By Ashley Hogans, CBS News Investigative Unit.
Despite a new policy adopted by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Bing.com to help protect the public from buying fake medication - it's easy to end up at a website of an unregulated pharmacy and not know it.
The policy prohibits online pharmacies that are not certified as Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) from advertising in the "sponsored links" on search engines.
VIPPS, which was developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), requires online pharmacies to adhere to stringent regulations in order to declare themselves VIPPS approved.
But a CBS News analysis of search engines that have adopted the policy shows it does little to protect the public from buying drugs from unverified online pharmacies because websites for those companies often show up in the regular search results. We conducted a search for the drug "Viagra" on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Bing.com and found unverified pharmaceutical websites appeared on the first page of search results on all three search engines.
As of July 20, 2010, Google listed this unverified website: http://trustedrxapproved.net/, on the first page of search results for the term "Viagra". Yahoo listed: http://www.buyviagra.ms/ on the first page. Microsoft's Bing.com listed: http://www.bola8radio.com/ on the first page of search results.
A customer representative from TrustedRXApproved.net told CBS News - despite not having the seal, the drugs they sell are "FDA approved in India."
But there's no such thing as being "FDA approved in India", as we found out when we called the FDA.
"Either a drug is FDA approved or it is not," said Elaine Bobo, an FDA press officer.
Google said there's little the search engine can do to regulate its search results.
"Our philosophy has always been to not manually intervene with search results. The ranking of search results is decided by our algorithms, using the contributions of the greater Internet community, not manually by us," Google told CBS News in a statement.
The phone number for the site that appeared on Yahoo's search results for the word "Viagra", http://www.buyviagra.ms/, was not in service.
The customer service representative for the website we found using Bing.com, Bola8radio.com, also told us the drugs they sell are "FDA approved in India." A week after we contacted their site, the site had been taken down.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy created the VIPPS program to crack down on sites like the ones we found, but even they acknowledge it's a challenge to protect customers from unverified online pharmacies.
"It's becoming a major drug trafficking enterprise now, and it's easier to sell drugs online than it is on the street," said NABP Executive Director Carmen Catizone.