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CBS4 Investigates Black Market Diabetes Test Strips

DENVER (CBS4) - A CBS4 investigation has uncovered an alarming practice that has the director of one of the nation's leading diabetes centers and journals issuing a warning to patients. The warning is to stay away from diabetes test strips being sold on the black market at a fraction of the retail cost.

CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger found problems that could jeopardize the health of those who rely on them.

The little strips can mean the difference between health and illness and possibly even death for someone with diabetes. Sallinger found recalled, expired, even counterfeit strips being sold in violation of state and federal laws and possibly risking the lives of those who buy them.

CBS4 noticed an unusual sign posted along a road just outside a pharmacy that said "Cash paid for diabetic test strips -- Call Rick" and the sign has a phone number.

At least one motorist Dave Honeyman found it odd.

"What do you see next? Cash for socks I guess if somebody thinks they are worth something," Honeyman said.

To people with diabetes the little strips are certainly worth something. They cost only a few cents to make, but sell for $1 or more each.

"A 3-month supply for me runs about $1,000," said Chris Ainsworth, who is diabetic.

Diabetics may test up to seven to 10 times a day, taking a drop of blood putting it on the strip in a meter to find out if their blood sugar level is too high or too low. The consequences can be serious. Andrea Houck is a diabetic and also a nurse who runs a diabetes clinic. She's quite familiar with the symptoms.

"Irritability, headaches, cold clammy sweating -- it can go into a non response, black outs and eventually a coma," said Houck.

With a markup of up to 95 percent it's not difficult to understand why a black market of sorts has sprouted up for the strips. On eBay Sallinger found hundreds of offers for diabetic test strips starting at a fraction of the retail cost -- and on Craigslist as well.

Test Strip
A diabetes test strip (credit: CBS)

There are even companies that have formed with websites offering cash for left over strips. A picture on a site shows a fist filled with cash and diabetic test strips. Sallinger asked a CBS4 employee with diabetes to contact some buyers and offer to sell them strips that shouldn't be used.

"I've got two boxes that are expired from last month," the employee told the buyer. The man replied he recently found someone who recycles out-of-date strips.

Sallinger went to the Barbara Davis Diabetes Center in Aurora and showed his findings to the director, Dr. Satish Garg.

"This is unbelievable, my God," Garg said.

Garg pointed out some of them shouldn't even be on the market at all.

"Some of these have been recalled and the patients don't know," Garg said. He said he will now warn the center's patients.

And that was just the beginning. There are also counterfeit test strips and ones paid for with tax dollars through Medicaid.

How easy is it to get these strips into circulation? CBS4 set up a meeting at a coffee shop with one person who advertised he was buying the strips. Sure enough he was willing to take out-of-date strips and others from a box that could easily have been tampered with.

"This one was opened. I didn't use any of them," the CBS4 employee said. She added, "Not sure if that matters either. They're good."

The man buying the test strips replied, "They're beter if they're not opened but that's alright. That'll work," he said.

Sallinger found exchanges like these are making those dependent on the accuracy of the strips very nervous.

"Until you showed me that I thought we were protected and that it couldn't happen to us," Ainsworth said.

There can serious legal issues. A couple in California was arrested by the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration and charged them with selling more than $1 million worth of test strips on eBay.

A Seattle man was sentenced to a year prison after he was convicted of selling test strips also on eBay.

Federal law requires those selling diabetes test strips register with the FDA. The agency adds expired strips should not be used.

From FDA Spokesman Devin Koontz:

FDA wants to emphasize that expired glucose test strips should not be used.  Diabetics have no assurance that expired strips are providing them with an accurate reading. Glucose test strips are very sensitive to temperature variation, which makes it impossible to have confidence in their quality unless they are purchased from a legitimate, qualified pharmacist or other health professional (i.e., samples from a doctor or manufacturer's representative).

Consumers should avoid expired strips and report online retailers or any instances here: (Reporting Unlawful Sales of Medical Products on the Internet).

If a customer has already purchased the strips, they should dispose and buy others that aren't expired and/or contact the manufacturer to see if there's any way to verify whether the strips are still usable. You can do this with some strips.

The risks can be high -- see a fairly recent recall we did that has some detail about the potential risk of false reading with glucose test strips:

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