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Catching the Counterfeiters

​THE INTERNET has not only changed the way crime is fought, it has also changed the way crime is committed. Counterfeiting is a perfect example of this shift.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, an officer might have spotted a counterfeit product from a distance away. In fact, for that reason, law enforcement referred to counterfeit products as “one milers,” said William G. Ross, unit chief for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center), at a recent panel discussion on counterfeiting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Counterfeit items were most often sold on the street and at flea markets.

But these days, it’s relatively easy to sell counterfeit goods via the Internet. That’s led to the rise of counterfeit prescription drug sales. According to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), up to 95 percent of the groups selling drugs online are illegitimate.

While a counterfeit piece of clothing can’t generally harm you, a counterfeit medication can kill you. In one case cited at the panel discussion, 11 patients died while taking a fake blood pressure medication.

What makes the problem particularly challenging is that it can be difficult for consumers to figure out whether a pill or medication is the real thing. Patrick Ford, senior director of global security, Americas region, at Pfizer, Inc., says that many of the phony pills are “virtually indistinguishable” from the true pills, with laboratory testing necessary to determine what’s in the fakes.

And while the fakes are often peddled via illegitimate online sites, Ford said that breaches have contaminated the legitimate supply chain as well. The result: counterfeit medications have ended up in real pharmacies.

Computer forensic skills are essential for fighting most counterfeit drug operations. For example, Ross tells Security Management, “Instead of doing surveillance on somebody in a car like you used to do, you’re doing surveillance on the Internet, so you’re looking at e-mail addresses and IP addresses, and you’re basically trying to take the beginning point, which is a particular Web site, and trace back where that site actually goes back to.”

The IPR Center also concentrates on tracing the money that funds the sites. The biggest challenge, says Ross, is that many of the folks operating the sites are from other countries, so it is difficult to extradite them to the United States.

Ross says that his group tries to find a U.S. legal connection, such as discovering that one of the sites involved is a U.S.-registered site. Maybe that’s a site that is doing the advertising or hosting ads or processing payments for the counterfeiters.

The IPR Center is reaching out to those payment processors and advertising brokers to deny service to sites that are running illegal businesses, says Ross. That would cut off a source of revenue and the ability to collect money for the illegal sites. Additionally, pharmaceutical companies work with law enforcement and go after individuals on the civil side when that’s more effective.

Several organizations such as the ASOP are dedicated to determining the legitimacy of online pharmacies. For example, LegitScript, an Internet pharmacy verification service, was a founding member of ASOP, and LegitScript President John Horton says that the group’s major goals are to ensure that drugs are safe, regulated, and sold only by prescription.

Horton says LegitScript has 11 standards for online pharmacies. Among the standards are that pharmacies must be licensed in the states where they do business and that the drugs must be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pharmacy Web sites must also be transparent and provide an accessible mechanism by which buyers can contact the pharmacist in case something goes wrong. Horton says his company deals with thousands of pharmacies a day.

One of the biggest challenges is making third-party companies aware of the issue. “We want the Internet to be safe for legitimate Internet pharmacies. But to get there, companies need to stand up and say, ‘if you’re not requiring a prescription, if you’re selling unregulated drugs, you can’t use our services,’” says Horton. His company has had success with some clients, such as Google and GoDaddy, who have agreed to shut down advertising servicers or sites that LegitScript finds to be illegitimate.

One challenge in fighting this type of crime is that it pays well. “You can make as much money now selling counterfeit goods as you could make selling cocaine or heroin,” says Ross.

Ford would like to see enhanced penalties for those found selling counterfeit drugs, and Ross agrees. Ross notes that “the big difference is if I try to import a container of cocaine, and I get caught, I’m going to jail for 20 years…whereas if I have a container of counterfeit whatever, the sentencing is so much lower. I may get a year, maybe two years.”