INTERPOL Takes Down Record Number Of Fake Online Pharmacies Looking To Cash In On Pandemic

June 10, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

INTERPOL announced on June 8 that it had succeeded in taking down a “record number” of fraudulent online pharmacies and arresting 277 people worldwide with the help of law enforcement, customs and health regulatory authorities in 92 countries. The actions were part of Operation Pangea XIV and took place between 18 and 25 May.

Authorities seized “potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals” worth more than $23 million and over 113,000 web links were shut down or removed (including  online marketplaces and websites for selling fake products), INTERPOL said. This is the highest number of links taken down since 2008, when Operation Pangea, created to tackle the trade of counterfeit and illegal medicines and medical products, began.

The operation was supported by multiple agencies and authorities, including Europol, the UNO on Drugs and Crime/World Customs Organization’s Container Control Programme and the Pharmaceutical Security Institute. Over 710,000 packages were inspected and more than 9 million medical devices and illicit pharmaceuticals were seized. The latter category included hypnotic and sedative medication, erectile dysfunction pills, painkillers, anabolic steroids, anti-cancer medication, anti-malarials, vitamins, syringes, catheters and surgical devices.

The contraband was also hidden inside innocuous products like clothes, jewelry, toys, food and baby products. Almost 3,000 nerve pain tablets were found inside cans of baked beans in Qatar. Italian authorities confiscated over half a million fake surgical marks and one man in Venezuela was caught using WhatsApp as an e-commerce platform to sell illicit medicines.

This is part of a larger trend noted worldwide of Covid-19 related crimes. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice announced at the end of May that it was charging 14 defendants in seven federal district courts for Covid-related false billings worth around $143 million. The crimes included defrauding the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to financially aid struggling small businesses, and the Provider Relief Fund, targeted at providing medical care to victims of Covid-19.

At the time, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco called this “theft” and “the exploitation of [a] national emergency.” INTERPOL officials echoed this sentiment in the statement released on Tuesday, June 8, saying that the pandemic had forced more people to “move their lives online,” which made it easier and quicker for criminals to target them.

The agency added that the criminal exploitation of the initial panic and fears has continued, in the form of catering to the incredible demand for personal protection and hygiene products. In fact, over 50% of the medical devices seized during Operation Pangea XIV were fake and unauthorized COVID-19 tests. 

“It’s clear fraudsters see the COVID-19 pandemic as a money-making opportunity,” the Deputy Inspector General for Investigations of Health & Human Services, Gary L. Cantrell, said in the statement released by the DOJ in May.

Separately, in May, the Center for Program Integrity, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CPI/CMS) announced that it had taken action against 50+ medical providers who allegedly abused programs aiming to improve access to medical care. Today, criminals are selling fake vaccination cards — the only official proof of immunization — online, for as low as $12.99 for 10 blank cards. 

INTERPOL also conducted ongoing education campaigns to help people securely and legally buy medications online, as part of Operation Pangea. It urged buyers to be careful, highlighting the public safety and health risks posed by the unregulated sale of fake, untested or illegal medicines online. Products might have the wrong composition, may have been compromised by improper storage or might even have expired, rendering them ineffective and, in some cases, even deadly.

According to Forbes, healthcare fraud is “the largest category of criminal behavior in the United States today.”