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, finding 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, 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 Christin, associate director of CMU's Information Networking Institute.
People who buy medication through those sites usually do receive products, he added; but there are no guarantees of the right medication or the right dose. It might be nothing more than a sugar tablet.
"It can be very dangerous," Christin 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 an 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.
Christin said he and his colleagues had shared their results with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.