Internet Pharmacy Fraud

A Warren Township, New Jersey, pharmacist was recently charged in federal court with operating an Internet pharmacy fraud scheme. The specific charges included narcotics conspiracy, narcotics distribution, conspiracy to misbrand, misbranding, mail and wire fraud conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy. The pharmacist was one of 10 people, three of whom were physicians, charged around the U.S.

New Jersey Case Details

The operation was simple. Individuals who wanted certain narcotic pain medications visited a website and completed a medical questionnaire that already had some answers filled in. The completed questionnaires were then emailed to one of the physicians, who wrote prescriptions for the pills without actually reviewing the questionnaire or seeing, calling or emailing the "patients." The doctor sent the prescriptions to one of the participating pharmacies, where they would be filled and mailed or delivered to the customers. The doctors and pharmacists were paid by the website operators using domestic and international wire transfers.

In addition to the charges faced by the Warrenton pharmacist, individuals engaged in operating illegal Internet pharmacies may face charges of identity theft, phishing, copyright infringement, falsification of doctor approval, malware/intrusion, false advertising, sale of non-FDA approved drugs and violations of the Can Spam Act, a 2003 law that established rules for commercial email and messages.

International Crackdown

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently took steps to shut down many other Internet pharmacies. In October 2012, it took legal action against more than 4,000 U.S. and international pharmacy sites. In addition, a joint operation involving more than 100 countries, including the United States, closed more than 18,000 online pharmacies and confiscated pharmaceuticals valued at more than $10.5 million.

Safety a Big Issue for Internet Pharmacies

The primary reason for the shutdowns was concern over the safety of the medications being sold. Many Internet pharmacies targeted by law enforcement sell medicines that are not approved or that contain banned or discontinued ingredients that are considered unsafe. Others should only be used under a doctor's supervision because of the need to educate patients about known side effects. Drugs seized during the crackdown include:

  • Domperidone, a drug used to treat nausea and vomiting that was removed from the U.S. market in 1988 because of its potential to injure infants and pregnant women
  • Accutane, an anti-acne drug that has only limited distribution in the U.S. because of its significant risks to patients
  • Tamiflu, usually called generic Tamiflu when sold over the Internet. There is no FDA-approved generic Tamiflu, and the Internet versions were found to contain penicillin, which could cause a significant reaction in people allergic to penicillin who took the medicine without knowing it included penicillin.
  • Viagra: Taking this erectile dysfunction medicine without supervision by a health care professional leaves patients vulnerable to unexpected side effects such as significantly decreased blood pressure when taken with other medications such as nitrates.
  • Antidepressants such as Ambien, Xanax, Lexapro and Ativan: These commonly prescribed medications were frequently something else when purchased from an Internet pharmacy. Some patients were forced to seek emergency medical treatment because what they had purchased online was actually the powerful antipsychotic drug haloperidol (Haldol).

Not all Internet pharmacies are illegal. The recent crackdown should encourage operators of Internet pharmacies to be sure that they meet the legal and business requirements outlined by the FDA so they can avoid charges like those brought against the Warrenton Township pharmacist. A knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer can help you.