Interview by Nathaniel Broughton
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If John Horton gets his way you shouldn’t be getting many more “little blue pills without a prescription” junk emails in the coming years. He founded LegitScript in 2007 to help consumers identify legitimate online pharmacies and today his company remains the only online pharmacy verification service recognized by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
How did LegitScript get started, what did you do before LegitScript?
Thanks for asking! Prior to founding LegitScript, I was fortunate enough to have a job working in one of the White House offices––specifically, the one commonly known as the “Drug Czar’s” office. I was tasked with helping coordinate policy and strategy on prescription drug abuse, which is a growing problem. One contributor to prescription drug abuse is rogue Internet pharmacies––including websites that sell prescription drugs without a valid prescription.
Internet pharmacies are a fascinating topic, and I decided that I wanted to leave government and help companies from the private sector. So I resigned my government job in April 2007, and formed LegitScript in May 2007.
The first important development for LegitScript came later that year when the NABP recognized LegitScript’s Internet pharmacy program. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s (NABP’s) members are the state pharmacy boards that license and regulate pharmacies and pharmacists. They run a great Internet pharmacy certification program called VIPPS, which stands for “Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites.” They are also committed to fighting the problem of rogue Internet pharmacies. Earning the NABP’s support was a tremendously important development for LegitScript, since it meant a reputable third-party endorsed our legitimacy standards and verification program.
In LegitScript’s very early days, like many start-ups, it was basically a few of us in a coffee shop on our laptops. We’d sit around all day and look at Internet pharmacies, and try to figure out: are they legitimate? Who are they? How many identical sites are there? But as time went on, we became more sophisticated, started developing a larger database with more capabilities, got a real office, and started adding staff. Today, we monitor over 100,000 websites that are or have been engaged in the sale of prescription drug products, and we are constantly adding to and updating the database.
How does LegitScript work, what goes in to the process of reviewing the site?
Essentially, we want to have the most complete and authoritative database of Internet pharmacies. The first step is to ask: does this website comply with NABP Internet pharmacy standards? If we think it might, we designate it as “unverified,” which is a neutral designation meaning that the website isn’t illicit as far as we know, but we haven’t confirmed that it’s legitimate, either. Then, once we verify compliance, it is designated as a legitimate Internet pharmacy, and we monitor it for continued compliance.
Unfortunately, the vast majority, well over 90%, of Internet pharmacies we review are NOT legitimate. If we see that a website is operating outside the law, that’s going to be an unapproved website. We add it to our database, and the public can search to see if the website is approved or unapproved.
Every website we review is viewed by a human. In some cases, we immediately know that the website is not legitimate –– if the website clearly and overtly advertises “OxyContin without a prescription,” that only takes us one or two seconds to designate as “rogue.” It’s not a close call.
But we also have a pretty extensive automated database that captures information about the websites we monitor, and helps alert us to potential changes, so–for example–if a formerly “legitimate” website has “gone rogue,” we’ll see that a change has been made to the content and need to re-review the site.
How many pharmacy websites have LegitScript reviewed?
Wow…lots. Well over 100,000. At any one time, there are at least 30,000 Internet pharmacies in existence. Some flash in and out of existence pretty quickly. But that means that a live human at LegitScript has, over the last few years, viewed over 100,000 Internet pharmacy websites.
How does LegitScript spread its word to the end users?
We’ve really relied a lot on word of mouth. We haven’t relied on advertising, and we haven’t really focused on search engine optimization, either. We’ve tried to focus on providing quality information and trusting that what we’re doing will be reflected in organic search results.
What one thing is the company most excited about for 2011?
We’re developing some really cool functionality that will help us do an even better job in identifying, monitoring and classifying Internet pharmacies. We know that Internet companies want to make sure that they aren’t doing business with the bad actors selling drugs without a prescription or selling unapproved pharmaceutical products. The new tools will help us to do just that.
The other things we’re excited about are industry developments. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, GoDaddy, eNom, and several other companies have been taking great steps––voluntary steps––to make sure that rogue Internet pharmacies can’t use their paid services. We appreciate the companies that have made these decisions. More and more companies are beginning to show their commitment to helping keep the Internet safe.
Is LegitScript using social media to drive conversations with customers?
We sure are. We have a great Facebook page, and try and stay in touch via Twitter as well. There is more information about how to use our website on our YouTube page, and of course, don’t hesitate to check out our blog! If you have any information you’d like to share with us, drop us a note.
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