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FTC, AffKing, and some thoughts about affiliate networks

The Federal Trade Commission’s announcement today that they have frozen the assets and “shut down” the AffKing pharmaceutical spam network (also known as “Canadian Healthcare” or, in earlier iterations, “Target Pharmacy,” “Worldwide Wholesale Pharmacy,” “Direct Pharmacy,” and later “Canadian Drugstore”) highlights a small quandary for LegitScript: How do we treat Internet pharmacy affiliate networks?

AffKing, of course, may not be the best example for talking about affiliate networks. AffKing, believed to be sponsored by spam-sponsor SanCash, was doing a lot wrong (spam, drugs from India, no prescription required, “herbal products” actually contained active pharmaceutical ingredients…the list goes on). But the thousands of websites involved in the AffKing network got us thinking about Internet pharmacy networks generally.

On the one hand, affiliate networks aren’t inherently illegal or unethical. They are a way of expanding one’s Internet presence (or, as we call it at LegitScript, one’s “Internet Footprint”) and increasing the likelihood that you’ll get website visitors and thus customers.

The problem, as we see it, is that the main characteristic of nearly all Internet pharmacy affiliate networks is a lack of transparency. If the commodity were blue jeans, not knowing who you are buying from probably won’t affect your health. But it’s a different matter when it comes to prescription drugs: the vast majority of affiliate networks (and we include apparently US-based ones like RxPayouts, Secure Medical and Health Solutions Network are, to differing extents, not transparent about who will write the prescription, which pharmacy will fill it, which network the website is affiliated with, where the drugs really come from, and who actually controls the website. And it leads to the natural question: If the website has nothing to hide, why not be completely transparent?

Take, for example. The website is an affiliate of Secure Medical, which does not require a “valid prescription” (as LegitScript has defined that term) by dint of offering an “online consultation.” The online pharmacy says that it only uses US-based physicians and offers only FDA-approved drugs. Well, if that’s the case, why not just publish the name of the pharmacy and the doctors on the website? It stands to reason that we should be able to know the name of the doctor and pharmacy that are going to write and dispense the prescriptions. So, we contacted via live chat to ask about the doctor and pharmacy. “Jason” wouldn’t tell us in either case. For the doctor question, he gave us a number to call, but nobody picked up.

The answer, of course, is that isn’t a pharmacy: it’s a website. But AccessRx and most other online pharmacy affiliate websites serve to cloud the identity of the pharmacy and the doctor until after you receive the drugs. Even then, for some affiliate networks based in the US, only the last name of the doctor is on the pill bottle. Who knows which state, if any, he or she is licensed in, or if the information is even accurate? (In most cases the affiliate website registrants probably couldn’t tell you which doctors or pharmacists are involved.)

LegitScript standards do not prohibit membership in an affiliate pharmacy network. However, we do insist on transparency. That’s a test that most Internet pharmacy affiliate network websites fail.