Criminal networks targeted in Interpol-led blitz

Pangea VIIIA global sweep by law enforcement has targeted the criminal networks behind the profitable and sometimes deadly online trade in illicit medicines and medical devices. 

Agencies from 115 countries arrested 156 people worldwide, and seized $81m-worth of illicit or counterfeit drugs and devices in the eighth annual Pangea operation, the largest to date.

Like last year, the crackdown revealed widespread penetration of illegal sales on social media channels, like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Leading the operation, Interpol called it the largest-ever targeting the Internet, with 20.7 million counterfeit or illicit medicine-related seizures. The first such operation in 2006 involved 10 countries, while the second netted but 12 arrests.  

The haul this month includes enormous quantities of fake and potentially dangerous diet pills, erectile dysfunction tablets, anti-cancer medicines, the morphine-like tramadol, anaemia pills, narcolepsy tablets and many others.

A widespread trade in illicit and potentially lethal medical devices, such as silicone injection equipment, was newly evident this year. 15,000 devices of all kinds were seized in the UK alone.

Significantly, although 2,414 websites were shut down, the number represented a drop compared to many previous years.  Still large, the lower number seems to have been more than offset by the advent of social media fakery. Agents shut down 320 YouTube channels, for example.

Mark Jackson, head of intelligence of the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) warned:

"There is no doubt social media provides fantastic span if you're trying to sell a product, whether legitimately or illegitimately, and equally it provides a great deal of anonymity if you are doing something illegal."

Regulators in the UK and other countries were described by reporters as critical of the social media sites for allowing anonymous sales of the products. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies participated in the operation.

Pangea VIII highlighted in other ways the emergence of what Europol has recently called a "virtual criminal underground" with the Internet as its hub.  Rogue domain name registrars, electronic payment systems and delivery services were targeted. 50,000 packages were seized during delivery. 

In the UK, according to Interpol, police and the MHRA raided a premise - which was made to look like a legal pharmacy - with links to a website, seizing 60,000 units of potentially dangerous medicines.

In Europe, the operation took place on the background of alarming deaths and illness from the lethal and illicit diet drug DNP (2.4-dinitrophenol).

In May, a 21-year-old Shrewsbury, England, woman, Eloise Parry, died after taking online-purchased diet pills thought to contain DNP.  The ingredient is designed to generate heat in the body, causing victims to literally "burn up" in an overdose. The drug is sometimes sold online as powder resembling turmeric. 

As part of Pangea VIII, agents from the US, France the UK and Interpol convinced domain registrars to shut down two Internet domains selling DNP.

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