Illegal sites snare users on lawful drug sites
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The next time you search the Internet for medications, watch out -- there's a chance you'll be diverted to an illegal online pharmacy website.
Illegal pharmacies, in addition to sending email spam, are now infecting websites so that consumers get redirected to illegal sites, according to new research led by Nicolas Christin and Niktarios Leontiadis at Carnegie Mellon University and Tyler Moore at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
Over a nine-month period ending in January, the researchers tracked top search results for 218 drug-related queries, and found that 25 percent of the top 10 search results redirected people to illegal sites. Overall, about one-third of the search results they looked at were infected -- about 7,000 total.
By flooding the search results, Mr. Christin said, the advertisers are redirecting Web traffic to their sites and targeting those most likely to make a purchase. "They are getting people who are actually searching for those things, so you can imagine they are getting a lot more interested customers," said Mr. Christin, who is associate director of CMU's Information Networking Institute.
People who proceed to buy medications through those sites usually do get products sent to them, he added; but there are no guarantees they will be the right medication or the right dose -- and it might be nothing more than a sugar tablet.
"It can be very dangerous," he said. "You're playing Russian roulette." He cited an example: If someone does a Google search for the erectile dysfunction prescription medication Cialis, using the search terms "Cialis no prescription," they will see several sites -- following the legitimate sponsored cialis.com site -- that appear to show connections to different universities, such as the University of Massachusetts.
But after clicking on the site, the consumer may get sent to one of the illegal pharmacy sites, or a site completely unrelated to his search request. Consumers who don't pay attention to the Web address, or mistakenly believe that the .edu address means it must be legitimate, may find themselves on rogue sites.
Mr. Christin said they had shared their results with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "They were very interested in the data, but there's only so much they can do in terms of enforcement. They're not in the business of policing websites."
First Published August 12, 2011 12:00 am