Pharmaceutical crime is a major global public health concern, with the trade of counterfeit and illicit health products affecting all countries through source, transit, or destination points. Patients around the world put their health and even their lives at risk by unknowingly consuming fake and unregulated medical products, or products that have been altered, diverted, badly stored or have passed their expiration date. For the 14th year in a row, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) joined 94 Interpol member countries in a coordinated crackdown on illicit online pharmacies dubbed “Operation Pangea XV,” June 23-30. The operation netted more than 7,800 seizures of illicit and falsified medicines, totaling more than three million individual units at $11 million.
“Two decades worth of experience has shown criminals will stop at nothing to make a profit, including selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical devices despite dangers they cause,” said Jim Mancuso, IPR Center director. “The United States is committed to working closely with our international law enforcement partners and the private sector to keep counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical devices out of the global supply chain, as well as taking down transnational criminal organizations who profit from these scams. The results of Operation Pangea XV are a warning to transnational criminal organizations that law enforcement agencies around the world will do whatever it takes to protect public health and safety.”
“Dealing counterfeit or illicit medicines online may seem like a low-level offence, but the consequences for victims are potentially life-threatening,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “The illicit supply chains and business models behind the trade in counterfeit medicines are inherently international, meaning that law enforcement has to work together across borders in order to effectively protect consumers.”
Every day, advertisements for medicines invade the Internet, posted on social media networks or other websites. Behind this marketing, however, often lies fraudulent products that damage consumers’ health instead of healing them.
The global trade in illicit pharmaceuticals was valued at $4.4 billion in 2016 – and attracts the involvement or organized crime groups around the world.
During the weeklong operation, law enforcement:
- Investigated more than 4,000 web links, mainly from social media platforms and messaging apps;
- Shut down or removed more than 4,000 web links containing adverts for illicit products;
- Inspected nearly 3,000 packages and 280 postal hubs at airports, borders and mail distribution or cargo mail centers; and
- Opened more than 600 new investigations and issued more than 200 search warrants.
While results are still incoming, enforcement actions have already disrupted the activities of at least 36 organized crime groups.
Cross border crimes
Nearly half (48 percent) of the packages inspected by law enforcement during the operation were found to contain either illicit or falsified medicines.
Fake or unauthorized erectile dysfunction medicines understood at least 40 percent of all products seized. Law enforcement in Australia, Argentina, Malaysia, and the United States also seized more than 317,000 unauthorized COVID-19 test kits. The US seizures alone are estimated to be worth nearly $3 million.
The trade in illicit medicines extends far beyond any one country’s borders. Often, products are manufactured in one country and shipped to another, while advertisements for the medicines are hosted on websites based in other countries altogether.
In Malaysia alone, law enforcement identified more than 2,000 websites selling or advertising false or restricted pharmaceuticals.
Social media networks and messaging apps are also used to advertise counterfeit or illicit medicines, with Operation Pangea XV identifying more than 1,200 such ads across all major platforms.
Within the framework of Operation Pangea XV, Interpol was able to count on the support of Europol, the World Customs Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Container Control Programme, health regulatory agencies and the Pharmaceutical Security Institute.
Interpol’s Illicit Goods and Global Health Program works to dismantle criminal networks and reduce the risk fake and illicit pharmaceuticals pose to public health.
Since 2008, Operation Pangea has been combating the global trafficking of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and illicit health products marketed and sold online. Pangea also aims to raise public awareness of the risks associated with buying medicines from unregulated websites.
About the IPR Center
For more than two decades, the IPR Center, working collaboratively with its public-private sector partners, has led the effort in the government’s response to combat global intellectual property theft and enforce intellectual property rights violations. The center was established to combat global intellectual property theft – and, accordingly, has a significant role policing the sale and distribution of counterfeit goods on websites, social media, and the dark web.