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Thinking Through Rogue Affiliate Pharmacy Networks

How does LegitScript keep track of roughly 50,000 current or former rogue Internet pharmacies? We’ve found that the key to the rogue Internet pharmacy world – indeed, the key to much illegal and infringing activity on the Internet – is affiliate pharmacy networks.

What are affiliate networks? In short, affiliate networks are groups of websites that market one or more products on behalf of a central seller. For example, let’s say that a bookstore wants to increase its Internet footprint, selling as many books as possible online. One way to to it would be to produce a template enabling Internet users to “set up their own online bookstore” on their own website(s), but routing all of the orders to the central bookstore. The website owners, or affiliate marketers, get a cut of the sale, with the actual bookstore pocketing the rest.

That isn’t inherently illicit by any means. But with very few exceptions – for reasons that we may explore more fully in another blog – affiliate networks and legitimate Internet pharmacy operations are fundamentally incompatible. Generally, where you see an affiliate pharmacy network, you can almost always find serious violations of pharmacy regulations and drug safety laws.

And that’s how LegitScript keeps track of thousands of rogue Internet pharmacies: we organize them by affiliate network. No matter which one we examine, several common themes appear over and over:

  • Rogue pharmacy networks frequently claim to supply low-cost but equally safe drugs from offshore locations.
  • Many networks focus on lifestyle drugs, while other offer a larger group of controlled drugs.
  • Some claim to offer “brand name” drugs, while other networks offer only generic products.
  • And some networks claim to offer both genuine brand and generic drugs, but customer complaints indicate they often substitute a generic product, even when the customer has ordered a brand name version of the drug – and paid accordingly.
  • And, of course, some networks simply do not deliver.

Some rogue networks are widely known in the Internet security community, while others are known only within forums that cater to freelancers looking for high-paying affiliate programs, in particular those that accept any kind “Blackhat SEO” traffic. Blackhat SEO is highly malicious activity that uses blog and forum spam, WordPress theme hacking, search engine gaming, email and social network spamming to drive user links to rogue pharmacy websites.

An example of a widely known affiliate pharmacy network is sometimes referred to as “Canadian Pharmacy” – an Internet pharmacy that is neither Canadian nor a genuine pharmacy, but is actually part of a Russian-based affiliate network more correctly known as GlavMed. (At LegitScript, we generally do not refer to the GlavMed Internet pharmacy websites as “Canadian Pharmacy” because of the likelihood of confusion with numerous other Internet pharmacies claiming (accurately or not) to “have” a Canadian pharmacy or pharmacist’s license.)

While GlavMed is one of the best known rogue affiliate networks, there are many more smaller and lesser-known rogue affiliate pharmacy networks than Glavmed – between 100 – 200 by our estimate, many of which are interconnected. LegitScript has identified all or most of these rogue networks, which may range from small collections of 3 or 4 affiliated websites to large rogue affiliate networks containing thousands of affiliate websites.

To begin with a small network, earlier this week, a visitor to the LegitScript website inquired about a website that we had not previously been focused on. The domain had a cute and likeable domain name. One of LegitScript’s staff set-off to review the website.

This is what we found:

Based on the home page visual cues which include prominent illustration of ED drugs (and, the use without permission of iStockphoto images), this is a rogue marketing network that focuses on sale of a limited selection of lifestyle drugs.

Although the website claims to supply genuine drugs on the home page, on other pages the website declares the drugs are dispensed from India and marketed exclusively to the US market. This indicates any drugs that may (or may not) be supplied by this network will be considered unregulated at best, and possibly even counterfeit.

Even worse, no prescription is requested when an attempt was made to place an order for one of the drugs listed on the website. The order form, which is not secure, requests an unnecessary amount of financial and identity information, suggesting that credit card theft may be a result of ordering from this website. This order entry method appears to be intentional, based on postings made by the network owner on several Indian and Romanian call center forums. It is probable that the primary purpose of this rogue network is to capture a large amount of identity and financial information. For all of these reasons, this small group of affiliated websites should be avoided.

A second example of a relatively unknown illegal affiliate network, CashAdmin (also known simply as presents a more professional design and a much larger list of available drugs. It is also another one of the networks that heavily promotes lifestyle drugs.

It has four “branded” website designs and perhaps 15 – 20 anchor and affiliate management websites. This rogue pharmacy network offers an affiliate program that is currently recruiting with seasonal and adult themed promotions in a typical seasonal behavior pattern among rogue pharmacy networks.

Traffic analysis from an outside monitoring service indicates these websites attract a significant number of US website visitors. However, this rogue pharmacy network knowingly violates US federal and state laws. Drugs sold by this network include counterfeit generics sourced from outside the US. Drugs are sold without a prescription and doctor-patient relationship as required by law in the US. Although this network claims to use US pharmacists, we challenge CashAdmin to provide us their names and licenses numbers. LegitScript is confident, based on our knowledge of CashAdmin, that the network’s representation that it uses US pharmacies and pharmacists is an outright lie.

This network claims to be located in Belize and that their drug supply centers are located around the world. The network owners appear to be located elsewhere, possibly Seychelles, France, and Israel. Overall, this rogue pharmacy network appears designed to take customer money and put it in the pocket of affiliates and management while making it difficult for a customer to verify the origin, safety and efficacy of drugs ordered from their affiliate websites.

Two of the primary templates in this rogue network look like this:

The reason that CashAdmin websites are rogue can easily be determined on the face of the websites. First, they do not require a prescription; second, they sell unregulated “generic” versions of drugs without approved generics; and third, as mentioned above, they practice pharmacy without required licenses. In short, the CashAdmin network violates just about every important principle of safe pharmacy practice.

Affiliate networks are the key to understanding and tracking not just rogue Internet pharmacies, but many types of illegal or illicit behavior on the Internet.