When we talk about the illicit sale of drugs online, we typically think of criminal rings peddling illegal narcotics. After all, that’s where the media and law enforcement have focused their attention. But as it turns out, there’s also a booming trade when it comes to the illicit sale of legal prescription drugs online. And while the tactics of that trade vary, the practice hurts the legitimate pharmaceutical industry in ways marketers probably don’t see.

Where is This Happening?

The internet gives criminals wide latitude to operate. Criminals engaging in the illicit sales of pharmaceuticals often center their efforts in one of three places online: The open web, the deep web, and the dark web. A little terminology may be in order.

The open web is the web we use every day to shop, watch videos, engage with friends on social media, and even read articles like this one. The deep web is the entire web, including portions of the web that aren’t indexed or crawled by conventional search engines. To be clear, the deep web isn’t inherently nefarious. In fact, many web-based applications that are encrypted or protected by firewalls are part of the deep web. So, for example, the deep web would include email services such as Gmail. Finally, within the deep web, there is also something called the dark web. These websites are often created for illicit purposes. Dark websites aren’t indexed, and because they are hosted anonymously, access is typically limited to those using special software such as TOR.

How Does the Illicit Sale of Legitimate Pharmaceuticals Work?

On the open web, criminals typically hide in plain sight. Unsophisticated operators can simply set up shop, just like a pharmacy. But more sophisticated actors often take steps to mask their true intent by using innocuous URLs that often escape the periodic purges hosting services undertake to rid their systems of illicit operators. Many of these open web operators also use sophisticated spam bot networks to seed the comment sections of third-party websites with links that both drive traffic and raise the SEO scores of the illicit online pharmacies.

On the deep web, criminals typically sell illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, right alongside prescription pharmaceuticals. These sites are harder to find because they don’t appear in the search engine results. However, spam links can sometimes pull in unsuspecting consumers.

The dark web is primarily focused on illegal drugs. But it’s possible to find illicit prescription pharmaceuticals there too. When legitimate drugs are sold in this setting, the consumer usually sees an ad promoting a name-brand pharmaceutical, or the generic equivalent, as well as a message directing them to make contact through an encrypted channel such as WhatsApp.

Are Criminals Actually Selling Legitimate Pharmaceuticals?

In some cases, yes. One common tactic is to advertise “low cost” or “cheap” prescription drugs. The product could be real—although there’s no way for consumers to tell in advance. Some pharmacies are likely selling actual products obtained through fraudulent means. In other cases, the product may be counterfeit, in which case the quality can range from very good to incredibly poor. It’s also possible that the fake pharmaceuticals are designed to look like the real thing, even though their content is either ineffective or dangerous.

But it’s also important to note that many of these criminals have no intention of selling drugs at all. In some cases, the promise of low-cost drugs or getting prescription drugs without first consulting a doctor is a predicate to a financial scam. In these instances, the scammers simply walk away with the customer’s money, credit card, or bank information. Along similar lines, criminals have also been known to use illegitimate online pharmacies as a method for infecting computers with malware.

Why is This a Problem for Pharmaceutical Brands and Marketers?

First and foremost, marketers should be concerned about public health. Whether the product is the real thing or a dangerous knock-off, the pharmaceutical industry is particularly vulnerable to this practice because criminals are leveraging their brand names in ways that put public health at risk.

A closely related issue is the diminishment of the brand. Obviously, the worst-case scenario is for someone to be hurt by an illicit product. But even if the product never makes it into consumer hands, the brand still suffers because of the negative association.

Finally, illicit marketing and sales operations undermine legitimate marketing and sales channels. As marketers, you’re competing not just against your legitimate rivals, but also the criminals who might be optimizing for your search terms or otherwise vying for consumer attention. At the same time, your sales channels suffer because criminals can quote any price they like.

What Can Marketers Do About This Problem?

As with any problem, the first step is to learn as much as you can. For marketers, this means understanding how criminals hijack their brands online. By running search queries of a product name and adding phrases like “no prescription required,” marketers can begin to see the scope and depth of the problem as it relates specifically to their brand. These queries can also be extended to run on the deep web and dark web. By way of example, try running a Google search query (click at your own risk) for “cheap Levitra.” You’ll see that several of the top 10 results link to illicit pharmacies using shell organizations and URLs to redirect to their sites. Interestingly, it looks like they are also now hijacking sites for Highland County, VA (a real place) and Little Red Door, a cancer non-profit.

But education shouldn’t stop with the marketing department. Once marketers understand how criminals hijack their brands, it’s important to tell the public what’s happening. Not only will that help safeguard consumers, but it will also help disrupt the supply of illicit pharmaceuticals.

To help sound the alarm, marketers should report any suspicious pharmacies they find to the FDA. The FDA’s website provides a list of red flags marketers can use to spot an illicit pharmacy as well as a form to file a complaint. Marketers can also help their cause by learning about the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which coordinates U.S. government participation in Operation Pangea to target the advertisement, sale, and supply of counterfeit and illicit medicines and medical devices. Marketers who are interested in supporting this ongoing operation should reach out through the National IPR website.

Finally, it’s important to understand that as brand stewards, marketers are on the front lines of this fight. Your understanding of how criminals hijack and misuse your brand is often the evidence law enforcement needs to disrupt this widespread problem. By putting eyes on the opaquer corners of the internet, marketers can regain control of their brands and put themselves in a position to say something when they see something.

  • Brian Pate

    Brian Pate currently serves as the SVP for Babel Street’s Federal Civil business. He is responsible for Babel Street customer engagements spanning the Executive and Legislative Branches, including the Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security. Previously, Brian served as the Current Operations officer at Marine Forces Cyberspace Command and Global Plans lead at Joint Task Force Ares, where he was in charge of planning and executing full spectrum, global cyberspace operations.


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