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Counterfeiting threat looms over drug industry

Criminals are looking to cash in on some of the most popular drugs on the market by selling counterfeit drugs - and it appears they're putting lives at risk in the process.

"Early Show" Consumer Correspondent Susan Koeppen reported this isn't just a national problem, it's a worldwide problem. Counterfeit drugs, she said, are being produced all around the globe. The pills are often cheaper than the real thing, making them an attractive buy to unsuspecting consumers.

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What's worse is counterfeit drugs can be harmful and even deadly for patients. Koeppen said they often lack the active ingredients, or contain dangerous ingredients that can lead to serious side effects. And sometimes the drugs do nothing at all.

The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say it's hard to even put a number on the extent of the counterfeit drug problem. Among the most widely counterfeited drugs are Lipitor, commonly used to treat high cholesterol, Procrit, used to treat anemia and fatigue, and Viagra, an erectile dysfunction.

Ilisa Bernstein, counterfeit drug expert at the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, told Koeppen, "Globally, counterfeit drugs are a big concern."

When asked by Koeppen if people are making big money for the pills, Bernstein said, "The counterfeiters prey on the vulnerability of the consumer, and they don't care if they're harming patients."

Getting counterfeit drugs in your local pharmacy is rare, but it does happen, Koeppen said.

More commonly, she reported, fake drugs are bought and sold over the internet. Recently, the FDA accused 294 websites of selling counterfeit drugs to consumers - and demanded they stop.

Bernstein said, "If I were to show you some counterfeit and some genuine, I bet you wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

Koeppen said, "They're that good?"

Bernstein said, "They're that good."

When the FDA bought Tamiflu from a suspicious website, they got what looked exactly like the real thing.

Koeppen said, "The pills look the same, the packages looks the same, but one is fake?"

Bernstein said, "Yeah."

Turns out the Tamiflu was really just talc and acetaminophen.

"The Early Show" bought packages of Viagra online, and then had them tested by Pfizer, the company that makes Viagra. One package came back real, but the other was fake.

Last year, Pfizer, working with law enforcement, seized approximately 8.3 million doses of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Of that, approximately 57 percent was Viagra.

When shopping online for drugs, the FDA recommends consumers only shop at state-licensed pharmacies in the U.S., and look for a seal of approval called VIPPS.

Consumers should avoid websites that offer prescription drugs for sale at cheap prices and without a prescription.

Bernstein said, "If the price is too good to be true, it's a red flag that you're not going to get the real drug."

On "The Early Show," Koeppen added the FDA is working with wholesalers and manufacturers and pharmacies to put a tracking system into place so you can track the drug packages and you can tell what should be in the drug supply chain and what should not be. She said counterfeits are being seized everyday globally.