Illegitimate Internet pharmacies and marketing affiliate networks are becoming more elaborate in how they target consumers, presenting a rising threat to public health and safety, a study by anti-counterfeiting and brand protection firm OpSec Security Inc. found.

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Rogue online pharmacies get more sophisticated

December 7th, 2010

BOSTON – Illegitimate Internet pharmacies and marketing affiliate networks are becoming more elaborate in how they target consumers, presenting a rising threat to public health and safety, a study by anti-counterfeiting and brand protection firm OpSec Security Inc. found.

OpSec said Tuesday that its study revealed an expansion of so-called "rogue" online pharmacies into controlled substances and generic drugs and increased efforts to appear legitimate to deceive consumers.

Emerging schemes include a rise in deceptive marketing practices targeting consumers seeking controlled substances for recreational and off-label use, such as Oxycontin and Adderall. Covert tactics include message board spamming and redirecting online traffic through seemingly unrelated web sites, according to OpSec.

These illicit online pharmacies also are employing sophisticated methods to give web sites the appearance of legitimacy to fool consumers, such as by falsifying affiliations, accreditations and host locations. They also are offering deeply discounted prices for generic versions of prescription drugs still under patent, as well as fraudulent offers of nonexistent dosages and unrecognized drug packaging, the study found.

"Whether the appeal is from easy access to controlled substances, an appearance of legitimacy, or generics at discounted low prices, these schemes reveal the escalating risks of buying drugs online," OpSec stated. "Consumers who are seeking the easiest, lowest-cost method for obtaining their medications need to be wary. More proactive enforcement, regulations and education are needed to protect patient health and safety."

OpSec noted that since 2009, the top search engines — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing — have disallowed the use of registered trademarks for prescription-only products in their sponsored links. However, rogue Internet pharmacies are heavily marketing controlled substances using message board spamming.

Through that technique, a rogue pharmacy simultaneously sends a link offering highly regulated drugs, such as Oxycontin and Adderall, to hundreds of popular message boards to boost visibility in organic search results. When consumers search for controlled substances online, the spammed links are prominently displayed. Rogue pharmacies are able to target and divert consumers to illegitimate offers of scheduled drugs.

Another technique is the covert marketing of substandard or counterfeit scheduled drugs by rogue marketing affiliates on their offshoot storefronts, according to OpSec. Many of these marketing networks sell only nonscheduled drugs on their highly visible web sites but operate seemingly unrelated sites selling other products as a cover to market controlled substances.

In one example, OpSec explained, the customer care page of a web site purported to be selling consumer electronics offers highly regulated drugs, such as phentermine (an active ingredient in Fen-Phen, a drug that the Food and Drug Administration recalled in 2003) and zolpidem (Ambien). In many instances, connections between sites can be made based on link analysis and technical similarities, such as shared IP addresses, metadata and text mapping.

What's more, illegitimate online pharmacies have developed increased sophistication in giving the appearance of compliance and legitimacy. For example, OpSec said, Canadian online pharmacies have garnered a reputation with U.S. patients as a safe alternative for affordable medicine. The company's study found that 94% of Internet pharmacies purport to be Canadian — either in actuality or with false claims — via visible placement of the Canadian maple leaf icon on the site page header, yet 20% of these sites alleging to be Canadian pharmacies are not registered in Canada. Instead, many are registered in regions such as Russia, Panama, or Bulgaria, all of which are counterfeiting hot spots, OpSec noted.

Other rogue pharmacies display the Canadian International Pharmacy Association seal, which certifies all Canadian Internet pharmacies. "These attempts to appear legitimate via false affiliation and accreditation underscore the tactics rogue pharmacies employ to deceive patients," OpSec said.

The firm pointed out that a key factor driving consumers to online pharmacies is the draw of discount prices. Rogue pharmacies capitalize on that demand by offering prescription medications in generic form at deeply discounted prices. The study found that 72% of rogue Internet pharmacies offer generic versions of drugs still under U.S. patent protection for shipment to U.S. customers. Often, these generic medicines are manufactured in India, a country known for cut-rate prices and potentially substandard quality, according to OpSec.

The study also found a high percentage of rogue pharmacies selling drugs with unrecognized dosages and product packaging. For example, offers for the antidepressant Cymbalta at the nonexistent 40-mg dosage were found on 67% of the Internet pharmacies examined.