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Online pharmacy scams: An aging population may be more susceptible

New research suggests that after age 60, the part of our brain that allows us to detect fraud and deceptive advertising begins to deteriorate. Damage to the prefrontal cortex removes the second in a two-step process of “seeing and believing” and then letting doubt sink in. A study released this summer and reported by The Oregonian showed that participants who had damage to the prefrontal cortex were more likely to believe misleading ads and also were more determined to buy the products advertised even after being given information that refuted the ads’ claims.

When it comes to online pharmacies, it’s not just advertising that needs a dose of skepticism. The tactics of deception are varied — and impressive at times. There’s the popular “Canadian pharmacy” label that, as we’ve spelled out before, is often fraudulent or misleading. Some unapproved Internet pharmacies build entire websites to give the illusion of credibility, such as pharmacy “review” blogs that simply host multiple links to their online shops, with checkout pages just one click away. Or they mimic well-known sites. A couple of egregious copycats we’ve seen are Google Pharmacy and WikiPharmacy. The owners of these websites are banking on the fact that some consumers will be fooled by the use of easily recognizable logos and feel comfortable handing over their money.

Offering an “online consultation” is another deceptive practice that these pharmacies use: Either free or for a small fee, a “prescription” will be issued by a physician after a customer fills out a medical questionnaire. In the vast majority of cases, there is no physician at all — it is just a marketing technique rogue Internet pharmacies use to try to make customers more comfortable. (Besides, the cases in which it constitutes legitimate, legal medical practice to issue a prescription to a patient without a prior physical exam are so rare as to be virtually nonexistent.) Fake certificates and licenses are also rampant on illicit pharmacy websites. And even “licensed Canadian pharmacies” often sell drugs that are actually from an Indian or Turkish warehouse, and are not the same drugs that Canadian patients would actually receive.

All of these components can add up to a veneer of legitimacy. Although they are sometimes very convincing, these should be red flags, and it’s worrisome that to older adults they might not seem suspicious at all. Consumers can protect themselves or their older loved ones by getting educated on how to spot a rogue pharmacy. It’s a topic we will revisit in more detail in this space, so stay tuned.