Global crackdown on illicit online pharmacies

4 October 2012

LYON, France - A global operation spanning 100 countries aimed at disrupting the organized crime networks behind the illicit online sale of medicines has resulted in some 80 arrests and the worldwide seizure of 3.75 million units of potentially life-threatening medicines worth USD 10.5 million.

Operation Pangea V, which involved police, customs and national regulatory authorities is the largest Internet-based action of its kind, targeting the international black market of fake and illicit medicines, and raising public awareness of the significant health risks associated with buying medicines online.

Coordinated by INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, Pharmaceutical Security Institute  and Europol, for the first time, Operation Pangea was also supported by the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) which brings together 12 of the world’s leading Internet and e-commerce companies.

Support by companies including Legitscript, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal resulted in more than 18,000 websites linked to illicit online pharmacies being identified and shut down, the suspension of payment facilities of online rogue pharmacies, and the disruption of a massive number of spam emails and social networking messages.

“When someone is sick, can't afford to purchase expensive medicine or is just trying to save money, they are more likely to take a chance and buy medicines online, making themselves vulnerable to purchasing fake, illicit or spurious medical products and thus harming themselves,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Ronald K. Noble.

“Organized, sophisticated criminals and rogue pharmacies are unfortunately using the Internet to defraud innocent consumers, to place them in harm’s way, to steal their identities and to engage in credit card fraud.

“It is thanks to the coordinated efforts of all agencies involved, police, customs, health regulatory authorities and the private sector, that we have seen the most significant results since Pangea I was first launched five years ago. This is a major boost in protecting the health and safety of the public, and tackling the organized networks behind this crime,” said the INTERPOL Chief.

"The fruits of customs, police and national regulatory agencies working in a coordinated manner for a common goal has resulted in the removal of a host of illicit medicines from the market," said WCO Secretary General, Kunio Mikuriya. "Customs stands by its commitment to protect consumer health and safety through sustained global action in partnership with INTERPOL and other key trade stakeholders," he added.

A dedicated operations room was established at the INTERPOL General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, throughout Pangea V which ran from September 25 to October 2, providing participating countries and organizations with a central information exchange point for updates on interventions and seizures. In addition to raids at addresses linked to the illegal internet supply of medicines, some 133,000 packages were inspected by regulators and customs authorities around the world with around 6,700 being confiscated.

“As the Internet becomes increasingly accessible around the world, so the number of potential victims increases, which is why international multi-sector actions such as Operation Pangea are vital,” said Aline Plançon, head of INTERPOL’s Medical Products Counterfeiting and Pharmaceutical Crime unit.

“Taking direct action against those behind illegal Internet pharmacies is just part of the solution, and it is equally important for the public to open their eyes to the  significant risks they take when purchasing medicines on illicit online pharmacies,” added Ms Plançon.

Among the counterfeit and illicit medicines were anti-cancer medication, antibiotics, erectile dysfunction pills as well as slimming and food supplements.

To date, 79 individuals have been arrested or are under investigation for a range of offences including operating a clandestine laboratory producing counterfeit medicines,  membership of a criminal group selling illicit medicine online and operating websites selling illicit medicines.  Information relating to organized crime networks gathered during the operation will be reviewed and analysed to identify additional links around the world.

Investigations are continuing, with the final results from Operation Pangea V to be released upon their conclusion. For additional information on national activities, please contact the enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies of the countries involved.