Shadowy online businesses that sell knockoff prescription drugs through spam and other dodgy advertising practices have begun relying more heavily on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver prescription drugs to buyers in the United States direct from warehouses or mules within the U.S. The shift comes as rogue online pill shops are seeking ways to lower shipping costs, a major loss leader for most of these operations.
Traditionally, a majority of the counterfeit pills advertised and sold to Americans online have shipped from India. But the process of getting the pills from India to customers in the United States is so expensive and fraught with complications that it has proved to be a big cost center for the largest rogue pharmaceutical operations, according to a study I wrote about last month.
“One of the surprising things we found was that shipping dominates program costs,” said Stefan Savage, one of the lead authors on the study, and a professor in the systems and networking group at the University of California San Diego.
The researchers discovered that most rogue pharmacy operations spend between 11 to 12 percent of their annual revenue on shipping costs. Part of the reason for the high cost is that pill shipments from India and elsewhere outside of the United States frequently get delayed or confiscated by U.S. Customs officials. This forces the rogue pharmacies to either refund the customer’s money, or to eat the costs of re-shipping the pills.
Increasingly, however, some of the largest spam affiliate programs are delivering some of their most popular drugs — including erectile dysfunction pills and everything from Accutane to Cipro and Diflucan and Plavix — direct to U.S. buyers from shipping locations within the United States.
“This is why you see pharmacy outfits like RX-Partners, Mailien and Stimulcash picking the most popular drugs and warehousing them in the United States so they can do USPS shipping through mules,” Savage said.
All of the above-mentioned pharmacy affiliate programs are thought to be connected to Leo Kuvayev, the convicted spammer who is now serving a 20 year prison sentence in Moscow for multiple child sex abuse convictions.
In the members-only affiliate forum for RX-Partners, many affiliates have been discussing fastmedsabroad.com, the site that is spearheading its “US2US” efforts to reduce shipping costs for a formulary of nearly two-dozen of the most commonly ordered drugs.
“The main feature of this project is that all products ship straight from U.S., not from India as usual, and to U.S. addresses only,” wrote ‘Mark,’ a self-described member of the RX-Partners team.
According to the RX-Partners organizers, the image on the homepage of fastmedsabroad.com is a remake of a USPS brochure about fast delivery service. The RX-Partners administrators said they chose to copy it because they believed Americans would recognize the image and associate legitimacy with the pharmacy.
“The picture of the guy on home page is a remake on USPS brochure about Fast Delivery service (I’ve been there, have one and can ensure – that is a real delivery man) which is straightly related with a domain name and US2US main project’s features, overnight delivery up to your house, straight to every customer abroad all the US — here is a clue: The level of its conversion in comparison to promptpillstore.com [another main RX-Partners domain] proves that the pictures [have] been recognized by US citizens. It’s been popular enough all the time, showing the level of trustworthy even higher than some other templates.”
The UCSD researchers recently conducted test buys of some pills available through RX-Partners’ US2US sites, and received a package via the U.S. Postal Service within a few days. This shipping cost about $50. The return address was a steakhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., and it was postmarked from Miami.
I noticed a curious pattern that suggests some locus of the program’s US2US operation is centered around the coastal New Jersey area. Fastmedsabroad.com includes a shipping calculator that buyers can use to get an estimate of the date and time of package delivery. I placed a number of items in my shopping cart at the site, proceeded to checkout, and took my time entering dozens of different ZIP codes in the shipping speed calculator. If I had wanted the drugs shipped to anywhere around the Philadelphia, New York or New Jersey area, the site guaranteed delivery in less than two days. The further I got from those ZIP codes — to the north, south or west — my shipping time increased. Strangely enough, the calculator estimated the same delivery time to West Palm Beach as it did Denver, Colo.