Posts Tagged: University of California San Diego


3
Jul 12

Who Says Email Is Eating at Postal Revenues?

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.

An ad for Rx-Parners pill shop that ships from the US.

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.

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22
Jun 12

PharmaLeaks: Rogue Pharmacy Economics 101

Consumer demand for cheap prescription drugs sold through spam-advertised Web sites shows no sign of abating, according to a new analysis of bookkeeping records maintained by three of the world’s largest rogue pharmacy operations.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the International Computer Science Institute and George Mason University examined caches of data tracking the day-to-day finances of GlavMed, SpamIt, and Rx-Promotion, shadowy affiliate programs that over a four-year period processed more than $170 million worth of orders from customers seeking cheaper, more accessible and more discretely available drugs. The result is perhaps the most detailed analysis yet of the business case for the malicious software and spam epidemics that persist to this day.

Their conclusion? Spam — and all of its attendant ills — will remain a prevalent and pestilent problem because consumer demand for the products most frequently advertised through junk email remains constant.

“The market for spam-advertised drugs is not even close to being saturated,” said Stefan Savage, a lead researcher in the study, due to be presented early next month at the 21st USENIX security conference in Bellevue, Wash. “The number of new customers these programs got each day explains why people spam: Because sending spam to everyone on the planet gets you new customers on an ongoing basis, so it’s not going away.”

The researchers found that repeat customers are critical to making any rogue pharmacy business profitable. Repeat orders constituted 27% and 38% of average program revenue for GlavMed and SpamIt, respectively; for Rx-Promotion, revenue from repeat orders was between 9% and 23% of overall revenue.

“This says a number of things, and one is that a lot of people who bought from these programs were satisfied,” Savage said. “Maybe the drugs they bought had a great placebo effect, but my guess is these are satisfied customers and they came back because of that.”

Whether the placebo effect is something that often applies with the consumption of erectile dysfunction drugs is not covered in this research paper, but ED drugs were by far the largest category of pills ordered by customers of all three pharmacy programs.

One interesting pattern that trickled out of the Rx-Promotion data underscores what made this pharmacy affiliate unique and popular among repeat buyers: A major portion of its revenues was generated through the sale of drugs that have a high potential for abuse and are thus tightly controlled in the United States, including opiates and painkillers like Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and mental health pills such as Adderall and Ritalin. The researchers noticed that although pills in this class of drugs — known as Schedule II in U.S. drug control parlance — comprised just 14 percent of orders for Rx-Promotion, they accounted for nearly a third of program revenue, with the Schedule II opiates accounting for a quarter of revenue.

“The fact that such drugs are over-represented in repeat orders as well (roughly 50 percent more prevalent in both Rx-Promotion and, for drugs like Soma and Tramadol, in SpamIt) reinforces the hypothesis that abuse may be a substantial driver for this component of demand,” the researchers wrote.

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