Inside the internet drugs factory
Want to know who's behind all that spam for Viagra and other drugs? Join Jim Pollard on a journey behind the scenes of the counterfeit drugs business.
There was an internet day of action recently. But don't worry you didn't miss anything. This wasn't a celebration of online activity. In fact, unless you're in the counterfeit drugs business you won't have noticed it.
Internet days of action are just one of the strategies the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) use to track down and prosecute those guys behind most of the spam in your in-box, the peddlers of fake and illegally-traded drugs. The man standing between you and even more offers of V1agra or, as one spammer offered me 'cheap piles', is the MHRA's head of enforcement and intelligence Mick Deats (right).
'It was our fourth day of action,' he says. 'We take action against eight or ten illegal sites - usually the most popular or those sites selling illegal products for which we have adverse reaction reports from patients. We raid the lot at the same time, accompanied by the police to make arrests and seize goods and computers.' What they find is pretty amazing as the pictures from a recent London raid show.
Behind the high-tech online sites complete with earnest looking doctors and nurses in antiseptically white coats are garages, lock-ups and the sort of appalling hygiene practices that would make even students gag.
'In one place a man was replacing his clutch on one side of the garage and packing drugs on the other.'
Often these businesses are sidelines for cannabis farmers, pushers of Class A drugs, identity fraudsters and common or garden thieves and fences. This is particularly true of the outfits pushing fake Viagra and other erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs.
'Those selling fake ED drugs online and in clubs are often more your traditional criminal type with pretty unsophisticated operations,' says Deats. 'Cocaine and counterfeit ED drugs are often combined these days. I suppose if you take one you're probably going to need the other.'
However, increasingly, drug counterfeiters are moving beyond so called 'lifestyle' drugs into potentially even more dangerous areas. 'In the last year we've seized over £6,000,000 worth of illegal, counterfeit or unlicensed drugs,' says Deats. 'Our busiest year ever. Historically ED drugs have been in the majority but not any more. Now it's anti-psychotics, cancer drugs and heart drugs. These are high price, higher turnover products'.
The operations behind these drugs are often more sophisticated. These drugs usually enter the legitimate supply chain - that is, your pharmacy and hospital - via unscrupulous or sometimes unwitting medicines wholesalers who sell direct to them.
'Because these counterfeiters are trying to get their drugs into pharmacies as well as sell them online,' says Deats, 'they need to be able to deceive the industry as well as the patient. This requires inside knowledge, effective money laundering and a reliable supply route.
'Often you'll get unscrupulous businessmen prepared to take the risk coming together with corrupt pharmacy industry insiders.'
This was the set-up at the recent Operation Stormgrand trail in Kingston at which four fraudsters were sentenced to up to 14 and a half years for, amongst other things, smuggling over 500,000 fake Viagra tabs into the UK.
Counterfeiting is not to be confused with 'parallel trading'. Because of the free movement of trade in the EU, it is quite legal to buy drugs in one EU country and sell them in another where they are more expensive. Despite the opposition of the drug companies, many pharmaceutical wholesalers do this. Often parallel traded medicines are given new English-language labels and patient information leaflets. Of course, it is possible for counterfeits to enter the supply chain through parallel trading - a problem the EU says it intends to act on.
When counterfeit drugs are discovered in pharmacies, they are 'recalled' (taken off the shelves). This has happened nine times since 2004: four times in 2007 alone. 'It's a worrying increase,' says Deats. 'This sort of problem is usually associated with the developing world but we're seeing it more and more in western Europe. We've got a year's worth of trials coming up.'
At any one time the MHRA have under surveillance about 100 websites which sell into the UK. Their modus operandi is pretty simple: a test purchase followed by a laboratory test. The stats make sobering reading for anyone thinking of buying drugs online. Out of 100 test purchases:
- about 15 never turn up
- about 10 result in identity theft or the credit card details being ripped off
- about 15 orders are fulfilled with a different product to that ordered.
Of those tested, 'many include unlicensed products that are not authorised for sale such as herbs, others are prescription-only drugs being offered without a consultation,' says Deats. 'Personally I'm pretty sceptical about online consultations, anyway. You can say anything you want in an online consultation.'
Although it is a major market, Britain is not, by and large, a centre for the manufacture of fake drugs. Products that reach the UK have usually been made in the Far East, usually in China or less often India. There are various routes and methods for bringing the material in. Through the Netherlands or Belgium is popular route. Items are misdeclared at customs.
In the Stormgrand trial, drugs were labelled as vitamin samples, calcium for kids or protein for dogs.
Most cases, says Deats, are international involving several jurisdictions which is why they can take so long to bring to court. Different countries have different laws and different interpretations of EU directives. (The original Stormgrand arrests took place in 2002.)
Also, in looking for bigger penalties for the pushers, the Agency is bringing charges under trade mark law and proceeds of crime and money laundering legislation. These have maximum penalties of ten years or more rather than the two year maximum available through the Medicines Act under which the MHRA was set-up.
'The biggest challenge,' Deats concludes, 'is to give the public enough information on the dangers while at the same time not giving the counterfeiters lessons in how we're tracking them down.' Apparently at one of the most recent raids, printouts were even found of MHRA press releases. Whether they were for study or use as an ingredient is not clear.
Page created on February 7th, 2008
Page updated on January 16th, 2010