US agencies seize 686 websites accused of selling fake drugs

ICE and the DOJ have now seized more than 1,500 websites for alleged copyright infringement in the past two years

Two U.S. agencies have seized 686 websites accused of selling counterfeit and illegal medicines as part of an international crackdown on online sales of fake drugs.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, seized the websites in the past week, ICE said in a press release. The U.S. operation, nicknamed Bitter Pill, was part of an Interpol operation aimed at disrupting organized crime networks allegedly behind illegal online drug sales.

The new seizures by ICE and the DOJ nearly double the number of websites shut down by the agencies in the name of copyright enforcement. As of July, the agencies had seized 839 websites for alleged copyright infringement over the past two years.

Civil liberties groups have criticized the seizure efforts, saying they lack due process for the website owners. In August, the DOJ dropped charges against two sports streaming websites after shutting them down for 17 months.

The new worldwide effort, involving 100 countries, resulted in 79 arrests and the seizure of 3.7 million doses of counterfeit medicines worth an estimated US$10.5 million, ICE said. Worldwide, about 18,000 websites were shuttered during the weeklong operation, which ended Tuesday.

"These international partnerships are essential in the global fight against the trafficking of counterfeit drugs," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement. "Instead of taking potentially life-saving medicines, customers are duped into purchasing drugs that are fake or untested and could ultimately do them more harm than good."

During the operation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted packages that were believed to contain fake or illicit drugs. Payment processing companies supported the operation by identifying and blocking payments connected to illicit online pharmacies, identifying individuals responsible for sending spam emails and identifying abuse of electronic payment systems, ICE said.

During the operation, ICE special agents made undercover purchases of counterfeit drugs from multiple websites. The counterfeit drugs seized during Bitter Pill included anti-cancer medication, antibiotics and erectile dysfunction pills as well as weight loss and food supplements.

The new effort is part of Operation in Our Sites, a two-year-old effort by ICE and the DOJ to target the sale of counterfeit merchandise on the Internet. The agencies shut down the seized websites and took custody of their domain names.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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