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Illegitimate drugs more profitable than cocaine

Yesterday, a news article on my local public radio station caught my attention.  On Wednesday, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) put out the report: “Countering the Problem of Falsified and Substandard Drugs”.  The report was created at the request of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Lawerence Gostin, the Georgetown University law professor and World Health Organization adviser who led the study, was quoted in the NPR news article

“It’s actually more profitable to supply illegitimate drugs than cocaine or heroin,” Gostin says. “And so you’re seeing more and more sophisticated drug suppliers.”

Gostin repeated a similar quote to the Wall Street Journal.

As we analyze spam and other malicious messages at Cloudmark, we regularly see evidence of the suppliers of illegitimate pharmaceutical hard at work.  Generally the spammers are trying to convince people to visit a website that purports to be selling Canadian pharmaceuticals.  Some of yesterday’s web pages even had a cheerful “Happy Valentine’s Day” banner which today has been switched out with a “Happy President’s Day” banner.

Online Pharmacy Selling Illegitimate Pharmaceuticals

The email spam messages often don’t contain a URL that links directly to the pharmaceutical website, instead they may contain a link to a legitimate website which has been hacked, most likely because the legitimate site is running an older version of WordPress or Joomla with known vulnerabilities but the website owner has yet to upgrade.

The spammer, or someone paid by the spammer, has hacked the legitimate website and placed a page on it that will re-direct a browser to the fake pharmaceuticals website.  Alternatively, the spammer may use a URL shortening site to redirect through to the pharmacy website.  However, the hacked websites is the current favorite technique that we’ve seen used the most in the last few months.

In 2012 Cloudmark saw the percentage of email spam that Cloudmark was filtering which contained hacked websites jump dramatically in the second half of the year.  In June 2012 hacked domains accounted for about 5% of the email spam, but rose in September and October to around 10%, with spikes as high as 30%.  Then in late December we saw a spike to almost 50%.  During January 2013 we saw another spike in the first week of the year and it then returned to around the 5% level for the last half of the month.

The Institute of Medicine report reminds people that “Falsified and substandard medicines provide little protection from disease and, worse, can expose consumers to major harm.”   The report is aimed at starting a productive international discussion about how to address the problem of falsified and fake medicines.
IOM report: Administration estimated that the September 2012 raid shuttered more than 4,100 illegal online drug sellers.  (Interpol): © Carabinieri NAS (Italia)


Last September, the FDA also launched a a national campaign to alert US consumers to the possible dangers of buying pharmaceuticals online.  They recommend that consumers beware of online pharmacies that allow people to buy drugs without a prescription, or that offer deep discounts or cheap prices that seem to good to be true.  They recommend to US consumers not to buy from pharmacies that are located outside of the United States or which are not licensed in the United States.  They note that a legitimate US pharmacy will always require a doctor’s prescription, and will provide a physical address and telephone number in the US.

They also provide a link for US consumers to look up which pharmacies are licensed in their state.

The FDA website also recommends that people do not buy from online pharmacies who “Send spam or unsolicited email offering cheap drugs”.  In general Cloudmark recommends against a person buying anything from anyone who sends spam.  At worst the person is at risk of being duped into buying a fake, non-existent or dangerous product.  At best, they’re encouraging the spammer to send more spam.

Usually the pharmacy spammers are making money from an affiliate network where the spammer is paid by the owner of the pharmacy site, either per click that gets sent to the pharmacy site, or for each person who buys something from the site.

Unfortunately, the spammers send the spam because some people, even a very small number of people, are falling for the offer and buying the product.  And as Lawerence Gostin pointed out, it can be “more profitable to supply illegitimate drugs than cocaine or heroin”.

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