Stopping illegal online pharmacies with data & collaboration

Simon Baggs, President of Brand & Content Protection at Corsearch, on the rise of illegal online pharmacies & how they can be beaten with data & teamwork

Illegal online pharmacies are putting patient health and digital safety at risk, as people turn to these options to save money, or for access to products out of market or out of stock. 

“Consumers can be naturally trusting of products found online as they often assume safety in the fact that the site purely exists, but there are a growing number of nefarious entities expertly exploiting international loopholes in pharmaceutical and cybercrime regulations,” says Simon Baggs, President of Brand & Content Protection at Corsearch. “Tackling them requires a cross-sector and data-led effort.”

So what specifically can organisations do to combat the illegal selling or IP infringement of their products?

The clear and present danger of illegal online pharmacies

At any one time, an estimated 40,000 illegal online pharmacies are in operation. Between 2017 and 2020 in the USA alone, they filled 416m orders, making an estimated US$28bn.

“These unregulated entities offer all manner of prescription-only medications (POM), including opioids, cancer drugs, and more recently diabetes medications linked to weight loss, without healthcare professional (HCP) approval,” explains Baggs. “Driven by cost-of-living pressures or necessity, patients are increasingly turning to these websites to source medication. A Butler University and Michigan State University study found that almost 18% of US consumers buy prescription medicines online in the hope of getting a genuine product at a lower cost.”

These sites often deal in substandard and falsified (SF) medical products, which can be ineffective, toxic, or incorrectly dosed. The lack of HCP oversight means factors such as drug suitability, drug-to-drug interactions, or contra-indications, are not considered. 

“Consumers are often further scammed by these sites phishing for personal or financial data, as many are fronts for organised crime,” he continues. “Global product shortages, brought about by supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise of so-called ‘health influencers’ have also played a role in people turning to illegal pharmacies. Earlier this year, for example, people with Type 2 diabetes reported being unable to access Ozempic, after it was promoted online as a ‘fashionable’ weight loss drug.”

Illegal pharmacies are often linked to organised crime groups; large, complex networks that utilise websites, social media and private messaging platforms to sell their wares. 

“These sellers also bring a further risk to consumers of scamming and phishing for financial or personal data, which can then be used for various criminal enterprises,” adds Baggs. “They tend to operate from countries such as China, India and Russia, where enforcement is challenging for western countries, and raw materials and manufacturing is relatively inexpensive.” 

Since the internet works on a global basis, the interplay between regional laws can also make enforcement a complicated issue. The sheer scale of the illegal activity is the largest challenge. 

“This is where technology providers come in, with an expert knowledge of global and regional consideration. However, the first step is always data-gathering on where, how and when these online pharmacies are operating.”

Disrupting the entire digital footprint can be done using machine learning algorithms that monitor websites, social media profiles and paid search advertisements anywhere in the world using local proxies. Priority keywords and product images can be detected and prioritised to focus on suspected counterfeit, or illegally diverted, stock in near real-time.

“Data collected in different territories and on different online platforms is automatically pooled by software and interrogated to identify linkages – for example, a WhatsApp number, or email or other common identifier – thus revealing the wider international footprint,” says Baggs. 

Once an infringing website or network of websites is identified and the evidence collated coherently from masses of data, the threat can be acted upon by working with the relevant entities such as the host providers, search engines and law enforcement.

“Depending on the relevant jurisdiction, hosting provider, and/or platforms involved, the route to success may be nuanced. Many online platforms now offer joint task forces to partner with brands and certainly local legislatures are keen to protect patient safety online.” 

Online brand protection vendors like Corsearch are skilled in recommending the best path forward based on the facts at hand to elicit success.

Simon Baggs, President of Brand and Content Protection, Corsearch

Simon Baggs, President of Brand and Content Protection, Corsearch

Collaborative approach between online intermediaries, data experts, law enforcement and pharma

Ultimately, Baggs feels that one brand acting alone can usually only remove its own infringed listings, leaving the wider website offering other products still live online. 

“Law enforcement does not have the resources to tackle the scale of this issue across borders. Therefore, collaboration between online intermediaries, data experts, law enforcement and pharma companies is a crucial weapon in the fight against illegal online pharmacies,” he says. “By harnessing their collective power, health companies are in a much better position to hold to account those who unscrupulously threaten public and brand health alike. What’s more, when pursuing offline action, a law enforcement referral is more likely to be taken up if several organisations are involved.”

If the healthcare sector wants to tackle the scourge of illegal online pharmacies and address the damage they do to the lives of those who desperately need access to legitimate medicines, it will require a concerted efforted from all stakeholders – from law enforcement to regulators and industry players. 

“It is the amalgamation of data, expertise and collaboration that will strengthen the collective response to this important issue,” Baggs says.


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