Bogus Internet pharmacies a prescription for disaster

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Criminal organizations are taking advantage of the anonymity provided by the Internet to peddle counterfeit prescription drugs, according to a senior Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer.

Enforcement agencies find it extremely difficult to tackle this problem, he said.

A severe resource crunch, coupled with outdated laws make it difficult for enforcement agencies to bust bogus Internet pharmacies using the same tactics they employ against online sexual predators, said Supt. Ken Hansen, director, of the RCMP’s federal enforcement branch.

Hansen was addressing the 11th Annual Anti-Counterfeiting Training Conference in Markham, Ont. yesterday. “The laws we have were simply not created to deal with the volume of counterfeiting we face today,” the RCMP officer said.

A wide range of counterfeit drugs are being offloaded to unsuspecting Canadian buyers, according to one industry insider.

They range from products that contain the same active pharmaceutical ingredients as the original but are produced in unregulated environments, to products containing lethal chemicals, said Lorne Lipkus, founding member of the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting Network (CACN) and partner at Kestenberg Siegal Lipkus LLP in Toronto.

He said there have been instances of counterfeit drugs coming from Latin America that contained boric acid, highway paint and floor polish, but packed in boxes that were near-perfect copies of the original packaging.

When such dangerous drugs are marketed online, it’s a “prescription for disaster” because of the anonymity and expansive reach the Internet offers these scam artists.

The World Health Organization estimates global sales of counterfeit medicines are between $35 – $40 billion a year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates counterfeit drugs make up 10 per cent of the world wide medicines market.

Canadian consumers are likely jaded to the proliferation of fake products such as luxury bags, toys and pirated software but online shoppers were warned to be on the lookout for counterfeit lifestyle prescription tablets such as Viagra which is used to treat erectile dysfunction and Lipitor, a cholesterol lowering drug.

The popular lifestyle drugs are also a hit among counterfeiters.

The RCMP said counterfeit drugs might show the following signs: irregular colour, texture or shape, different taste or look from the usual medicine you buy. They also often carry an unusually low price.

Manufacturers of the fake drugs are usually based in foreign countries and the medicines are sold through online companies masquerading as Canadian Internet pharmacies, said Lipkus

He said operators take advantage of Canada’s reputation as a secure online source of cheap medicine. Buyers attracted by the low prices on the sites usually pay by credit card and receive their medicine in the mail but never know the true identity of the sellers.

“All the operators need is a Web site [featuring] the Canadian flag and a postal office box that might not even exist. Buyers would never know if the company actually is based in Canada or overseas.”

“There are about 270 legitimate Canadian online pharmacies licensed by Health Canada, but there are thousands of other sites that fly the Canadian flag but are located elsewhere,” said Sgt. Andris Zarins, national coordinator, intellectual property crime, RCMP.

In a recent FDA survey of some 11,000 Internet pharmacies, it was revealed that only 25 per cent were actually registered or hosted by companies or individuals in Canada. The report found that the sites actually referred visitors to other online stores, 86 per cent of which where hosted by companies located in the U.S.

Enforcement agencies haven’t had the same success trapping online pharmacies selling counterfeit drugs, as they’ve had with nabbing sexual predators.

To entrap online sexual predators, police operatives scour Internet adult sites and chat rooms in search of suspects. Officers sometimes even pretend to be minors, and then develop an online relationship with the suspect until evidence can be gathered.

“We haven’t gone that far yet.” said Zarins when asked if similar tactics were being employed by the police against counterfeit drug traffickers.

“Because of the sheer volume of counterfeiting, authorities are unable to carry out any proactive action against these organizations,” said Lipkus.

He said most police actions are based on complaints filed by consumers or information provided by drug companies such as Pfizer Inc., makers of Viagra and Lipitor, who have created their own investigation units to track down counterfeit drug factories.

Since the sale of counterfeit medicine over the Internet came to police attention some three years ago, only two Canadian pharmacies were shut down for selling bogus drugs. One was based in Hamilton, Ont-based and the other an online drug store operating from Richmond Hill, Ont.

A Hamilton coroner recently investigated the deaths of four persons believed to have taken counterfeit versions of Novasc, a drug manufactured by Pfizer to treat hypertension. But the coroner said the cause of deaths could not be conclusively attributed to the counterfeit drugs the persons bought from the Hamilton pharmacy.

Recommendations by the RCMP and the CACN to deal with this problem include introducing legislation making it illegal to sell counterfeit products online and revisions to the Canada Customs Act to support copyright laws.

For instance he said Customs officers are not empowered to actively search for counterfeit goods entering the country because under Customs laws fake goods are not illegal. Officers can only quarantine suspicious cargo.

Hansen said Customs laws should be amended to consider counterfeit goods as illegal so that Customs officers can make their own seizure.

Inspector Peter Gaulet of the RCMP also called for stiffer fines, longer jail terms, and the seizure of profits from counterfeiting operations.

In a recent seizure of counterfeit underwear in Markham, at least eight officers were tasked to make a manual count of the items for three weeks. The arrested suspect on the other hand had to pay less than $5,000 for the crime, said Gaulet.

He said no one in Canada has been imprisoned for more than 36 months for counterfeiting crimes. “Counterfeiters stay in the game because of the very low risk involved.”

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