Buying prescription drugs over the Internet has become standard operating procedure for many Americans who used to visit the neighborhood pharmacy. And while many Internet pharmacies are 100 percent legitimate, hundreds of others are not and are seen by law enforcement as a a dangerous problem. That includes 15 in Florida whose licenses have been suspended in recent weeks by federal authorities.
NBC's Mark Potter was on a raid of one of these alleged pill mills.
TAMPA, Fla. — At a drug store near Tampa, agents and investigators from the Drug Enforcement Agency swoop in to suspend the license of an Internet pharmacy for allegedly selling painkillers illegally. In this case, it was boxes and boxes of hydrocodone.
"This is probably destined for a customer who's ordered it online somewhere across the country," says DEA Investigator Chris Grush.
Authorities say thousands of Web sites and hundreds of illegal Internet pharmacies have sprung up nationwide, cutting corners on medical exams and charging six to 10 times the normal price for prescription drugs that are widely abused.
"They hide behind their profession to push these drugs out simply to make money," says DEA Special Agent in Charge Mark Trouville.
The big concern is that many online pharmacies use doctors to write prescriptions for dangerous and addictive drugs for people they have never met. Federal agents say it's not uncommon for Internet buyers to simply fill out a brief medical questionnaire.
"We have a doctor, a situation where a doctor was sitting in front of a computer screen and writing hundreds and hundreds of prescriptions a day," says Trouville.
One man says he used illegal Internet pharmacies to fuel his addiction to Xanax and Valium.
"I used my wife's name, and I used my mother's name, and I put them all on my credit card," said the man who wished to remain anonymous.
Six years ago, 18-year-old Ryan Haight died from an overdose of drugs bought online. In 2004 his mother testified before the U.S. Senate in support of a proposed federal law tightening controls on Internet pharmacies.
That bill never passed.
"I'm very disappointed, very disappointed this bill has not passed," says Francine Haight, who founded the organization RyansCause.org. "Kids are still dying; kids are still getting drugs on the Internet."
It's a difficult balance between medical standards and modern technology, as authorities fear electronic drug trafficking.