Illegal pharmacies target search engines

Many online pharmacies claim to sell quality drugs without requiring prescriptions

Expat internet users have long been subject to all manner of email spam. Many of these messages advertise cut-rate drugs sold by illegal pharmacies. Now, according to a recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, online sellers of fake and expired drugs have switched to targeting search engines.

Nicolas Cristin, Associate Director of the Internet Networking Institute, said:

We have known for some time that unauthorized online pharmacies have been using email spam to tap the wallets of unwary online consumers, but that method did not blanket enough customers so now the online thieves are infecting websites to redirect unwary consumers to hundreds of illegal online pharmacies.

The research team spent nine months investigating the search results for 218 drug-related queries. It found approximately 7,000 websites (a third of the total examined) redirected to a few hundred illegal pharmacy sites. Another 15% had broken links that otherwise would have redirected to those same sites. That means nearly half of all search results were at some point linked to an illegal operation.

Illegal pharmacies often sell expired drugs or drugs that have been tampered with in some way. They do not warn patients of potential complications, and though they may require answers to a medical questionnaire they almost never show them to a doctor.

The Carnegie Mellon researchers concluded search engine manipulation is a more efficient way of attracting “customers” than email spam. “To those who aim to reduce unauthorized pharmaceutical sales, more emphasis needs to be placed on combating transactions facilitated by web search,” Cristin said.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website offers tips for expats to identify legitimate online pharmacies. Legal operations:

  • Require prescriptions from licensed doctors
  • Ask for detailed medical histories
  • Always clearly state privacy policies and other transaction information clearly on their sites
  • Use secure connections to process payments
Daniel says:

Scary …