The Food and Drug Administration is warning U.S. consumers that the vast majority of Internet pharmacies are fraudulent and likely are selling counterfeit drugs that could cause harm.

The agency yesterday launched a national campaign, called BeSafeRx, to alert the public to the danger, amid evidence that more people are shopping for their medicine online, looking for savings and convenience.

Instead, they're likely to get fake drugs that are contaminated, are past their expiration date or contain no active ingredient, the wrong amount of active ingredient or even toxic substances.

"Our goal is to increase awareness," FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told The Associated Press, "not to scare people away from online pharmacies. We want them to use appropriate pharmacies."

That means pharmacies that are located in the United States are licensed by the pharmacy board in the patient's state and have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions.

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In addition, the pharmacy must require a valid doctor's prescription for the medicine. Online drugstores that claim none is needed, or that the site's doctor can write a prescription after the customer answers some questions, are breaking the law.

Research by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which represents the state pharmacy boards, found that of thousands of online pharmacies it reviewed, only about 3 percent follow state and federal laws.

In fact, the group's website lists only a few dozen Internet pharmacies that it has verified are legitimate and following the federal rules.

Most consumers don't know that. An Internet survey, conducted by the FDA in May, questioned 6,090 adults. It found that nearly one in four Internet shoppers has bought prescription drugs online, and nearly three in 10 said they weren't confident they could do so safely.

The campaign comes after high-profile cases of counterfeit drugs reaching American patients earlier this year, some originating in Asia or Eastern Europe.