise that the products would shrink cancerous tumors and help with the effects of chemotherapy.

Drug websites may also be places where scammers steal consumers' credit card information and their identities.

But over-the-phone and Internet scams aren't rare in the US. In the 1990s, the FDA investigated an average of five counterfeit drug cases a year, and that number has only increased as the Internet has become even more a part of our everyday lives. There have been more than 20 investigations per year since 2000, according to the National Consumer League. A representative from the FDA told Minyanville that the agency has heard of 75 to 100 instances where scammers have misrepresented themselves as a member of the drug-oversight agency.

Yet, avoiding these scammers can be easy. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The reason most scammers are successful is because of unsafe consumer habits and gullibility -- especially online. Look for the safety lock at the corner of a website -- the "https" in the address bar; this means the site is secure and less prone to hacker attack.

The most important thing you can do if you think you've been scammed is report it. Strangely enough, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that nine out of 10 fraud victims never file a complaint.
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