Video: Drug sales a growing concern on Internet

By Anchor
NBC News
updated 12/19/2003 10:26:04 AM ET 2003-12-19T15:26:04

There are 500 billion documents available on the Internet. And, according to Michigan Congressman John Dingell, “There’s no real law and there’s no rules.”

When it comes to online pharmacies, that’s often very bad news. “I call them drug dealers because that’s exactly what they are,” said investigator Beau Deitl.

For every one that’s legitimate, there’s another that’s not. From diet pills to narcotics, and even medicine that can be expired, tainted, and often disguised as other products.

Google, the world’s largest search engine, has decided to take some responsibility. A simple search for the addictive pain killer Vicodan — without prescription — yields more than 3000 results. 

“This is the first area, first product area, where we are employing a third-party verifier,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations.

A third-party to help consumers find an honest pharmacy when they click onto an ad generated by a Google search. It's big business. Google reportedly collects 29 percent of the $3.3 billion online ad market.

Who's at fault?
Congressman John Dingell, D-Michigan, said credit card companies, delivery services and lawmakers need to be held accountable: “So who is responsible? Food and Drug has an important responsibility; Customs has an important responsibility; Drug Enforcement Administration has an important responsibility. Probably the Department of Homeland Security has an important responsibility. The ATF has responsibility. The IRS, United States attorneys and the Department of Justice, the different state attorneys general, the different prosecutors, police and law enforcement agencies around through the country. How to stop it, how to control it and whether Google, by stopping what they’re doing — I commend them for it — is going to be able to bring it to a halt or not is anybody’s guess.  I think not.”

FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan said, “We take the threat of illegal Internet pharmacies very seriously. We’ve opened and conducted literally hundreds of investigations into Internet Web sites, resulting in many convictions and enforcement actions.”

In fact, 372 criminal investigations have so far secured 106 convictions and their Web site tells consumers what to avoid.

Beau Deitl thinks we absolutely need new laws to catch up to this new reality. He should know. A former, highly decorated New York City homicide detective, he now runs his own investigative firm.

AOL, Google and Yahoo now all say that they’re putting new systems in place, that they’re going vet these Web sites. But will that really make any difference? 

“We did an investigation with over 1,400 Web sites. We saw some of the cretins,” Deitl added.

Deitl discovered more than 350 pharmacies that didn’t require prescriptions for narcotics and received 79 orders of dangerous drugs with no prescriptions.

For Deitl, it’s personal for two reasons - daughter Dana and son Beau. “Anybody can basically get any drugs that they want off the Internet. No matter how old you are,” said 14-year-old Dana Deitl.

In a controlled experiment, Deitl had his kids see what they could buy. The answer? Everything. “It used to be where your son or daughter used to have to go around the block to buy these drugs," he said. "Now, they could go up to their room, you think they’re doing their homework.”

Deitl is lobbying for change. And, Congressman Dingell will hold hearings next month.  "Everyone is treating this as a problem which does not exist, and quietly, whether they’re aware that such a thing happens to be — they’re hoping it goes away," Dingel said.

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