Global operation disrupts thousands of illegal online pharmacies

Authorities seized fake medicines worth US$36 million, but also shut down websites and removed rogue online advertisements

Law enforcement agencies in 111 countries collaborated to disrupt thousands of online pharmacies in what Interpol claims was the largest ever global operation targeting organized criminal networks that sell fake medicines.

The operation, which was dubbed Pangea VII, resulted in 237 arrests worldwide and the seizure of almost US$36 million worth of illicit and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals over the course of a week, Europol said Thursday. The operation took place May 13-20 and was coordinated by Interpol.

In addition to inspecting suspect packages at customs and seizing fake medicines, authorities got 19,000 rogue pharmaceutical advertisements removed from social media websites and shut down over 10,600 websites. The rogue domain name registrars, electronic payment systems and delivery services used by the criminal networks were also targeted, Interpol said.

The operation was supported Microsoft, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, G2 Web Services and LegitScript.

A large online spam business has developed over the years around fake online pharmacies, partially fueling the production and distribution of malware. Botnet operators earn money through affiliate schemes to distribute online pharmacy spam, which in turns encourages them to infect more computers and make their malware harder to detect.

Pharma spam distribution networks are less susceptible to legal intervention, except when there's also a botnet takedown, said David Harley, a senior research fellow at antivirus vendor ESET, via email. However, depending on how badly the suppliers and physical distribution networks were hit in this law enforcement operation, "it's quite possible that there'll be a dip in spam until the hydra grows some alternative heads."

"Medicine" is the most popular spam topic, said Darya Loseva, head of the Content Analysis & Research Group at antivirus vendor Kaspersky Lab. Going after online pharmacy websites alone would have little effect, as criminals could soon replace them, but complex operations like Pandora VII that target the full chain of fake medicine distribution, from illegal laboratories to clients, can cause a decline in pharmaceutical spam for a longer time, she said.

Closing underground partner programs that are used to promote illicit pharmaceuticals is much more effective, Loseva said. After SpamIt, a large spam affiliate program, was shut down in 2010, the amount of pharmaceutical spam decreased for a few months, she said.

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