WKYT Investigates | Scammers proliferate amid popularity of blockbuster obesity drug
A Kentucky woman lost more than $1,000 in her “desperate” search for a weight-loss solution.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A shortage of popular diabetes and obesity medications has many people looking at alternative methods to obtain them. But those other methods do not come without risk, one central Kentucky woman recently discovered.
“Don’t do it,” she told WKYT Investigates. “Don’t do it.”
The woman said she was excited when, after testing as pre-diabetic and given her high body mass index, her doctor recommended Wegovy.
“I kept telling myself that it was for the pre-diabetes, but it was for the weight,” she admitted. “It’s not something I ever had to struggle with, so that made it rough to have to step on the scales.
“I read about [the medicine] and said, ‘Well, hell, this is exactly what I want,’” she said.
Supply and demand
Wegovy’s active ingredient is semaglutide, which prompts the body to produce more insulin and reduces appetite, according to the FDA.
The FDA has approved two semaglutide products - Ozempic and Rybelsus - for people with Type 2 diabetes, and one semaglutide product - Wegovy - for people with obesity. (Mounjaro, a medication approved as a Type 2 diabetes treatment with a different active ingredient, works similarly.)
Semaglutide has become increasingly popular as a weight-loss solution thanks in large part to celebrities and social media influencers, but the drug’s popularity has also landed it on the FDA’s list of ongoing drug shortages.
Despite her excitement, the Kentucky woman - who has asked not to be identified - was not excited when she learned the cost of the drug (roughly $1,300, she was told) and that her insurance would not cover it.
Looking for a cheaper option, she began searching for online pharmacies.
Semaglutide prescriptions are widely considered to be easier to obtain online, CNN reported.
And, because the drug is in shortage, allowing compounding pharmacies to mix up their own version of the medications, off-brand versions that are cheaper than the FDA-approved, name-brand medicines can also be found.
The Washington Post even uncovered more than two dozen websites - “riding the boom in a legally gray area” - that sell semaglutide directly to consumers, bypassing doctors and pharmacies. (These sellers often use a disclaimer that it’s not for human use, according to the Post.)
Supposed semaglutide sellers are also surprisingly easy to find on Facebook.
Social media sellers - or scammers?
Social media is where the Kentucky woman turned in her search, stumbling across a Facebook group where people had listed Wegovy injection pens for sale. She messaged someone who offered her a one-month supply for $300 - roughly $1,000 less than the price she was quoted at the pharmacy.
“I figured it was coming from a pharmacy, and the guy had supposedly a doctor that was going to give a prescription for it,” she said - “and the rest of it, I just was going to hope I didn’t die.”
Such activity is in violation of Facebook policies, but similar offers from sellers nonetheless proliferate on the platform. Some are in so-called “support groups,” while others do not even try to disguise their purpose. (Note: A number of semaglutide weight loss support groups on Facebook are legitimate and are moderated to prevent such posts.)
In just a matter of moments, WKYT Investigates found post after post in one group about their “supply” for sale. Many included photos. One even provided suggested dosage information.
In inquiring about what was being done to prevent those posts and groups, WKYT’s Garrett Wymer sent them to Meta, Facebook’s parent company. They ended up deleting the groups entirely, and preventing the admins from creating another similar one.
“Our policies prohibit buying and selling prescription drugs without proper authorization, and when we identify violating posts, groups or ads we work quickly to remove them,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement in response. “We continue to improve our systems, including how we detect violating content and behavior that go against our rules.”
Meta uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision among other tools to try to detect and remove content that violates its standards.
Regardless, doctors say it is a bad idea to buy medications through the social media black market.
You may also want to think twice before using back doors. The FDA has previously warned of “adverse events” reported after some people used compounded versions of semaglutide drugs.
“No. 1: You don’t know what you’re getting,” said Dr. Jeff Foxx, a long-time family practice physician in Lexington. “I don’t want to sit here and tell you that it’s all bad, because I don’t know. That’s the key. You don’t know. You don’t know what you’re getting.”
In this case, the Kentucky woman got nothing.
The $300 cost she was quoted by the social media seller was just the start, as they kept coming back with reasons they needed more money.
“Probably about two, three days in [I realized something wasn’t right],” the woman said. “But they had my money, and I was just trying to get the container so I could have something for the money I had spent.”
In less than two weeks’ time she lost $1,071.10, she said - nearly as much as she would have spent at the pharmacy for the actual medication. She believes scammers are preying on people like her: self-conscious and eager for some help.
“Yes,” she said, when asked if she would consider herself desperate for the drug. “Not desperate ‘death,’ but just desperate because I wanted to get the weight off.”
Nearly half of adults say they would be interested in taking a “safe and effective” medication to lose weight, including nearly one in five who say they are “very interested,” according to a poll conducted by KFF, an independent nonprofit organization focused on national health issues.
“Patients should only obtain drugs containing semaglutide with a prescription from a licensed health care provider, and only obtain medicines from state-licensed pharmacies or outsourcing facilities registered with FDA,” the FDA emphasizes.
If you are considering an online pharmacy, the FDA recommends that you check its BeSafeRX tool to:
- learn the signs of safe and unsafe online pharmacies;
- locate a state-licensed online pharmacy; and
- find additional resources.
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