Junkfood Science: What does obesity and pen_l_ enhancement have in common?

September 22, 2007

What does obesity and pen_l_ enhancement have in common?

That got your attention. The answer will be revealed shortly. :-)

Spam. It’s literally taken over inboxes and gets through the best filters. Worldwide, three out of every four emails is now spam. Do you know when the very first spam email was sent? In 1978. Who knew?

A fascinating new study on spam was just published by Canadian researchers with the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at University Health Network and University of Toronto. They found that one-third of all spam was health-related, selling prescription drugs, controlled substances and natural health supplements. Spammers stay in business because, incredibly, people fall for spam and 7% of people actually order prescription drugs — from unsolicited, unknown sources, and prepay by giving them their credit card information! Now, how many people do you think actually get the products?

These researchers set up three email addresses and after six months began collecting all of the spam they received, extracting details on the senders; and itemizing the products, costs, payment options and warranties. The sources of the health-related spam was surprising: 73% came from the United States, 16% from China, and 5% from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During a one-month period, two-thirds of the health-related spam they received was for prescription drugs and one-third for natural health products. All of the health-related spam made claims of benefits but the warnings of potential adverse effects were so inconsistent that none matched approved drug lists. Only half of the spam mentioned refund policies. The prescription drugs ran the gamut of treatments for anxiety, obesity, baldness, infections, depression, pain, reflux, and erectile dysfunction. The natural products were dominated by two conditions: obesity and penile enlargement.

The researchers ordered one randomly-selected product from each unique sender on December 21st, using a credit card and post office box. During the ordering process, four sites stopped working after the credit card information was submitted, thirteen didn’t process the order but had received their credit card information. Seven months later, they’d received fewer than half of the orders (only 9 of the 19), with only about one-third of the prescription drugs ever delivered.

They found the spammers were slick and elusive. Of those that had active weblinks, just over half of those sites were still active the following week and only 26% the entire month. “Buyers should be fully aware that it may not be possible for them to hold spammers accountable for any claims made in their messages, or to get protection from illegal activities resulting from disclosure of personal or financial information to spammers,” they concluded.

Surprisingly, they found that most of the spam from “Canadian online pharmacies” had actually been generated in the United States. “As with online pharmacies, highly mobile spammers are certainly challenging our traditional regulatory, licensing, and law enforcement frameworks, and even threatening their very relevance.”

They had a serious point to this exercise: to say buyers’ beware —

Because of the short life of the active links, it was difficult to take action against the spammers. By the time the products were received, in each case, the spammers had become virtual ghosts, precluding any meaningful effort to report them to custom officers, local or regional police forces, national law enforcement agencies (the Federal Bureau of Investigations in the United States and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada), or organizations such as the US Department of Health, the US Federal Drug Administration, Health Canada, or INTERPOL.

Hope and greed are two powerful human motivators. As the number of people who turn to the Internet looking for solutions to health or lifestyle problems increases, merchants will rise to the occasion, matching the demand.

They are studying next, if the pharmaceutical products they did receive are genuine, fake or substandard.

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