Thousands of fake online pharmacies shut down in INTERPOL operation

A record number of fake online pharmacies have been shut down under Operation Pangea XIV targeting the sale of counterfeit and illicit medicines and medical products.

The operation coordinated by INTERPOL involved police, customs and health regulatory authorities from 92 countries. It resulted in 113,020 web links including websites and online marketplaces being closed down or removed, the highest number since the first Operation Pangea in 2008.

In Venezuela a man was arrested after he developed an e-commerce platform on WhatsApp to sell illicit medicines.  In the UK, in addition to the seizure of some three million fake medicines and devices worth more than US$13 million, authorities also removed more than 3,100 advertising links for the illegal sale and supply of unlicensed medicines, and shut down 43 websites.

Criminals cashing in

Operation Pangea XIV also showed that criminals are continuing to cash in on the demand for personal protection and hygiene products generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fake and unauthorized COVID-19 testing kits accounted for more than half of all medical devices seized during the week of action (18 – 25 May) which resulted in 277 arrests worldwide and the seizure of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals worth more than US$23 million.

In Italy, authorities recovered more than 500,000 fake surgical masks as well as 35 industrial machines used for production and packaging.

More than half of all medical devices seized during the operation were fake and unauthorized COVID-19 tests, Image credit: INTERPOL

Threat to public safety

“As the pandemic forced more people to move their lives online, criminals were quick to target these new ‘customers’,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“Whilst some individuals were knowingly buying illicit medicines, many thousands of victims were unwittingly putting their health and potentially their lives at risk.

“The online sale of illicit medicines continues to pose a threat to public safety, which is why operations such as Pangea remain vital in combating this global health scourge.” 

Dismantling criminal networks

“As crimes continue to evolve amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities must remain vigilant in dismantling criminal networks involved in the proliferation of illicit pharmaceutical products especially in online platforms,” said the Head of the INTERPOL National Central Bureau in the Philippines, Allan C. Guisihan.

“Despite the official conclusion of this operation, the Philippines will continue to pursue its efforts in protecting the environment to ensure public health.”

Concealment methods

Checks of some 710,000 packages led to the discovery of fake and illicit drugs hidden amongst legitimate products including clothes, jewelry, toys, food and baby products.  In Qatar officials discovered 2,805 nerve pain tablets hidden inside tins of baked beans.

Unauthorized and counterfeit medicines can be dangerous for a number of reasons. They may contain the wrong amount of active ingredient (too little, too much, or none at all), have altered expiration dates or been badly stored. This means they could be ineffective or contaminated.

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