The falsification of medicinal products and the online trade in medicines are two closely intertwined phenomena reaching alarming proportions and having an increasingly detrimental impact on public health. Without the Internet, the trafficking in falsified medicinal products would not have expanded to the extent it has in recent years, particularly in developed countries.
Internet usage enables criminals to sell potentially dangerous products on a large scale, directly to buyers, whilst circumventing the legal supply chain. This has largely been facilitated by the emergence of so-called online pharmacies since the 1990s. These retail pharmacies operate partially or exclusively over the Internet and ship orders to customers by mail. In just over a decade, the number of these websites has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, the majority of online pharmacies are run by criminals, and are likely to sell falsified and dangerous medicinal products.
The risks linked to this criminal market are even greater today because customers seem to underestimate the danger. According to the European Association of Mail Service Pharmacies, two million Europeans rely on self-medication and visit websites every day to order medicinal products without asking for a professional opinion first.
In the European project "www.fakecare.com", a team of university researchers adopt a multidisciplinary and integrated approach (law, criminology, statistical and information science) in order to support institutional actors in developing a more accurate picture of the phenomenon and identifying new tools for its investigation and prevention.
The project will:
- improve and systematise knowledge on the demand and supply mechanisms by using traditional and innovative research methods, such as virtual ethnography, Web surveys, direct observation of clients’ behaviour on ‘honey-pot’ websites, and data mining;
- create specialised figures through advanced training courses dedicated to LEAs;
- develop an ICT tool prototype for the automatic detection of illegal/rogue online pharmacies (for use by LEAs);
- improve awareness-raising campaigns;
- develop a tool to determine the risk that a given medicine may be falsified and traded online.