The Pharma Hack

Last week, while looking at various restaurant websites and trying to decide where to order takeout, I noticed that one restaurant’s website displayed links to buy various pharmaceuticals. The restaurant itself does not conduct any business selling pharmaceuticals, yet its website is marketing pharmaceuticals. This strange mismatch is probably the work of the infamous Pharma Hack. The Pharma Hack is a scheme to drive search engine rankings of illegitimate online pharmacies’ websites by taking advantage of legitimate SEO practices, thus increasing the likelihood that searchers will visit their websites and purchase their products. To do this, hackers place links to the illegitimate online pharmacies on other websites. The links can be placed on the website for viewers to click (just like the restaurant’s website) or can be hidden in the website code. In either case, the links are always visible to search engine crawlers. Since the number of times a website’s link appears on other websites factors into how search engines rank results, illegitimate online pharmacies’ websites achieve higher rankings and resultantly are more likely to be visited by searchers. Furthermore, hackers can manipulate links to illegitimate pharmacies to appear as title tags under an external website’s search result, potentially duping searchers into thinking that they have been directed to one website when they have actually been redirected to an illegitimate online pharmacy’s website.

Although online pharmacies boast cheaper prices for pharmaceuticals than regular pharmacies and maintain the confidentiality that some patients desire, most are not in the consumers’ best interests. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) has reviewed more than 11,000 online pharmacies and found that 96% “appear to be operating in conflict with pharmacy laws and practice standards.” In addition, online pharmacies are often outlets for counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which contain the incorrect amount of active ingredients (if present at all) as well as fillers that range in toxicity from cornstarch to rat poison.

While legitimate online pharmacies do exist, it can be very difficult to find them amongst the sea of fake sites. A previous Sproxil blog post highlighted how to spot illegitimate online pharmacies, but as depicted by the Pharma Hack, fake online pharmacies are always discovering ways to appear legitimate. Remember, just because an online pharmacy has a high search engine ranking, does not mean that it is a legitimate website.

What other hacks have you seen counterfeiters use to dupe consumers online? Tell us in the comments section.