Friday, July 14, 2006

Tamiflu Tricksters --- On-Line Pharmacies "Show But Don't Tell"

Current public health policy in the US discourages physicians from writing prescriptions of Tamiflu for people who want to have it on hand case of an H5N1 pandemic. This is a defensible policy, but it has side effects.

For starters, many decent citizens will look for ways around the policy. In particular, they'll look for Tamiflu on the internet, and this can introduce them to some shady practices.

But You Can Find It, Right?

Pop"Tamiflu" into Google and you will see hundreds (if not thousands) of internet pharmacies offering what you want. Unfortunately, if you look for those that do not require that a prescription in hand, then you filter out all the trusted household names like Wal-Mart and Drugstore.com. Firms that are left have chosen to work at the borderline of legality.

A Best of Breed?

How do you choose among such frontier vendors? Like all frontier dealing, it is dangerous, but some paths are better than others.

First, does your candidate offer a telephone number? If not, then you can look elsewhere, so let's suppose your guy does have a telephone number. As I suggested in an earlier note, pop that number into Google and stand back. You will often be surprised to see dozens of clone pharmacies with the same number. These are not forthright folks, and they can be skipped.

Are we now left with just a few honest wild west Libertarians who have built their businesses on the legal frontier because they think that the FDA is a mindless bureaucracy? Whoa --- not so fast cowboy.

Evolution at Work

Until just a short while ago, you might have had hope, but now there is a new trick in town. When you go to copy that telephone number, you can't copy it with a click of your mouse. What gives?

The phone number you see was not put on that page in the traditional way. What you see is an image (a GIF or JPG) --- not a telephone number at all --- just a picture of a telephone number.

No Problem?

"Hell," you say, "I'll just put the number into Google by hand." Well, yes, you can put it into Google, but don't expect the interesting results you got last time. This time you probably won't get any Google hits.

You might hope that this is a good thing, but, sadly, it is not.

Oh, Just Wait!

You --- and Google --- have been tricked. Just as you could not copy the phone number with you mouse, neither could Google "read" the phone number off the page and stuff it into its index.

It just saw the equivalent of the message "put picture of phone number here" --- and Google can't read inside a picture. This is an example of cloaking, which is the generic term for an under-handed trick where a web site shows the human visitor one thing and shows another thing to search engines like Google. Here the human sees a telephone number, but the search engine does not.

Bottom Line: The pharmacy you have found could have a zillion clones --- and this time Google will not (so easily) let you discover this.

What's a Person to Do?

Those who choose to purchase Tamiflu outside of normal channels will be forced to count on the councel of their own community. Since the dawn of time, personal referrals have been the gold standard when one does not have the full protection of the law. In the long haul, you've got your friends, and not much else.

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