Global Operation Targets Illegal Drug Sales on Web

OCTOBER 23, 2018
In an action they've dubbed "Operation Pangea XI," part of the annual International Internet Week of Action, international regulatory and law enforcement agencies acted this week to target 465 websites that illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved versions of opioid, oncology, and antiviral prescription drugs. In addition, more than 450 domain names were brought to the attention of search engines and the appropriate domain name registries and registrars.

This year’s Operation Pangea also took place at 3 of the 9 international mail facilities (IMFs) in the United States, as well as at other facilities around the world. During 3- and 4-day screening sessions at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and in San Francisco, FDA investigators found products attempting to make their way into the country from places such as India, the United Kingdom, China, and El Salvador. Of 626 packages examined, 794 products were refused entry into the United States. Sixty-two products were identified as being purchased from internet sites operating in the United Kingdom, Canada and India.

In another part of this operation, FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) special agents initiated several criminal investigations involving illegal online pharmacies. One recent investigation resulted in the recent arrest and indictment of a San Diego resident known as “The Drug Llama” on a dark net marketplace. The suspect in this case is alleged to be responsible for shipping more than 50,000 tablets containing fentanyl throughout the United States using the dark net and other means.

To target the infrastructure supporting the illegal online sales of drugs, a series of recent OCI cybercrime investigations focused on credit card processors involved in an arrangement known as “transaction laundering” or “factoring.” Under this scheme, the business operations process payments for illegal online drug networks through shell companies such as clothing stores or florists that are seemingly not related to online pharmacies. The FDA’s investigation of these payment schemes led to a federal indictment charging a complex conspiracy related to transaction laundering for online pharmacies.

“The sale of potentially dangerous and counterfeit drugs by criminal networks on the internet is a large and growing threat to the public health. The illegal online pharmacies that we’re taking action against are often run by sophisticated criminal networks that knowingly and unlawfully distribute illicit drugs, including potentially counterfeit medicines and controlled substances both on the surface and dark web. Consumers go to these websites believing that they’re buying safe and effective medications. But consumers are being put at risk by individuals who put financial gains above patient safety,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD. explained in a press release about the operation. “I’m particularly concerned about the ease with which consumers can gain access to controlled substances and prescription opioids online. This is one reason why we’ve stepped up our efforts, both from a policy and enforcement standpoint, to take these bad actors down. Today’s major operation by FDA, together with our international regulatory and law enforcement partners, demonstrates that we’ll aggressively pursue those who place patients at risk and seek to profit from illegal products.”

The FDA provides consumers with information to identify an illegal online pharmacy and information on how to buy medicine safely online through BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy.  FDA officials are also working with other government agencies, a variety of internet stakeholders, social media and internet platforms, academic researchers and advocacy groups to pursue efforts that will curb the illegal sale of prescription opioids online and through social media. The FDA encourages consumers to report suspected criminal activity to the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations. 

The IIWA ran from Oct. 9 to Oct. 16, 2018, with the participation of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs’ OCI and Office of Enforcement and Import Operations, and the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. The operation is a collaborative effort between the FDA, the US Department of Homeland Security, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, Interpol, the World Customs Organization, the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, the European Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the pharmaceutical industry and national health and law enforcement agencies from 115 participating countries.

Reference
FDA launches global operation to crack down on websites selling illegal, potentially dangerous drugs; including opioids [news release]. FDA website. Released and accessed: Oct. 23, 2018 at https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm624070.htm.
 

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