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Online Pill Pushers Busted

Three U.S. physicians and two pharmacists were named Thursday in a 313-count federal indictment for the illegal online sale of prescription drugs. According to the Department of Justice (DoJ), the operation handled more than 1 million online orders and grossed approximately $126 million over a two-year period.

In addition to the doctors and the pharmacists, the indictment names 11 others, including a pharmacy operator, two recruiters, a credit card processor and eight affiliate Web site operators who participated in the Affpower distribution network.

Affpower located its administrative headquarters in Costa Rica and its computer servers in Cyprus. Affpower further relied on foreign-based agencies, including RX Payments Ltd. of Tel-Aviv, Israel, to process credit-card transactions, and used various bank accounts and an accounting firm in Nicosia, Cyprus, to distribute proceeds of the enterprise.

The defendants were charged with various racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering counts. The charges also include the distribution and dispensing of controlled substances, mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to dispense misbranded drugs with the intent to defraud and mislead.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum 20 years in prison for RICO and RICO conspiracy; 20 years for mail and wire fraud; 20 years for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud; five years for conspiracy to distribute and dispense controlled substances; 20 years for money laundering; five years for conspiracy to violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and three years for violating the FDCA. The defendants also face millions of dollars in fines.

"The fraudulent and illegal sale of prescription drugs over the Internet poses a serious threat to the health of Americans who turn to the Internet in their need for pharmaceuticals," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in a statement. "The defendants allegedly exploited that need and provided little or no doctor review while prescribing possibly dangerous drugs, even as they generated millions of dollars in revenues for themselves."

According to the indictment, the Affpower sold controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs through numerous affiliated Web sites to customers who lacked prescriptions for the drugs from a personal physician.

The DoJ alleges that Affpower doctors conducted no physical or mental examinations before issuing prescriptions, had no contact with customers and had no physician-patient relationship with any customer for whom the doctors prescribed drugs. Affpower doctors usually reviewed hundreds of customer orders per day and were typically paid $3 per review.

In some cases, the DoJ claims, Affpower doctors issued prescriptions for drugs even when a customer's answers to a health questionnaire suggested that the ordered drug could pose a danger to the customer. In other cases, the customer did not have a medical condition for which the ordered medication was an appropriate treatment.

In yet other cases, a licensed physician never reviewed orders for prescription pharmaceuticals. Instead, a non-physician member of the Affpower enterprise who had allegedly stolen the identity of a licensed physician issued prescriptions using the physician's name and registration.

"This case is another example of how some people will prey on an unsuspecting public by illegally and unscrupulously selling medications on the Internet without regard to the health or safety of the public," said Director Terry Vermillion of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations.

"By pretending to have an honest medical review of their prescriptions, the public was duped into believing that the defendants had their best interests at heart when in reality their motivation was money."