A New Study Shows How Registrars Can Help Stop Illicit Internet Pharmacies

Beginning in August 2021, LegitScript undertook a three-month project to analyze the value of domain name registrars suspending illicit internet pharmacies. In particular, we aimed to collect data on the impact suspensions have on organic search engine results for illicit internet pharmacies. Our findings indicate the important role registrars play in helping thwart public access to rogue internet pharmacies.

 

Methodology

For the study, we identified 65 rogue internet pharmacy websites, representing eight registrars. All 65 met LegitScript’s definition of a rogue internet pharmacy because they:

  • Offered the sale of prescription medications without requiring a valid prescription;
  • Offered the sale of unapproved drugs; and
  • Lacked a valid pharmacy license for every jurisdiction in which shipping is offered.

In addition, 25 of the websites were marketing one or more prescription opioid products. As the aim of the research was to assess the value domain name suspension has in reducing the number of indexed search results, we’ll note that we selected registrars that are fairly responsive to LegitScript’s abuse notifications. However, most of the registrars providing service to large numbers of illicit internet pharmacies are non-responsive to abuse notifications. Read more about the responsibility of registrars under the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement in a previous blog post.

In order to assess the impact on the number of organic search engine results for each website, LegitScript collected baseline data for two weeks prior to sending the abuse notifications to the registrars. We conducted a site search for each of the websites in the study and counted the number of search results. We repeated this process weekly following the notifications for the entirety of the study. Though this method is imperfect in terms of mimicking individuals searching online to buy particular prescription drugs or opioids, it allowed us to answer the question of whether or not a registrar suspension would impact the number of indexed search results for these illicit internet pharmacies.

Once we collected documentation of illicit activity, we sent abuse notifications for 49 domain names to the appropriate registrars and kept 16 as a control group for the organic search result research.

 

Domain Name Suspension Stats

The overall findings related to domain name suspension are as follows:

  • Of the 49 domain names that were notified, 39 (80%) were suspended by the registrar.
    • Two were allowed to transfer to a new registrar and came back online.
    • Two came back online with the same registrar.
    • Two transferred but remained inactive.
  • Of the 39 suspended domain names, 18 (46%) were locked by the registrar.
  • Of the 10 that were not suspended, all remained active throughout the project.
    • One transferred almost immediately after the notification, and the other nine remained with the same registrar.
  • The average number of days to suspend was nine days.
  • The majority of the suspended domain names were inactive for nine or more weeks, the average being 11 weeks.

As it relates to registrar compliance to abuse notifications, we’ll note that six of the 10 notified domain names that were not suspended were with a single registrar. That particular registrar only suspended two (25%) of the eight domain names provided in the notification. Two of those six websites that were not suspended had organic search engine result counts above 200, which would indicate they are highly visible to individuals searching for prescription products online.

 

Study Findings

The following table has some examples of the data that was collected on the number of organic search results and the impact domain name suspension had on those results.

spreadsheet showing study findings

Our research paints a clear picture that registrar suspension has an immediate and lasting impact on how visible a website is to the public within search engine results. Nearly all the domain names that became inactive, and remained inactive for more than nine weeks, saw a 75% or greater reduction in indexed search results from the point of inactivity, as indicated by fields highlighted in green in the rightmost column.

Here are a few of the many examples:

american-meds.com was identified as inactive on 8/20/21. That week, the website had 92 indexed results for the search used for tracking. The following week, the website had 57 indexed results (38% decline); the week after, 50 results (47% total decline). By the third week following suspension, there were only 44 results (52% total decline). The reductions slowed a little from that point, but by the end of the project (13 weeks after suspension) there were only 5 indexed results (95% total decline).

securepharmacare.us was identified as inactive on 8/25/21. That week, the website had 129 indexed results for the search used for tracking. The following week, the website had 94 indexed results (27% decline); the week after, 70 results (46% total decline). By the third week following suspension, there were only 53 results (60% total decline). The reductions slowed a little from that point, but by the end of the project (12 weeks after suspension) there were just 11 indexed results (91% total decline).

By contrast, all but one of the 10 domain names that remained active and were not suspended by the registrar held steady in terms of the indexed search result count. This was also true for the 16 websites in the control group. Those that were active throughout the project all either held steady in terms of indexed organic search results or increased in the number of results.

As an example for the value of both suspension and locking the domain name so that it cannot transfer, one of the domain names was suspended and inactive from 8/25/21 through 10/7/21, but was then allowed to come back online by the registrar. During the seven weeks the website was offline, it went from 100 indexed results to 31 (69% decline). Once it came back online, within five weeks indexed results climbed back to 53 (42% increase).

 

About the Study and LegitScript’s Domain Name Enforcement Program

LegitScript conducted this study as part of our efforts to protect the public by stopping the proliferation of illicit internet pharmacies. LegitScript’s Domain Name Enforcement program has helped to stop more than 83,000 rogue pharmacy websites. To shut down a domain name that is used for the illicit sale of drugs, we request that the registrar or registry suspend and lock the domain name. This is an effective way to interrupt the operation of rogue pharmacy websites because it disables the website itself and prevents it from being transferred. We may also contact other companies such as internet service providers (ISPs) or blog hosting companies to recommend that they terminate their relationships, depending on the nature of the website.

Our mission is to make the internet and payment ecosystems safer and more transparent. If you encounter a website that you suspect is engaged in the illicit sale of pharmaceuticals, please let us know by filling out our report a website form.