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Buying illicit pharmaceuticals from unregulated online drug stores is akin to playing Russian roulette

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Police forces across the globe last month took part in an Interpol-backed operation that resulted in the seizure of 500 tonnes of illicit pharmaceuticals. Law enforcement agencies from more than 100 countries participated in the effort, intercepting and inspecting nearly one million packages. Among other bogus medicines and pharmaceutical products, they discovered fake anti-inflammatory medication, painkillers, erectile dysfunction pills, anabolic steroids, slimming pills and medicines for treating HIV, Parkinson’s and diabetes. Commenting on the operation, Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said its success was a sign that past efforts to crack down on the problem had achieved their goal. Stock noted that while more packages were intercepted during the most recent week of action, the quantity of illicit pharmaceuticals discovered was lower than was seen during previous campaigns.

But while this might suggest the organised crime networks behind the illicit pharmaceuticals trade have changed their tactics, it certainly does not mean they have gone away. The fact that fewer drugs were seized from more packages by officers taking part in Interpol’s last operation merely suggests those who sell illicit pharmaceuticals are sending out smaller batches of their illegal products through fear of them being intercepted.

Thanks largely to the rise of illicit online pharmacies on both the surface and dark web, it is now estimated by the World Health Organisation that 1% of medicines and pharmaceutical products in developed nations are either counterfeit or have been illegally diverted from official supply chains. In the developing world, it is thought that number could be as high as 10%. The consequences of this are not only negative for those who end up taking fake or smuggled medicines, but also for drug companies that plough some of their profits back into research. While some fake medicines contain toxic levels of an official drug’s active ingredient, which in and of itself can prove fatal in some cases, many are made up of harmful ingredients such as paint, rat poison, arsenic or floor wax, which obviously pose their own health risks.

Other bogus pharmaceuticals might only contain fairly benign ingredients such as corn starch, but can be equally as harmful if taken by a person who believes them to be the real deal. Patients taking medication for serious condition such as diabetes, schizophrenia, HIV/AIDS or cancer could suffer deadly consequences if fake medication does not contain the right levels of the active ingredient they need, no matter how harmless the substances that actually make them up may be.

The potential to do harm of genuine drugs diverted from official supply chains by criminals involved in the illicit pharmaceuticals trade can be equally as high. Back in January, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) revealed that organised crime gangs had been bribing pharmacists and wholesalers to supply them with prescription drugs illegally. The agency said it had made 40 arrests linked to the diversion of legitimate pharmaceutical products last year, including five pharmacists, who were suspended from practice. While some might question whether buying genuine drugs diverted from official supply chains has the potential to do as much harm as purchasing fake medicine, it is important to bear in mind that drugs are offered on a prescription-only basis for a reason.

In many cases, pharmaceutical medicines can be incredibly potent, and can bring about dangerous side effects in people who might be allergic to them, take other medication or suffer from conditions that could make the consumption of certain treatments ill-advised of even deadly. Aside from this, concerns have also been raised that organised criminals involved in diverting genuine drugs from official supply chains sell medicine that has passed its use-by date, after which time active ingredients might not be effective.

In Western nations, illicit online pharmacies that offer easy access to cheap medication that would typically only be available through a doctor for a higher price can be appealing to anybody who wants to save money or avoid having to see a medical professional. But more often than not, the medicine supplied by illicit pharmaceutical traders will be either counterfeit or diverted from official supply chains. As well potentially doing great harm to themselves, by buying drugs in this manner, illicit pharmacy customers are also taking profits away from drug firms. While many might argue this is no bad thing, it only results in big pharma increasing the price of existing products, and reducing the amount it invests in searching for new treatments that could help tackle some of the world’s most deadly diseases.

Risking your health taking illegal recreational drugs is one thing, but playing Russian roulette by buying illicit pharmaceuticals online when you might well be able to get the genuine treatment from your doctor is quite literally taking your life in your hands for little or no reason.

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Drug consumption rooms are a vital harm reduction tool that can help save addicts’ lives

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New data published last week revealed that Scotland has become the drug death capital of the European Union. Not only does Scotland suffer the most drug-related fatalities per capita than any other country across the 28-nation bloc, it also has a drug death rate higher than that of the US, the figures showed. According to data relating to drug deaths across the country released by National Records of Scotland, 1,187 drug-related deaths were recorded in the country last year, which was 253 (27%) up on those recoded in 2017. This was the highest number of drug-related deaths registered in Scotland since comparable records began back in 1996, and more than double the figure for 2008 (574).

While it has been noted that different countries use different methods to calculate drug deaths, and that the Scottish government includes incidents such as fatal car accidents in which the consumption of drugs was a contributing factor in its drug death numbers, the new statistics have quite rightly been met with alarm, and have raised questions as to why this might be happening, not to mention what can be done about it  The publication of the figures has renewed calls for drug consumption rooms, or overdose prevention centres, to be set up in locations such as Glasgow, which accounted for the largest drug death rate in the country last year. A cross-party group of MPs is now attempting to persuade the UK government to follow other countries’ examples by building such centres, noting that they have brought “good public health results” and an “absence of the feared negative consequences” in locations in which they have been set up to date, such as Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia.

Drug consumption rooms, or “shooting galleries” as they are often referred to colloquially, offer addicts a safe, hygienic and secure environment in which to take their narcotics. As opposed to injecting their substance of choice on the street or in a squat, addicts can use consumption rooms to take drugs under medical supervision while being provided with clean paraphernalia such as needles to help them do so. Not only does this mean they will be less likely to suffer an infection or contract a disease such as HIV or hepatitis than they might otherwise be, drug consumption rooms also keep vulnerable users off the streets, where they can suffer abuse including serious violent and sexual assault.

On top of this, any addict who accidentally overdoses will stand a much better chance of receiving the medical attention they need if they do so in a drug consumption room as opposed to some dirty side street. But while drug consumption rooms have been operating successfully in a number of countries for more than 30 years, the UK government appears reluctant to introduce them in Britain, despite evidence suggesting they are effective when it comes to harm reduction, and have not resulted in social issues in the areas in which they have been set up.

The Scottish government is keen to build these types of facilities, but has faced opposition from Westminster, which has the final say over such matters. The UK government believes that the establishment of drug consumption rooms would allow for a number of criminal offences to take place, arguing that there is “no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms and there are no plans to introduce them”. Campaigners in favour of drug consumption rooms argue that nobody is known to have died while using one, pointing to evidence that they are particularly effective at reaching vulnerable addicts who seldom have contact with public health service providers. Research also suggests that supervised fix rooms have resulted in users reporting lower levels of risky injecting behaviour, such as sharing or repeatedly reusing needles.

However Scotland’s drug death statistics are recorded, and whether or not their relationship with those of other nations are down to methodology, it is clear that the status quo simply is not working, and is if anything only making matters worse. While it would be naïve to suggest that drug consumption rooms are a magic bullet, a compelling amount of evidence now suggests that they can be effective when it comes to harm production, particularly among the most vulnerable substance abusers. It may be the case that the UK government does not currently have the legal framework required to legislate for the establishment of these types of facilities to be built in Scotland and elsewhere, but lives could be saved and vulnerable people protected if it moved swiftly to introduce laws that would allow it to do just that.

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How phone fraudsters are scamming people while pretending to be government officials

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Law enforcement agencies and anti-fraud bodies across the globe spend a great deal of time and effort attempting to educate members of the public about phone fraud. Despite this, incidents involving consumers being scammed in these types of plots remain relatively high, even though people are routinely warned not to hand over any personal or financial information when they are cold called. In the majority of cases, anybody who deals with their finances online or uses telephone banking services will have come across multiple warnings regarding the potential perils of inadvertently handing over their passwords or agreeing with a cold caller to have money paid into a holding account in the event of an alleged fraud. Consequently, it can sometimes be difficult to have sympathy for people who allow themselves to be conned in these circumstances. It can be a different story however when a fraudster calls up pretending to be from a government agency.

The majority of people will have had at least some experience of dealing with the financial institutions with which they have relationships over the phone, often to the degree that they would be able to tell if something were amiss if they were called by a fraudster pretending to be from any such firm. Conversely, far fewer members of the public are used to routinely dealing with government agencies that might have reason to contact them, and would likely be less than familiar with what to expect from a call from somebody purporting to be a public official. This is a fact that phone fraudsters are able to take full advantage of.

At the beginning of this month, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that complaints to its Consumer Sentinel Network about government imposter scams reached record levels this spring. The consumer protection agency noted an increase in the number of phone scams that involved fraudsters pretending to be from official agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or some other government department. In May alone, the FTC said it received around 46,600 complaints relating to this type of fraud, and noted that some victims are being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over fictitious back-tax payments. In some cases, fraudsters are using sophisticated “number spoofing” technology that makes it look to victims as though they are calling from official government phone lines. Some scammers are even demanding that victims hand over their payment in the form of gift cards, which the FTC said should be the perfect giveaway that a fraud is taking place.

Meanwhile in the UK, the BBC last week revealed that organised scammers are taking advantage of loopholes in the British government’s new Universal Credit welfare system to profit from plunging jobless people into debt. The fraudsters approach unemployed people while pretending to be government workers and offer to help them apply for welfare benefits. After taking down their personal and banking information, the scammers apply for emergency loans in the names of their victims, taking the money and leaving the benefit claimants they target laden with the subsequent debt. The BBC found that the criminal networks behind the scam are using social media to attract victims, setting up Facebook pages with titles such as Gov Grants Same Day, Same Day Grant, Discretionary Budgeting Grant and Same Day Grant Payment. In a separate scam, fraudsters are contacting UK taxpayers by phone and threatening them with legal action or even jail if they fail to hand over on-the-spot fines of many thousands of pounds.

Chinese nationals are routinely targeted in these types of scams, with organised criminal networks operating illegal call centres in multiple locations around the world dedicated to contacting potential victims who originate from China. In some cases, these gangs have been known to call people they have already targeted in past scams while posing as police officers in order to convince them to hand over more money under the pretence that a payment is required before an investigation into the previous fraud can be launched. Just this week, police in Australia issued a warning about a telephone fraud conspiracy targeting the country’s Chinese community, particularly international students. In several “complex social engineering fraud and telephone scams”, the criminal networks behind these extortion plots call potential victims pretending to be from a range of official agencies. In one particularly sad example of the way phone fraudsters target Chinese nationals, it was reported back in 2016 that a prospective university student from Shandong province had died of a heart attack after she was conned out of her tuition fees. Fraudsters contacted the 18-year-old pretending to be from the “education ministry” and convinced her to transfer the money to a bank account under their control.

In many cases, people who fall victim to scams such as these will stand little chance of getting their money back, leaving them facing significant financial hardship. The sad reality of the matter is though, that while law enforcement agencies do all they can to raise awareness of this type of phone fraud, the scammers who perpetrate it will  continue to profit all the while they are able to find vulnerable victims who fear getting into any type of trouble with authority.

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Opinion

Why organised criminal networks are moving into anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs

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An extraordinary number of people these days put an inordinate amount of time, money and effort into the way they look. In many cases, it would seem, they do so largely on account of worries over how they might appear to their followers on social media. Evidence suggests that a growing number of these image-obsessed individuals are increasingly turning to anabolic steroids and other cosmetic drugs such as fat-burning pills and tanning injections in order to achieve the appearance they desire, despite the huge amount of harm these substances can cause. Alarmingly, use of anabolic steroids has been rising in countries such as the UK for several years, with one study published in 2018 revealing that a million Britons had taken them solely to enhance their appearance rather than their sporting performance.

Similar patterns have been noted in Australia in recent years, while in the US, it has been reported that steroid abuse has been becoming more of a problem among teenagers. Although often associated with young men who are keen to bulk up, Scottish experts cautioned back in 2017 that middle-aged men were increasingly turning to the drugs in a bid to make themselves look younger, in spite of the potential health risks.

As anabolic steroids are of limited medical use and are typically only available on prescription in most countries, the majority of people who wish to take them must get hold of them illegally, which has led to the illicit trade in such drugs becoming more attractive to organised criminal networks operating in numerous countries. The extent to which crime gangs have become involved in the sports doping market was revealed earlier this week when Europol announced that an operation it led had been responsible for the disruption of 17 organised crime networks involved in the production and trafficking of counterfeit and smuggled medicines such as steroids.

Operation Viribus, which involved law enforcement agencies from 33 countries, resulted in the location and shutdown of nine illicit doping production laboratories, the seizure of almost 24 tonnes of raw steroid powder, and the arrest of 234 suspects. Europol said intelligence gathered during the operation showed that organised criminal networks are shipping huge quantities of steroids into EU member states to cater for growing demand, and that smaller players are ordering shipments of the drugs from countries such as China to sell in gyms.

It is not difficult to see why organised crime groups have seen the illicit trade in steroid-like drugs as a golden opportunity. Aside from the apparent growing popularity of such substances, sports doping laboratories are relatively cheap and easy to set up, while the knowledge required to produce these types of drugs in large quantities can be acquired by almost anybody online, regardless of their knowledge of chemistry. On top of this, the penalties for trafficking or distributing anabolic steroids and similar drugs are lighter in many countries than those for dealing in substances such as cocaine and heroin.

Just weeks before the results of Operation Viribus were made public, Europol revealed that most of the counterfeiting that affects member states is carried out by professional criminal organisations, and that these networks were increasingly producing a wider range of fake medicines, including performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids and doping substances. In several EU countries, law enforcement authorities have recently made more than 20 seizures of 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), a toxic chemical that is sometimes sold as a so-called “fat burner”. Meanwhile back in October of last year, Interpol said anabolic steroids and slimming pills had been among 500 tonnes of fake medicines it had seized during an operation targeting illicit pharmaceuticals in 116 countries.

Only last month, a man from London was convicted for his role in a £40 million ($49.12 million) steroid smuggling conspiracy that was said to have been the largest of its type ever disrupted globally. Gurjaipal Dhillon, 65, who is due to be sentenced later this month, was found guilty of acting as a fixer for the group by arranging dozens of unlicensed shipments of drugs from India into Europe, where they were eventually sold onto body builders on the black market. With reports of smaller but similar conspiracies emerging in countries such as Canada, the US, Israel and Ireland, evidence suggests that organised criminal gangs have become wise to the large amounts of money that can be made by trafficking these drugs, and the relatively light punishment they might face if they are caught doing so.

With modern culture across the globe becoming more image obsessed, and with people seemingly becoming increasingly willing to go to more extreme lengths to achieve the look they believe they must present to the world, it seems likely that the illicit market for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs will only grow over the short to medium term. This expanding market will inevitably continue to attract the attention of both large and small organised criminal groups, which will happily seek to meet the demand for such substances, regardless of the devastating effect they can have on users’ physical and mental health.

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