THE MAGAZINE

What Ails Online Pharmacies

By Carlton Purvis
The problem is not country-specific, however. As with any cybercrime, online pharmacy fraud crosses international borders. To fight the problem, various bodies are coordinating their activities internationally. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the London Metropolitan Police, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies, INTERPOL, and several other international agencies have been working together for several years on what they call Operation Pangea (for 2012, it was Pangea V).

The goal of Pangea, an annual operation, is to track down producers and distributors of illegal medicines and seize the counterfeit material. Authorities specifically target online pharmacies. The 2012 operation culminated in October with the takedown of 18,000 illegal pharmacy Web sites and the seizure of more than $10 million worth of pharmaceuticals. The authorities discovered that some of the online pharmacies commandeered during Operation Pangea V were set up to steal money from buyers without supplying any product at all.

Medizin Direkt

EAASM set up a decoy pharmaceuticals site called Medizin Direkt to target the German online medicine market. One of the goals of the project was to wake consumers up to the possibility that they were going to unwittingly buy fake medicines from an online site. EAASM took this approach because it had learned, through interviews, that people who bought medicines from illegitimate online pharmacies usually overestimated their ability to recognize counterfeits.

“There is absolutely no way to tell the difference. I’ve given fake packs to the security team of one major pharma company, and I asked them if it was real or fake,” Thomson says. “They said it was real, and I had a result from their lab telling me that forensically it was fake, so there’s no way they could tell the difference, but people [felt] they could.”

When it was time for the site to go live, Medizin Direkt was promoted heavily for nine weeks in fall 2011. EAASM purchased thousands of Google AdWords and loaded the site with keywords that would lead to their fake pharmacy. They bought banners on all kinds of Web sites from news to sports to healthcare sites and sent 2.5 million e-mails from purchased lists.

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