Take Action: Protect Patients from Online Scams With Domain Name Reform

Re-open access to WHOIS contact information; require that domain name sellers lock and suspend suspicious websites


Patients who search for medicine online often end up on fake online pharmacy websites because 95% of online pharmacies are unsafe.  These companies buy the names of their websites from domain name sellers. Hisorically, many of domain name sellers have let illicit businesses continue to use their domain names, even when the name implies illegal activity, violates terms of use, or sells opioids or COVID-19 “cures.” This puts lives at risk, especially in a public health emergency when millions are relying on the internet for healthcare information, products, and services.

These companies also maintain contact information for registered domain names in a database called WHOIS. Until 2018, investigators used WHOIS to track down cybercriminals, but in the last two years access to WHOIS has been radically limited in response to EU privacy laws and other policy changes. The result is that authorities cannot find and prosecute those selling fraudulent products on websites.

Current Status:

At the end of February 2020, Representative Bob Latta (R-OH) has introduced HR875, a resolution aimed at safeguarding access to WHOIS information for law enforcement and the public. HR875 states that “domain name registration information, referred to as ‘WHOIS’ information, is critical to the protection of the United States national and economic security, intellectual property rights enforcement, cybersecurity, as well as the health, safety, and privacy of its citizens, and should remain readily accessible.”

What you can do:

On May 8, 2020, The Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) wrote Congressional leaders in the House and Senate urging  them to take extra measures in the next health and stimulus package to protect the American public from online COVID-19 scams. PSM asked that they require domain name sellers to suspend and lock websites that facilitate COVID-19 and other health fraud, and re-open registration information so that law enforcement can pursue criminals using websites to take advantage of the public.

Lend your voice to this campaign. Share our one-pager about domain name reform to help others understand why this is important. TEXT STOPSCAM to 52886 to send a letter to your members of Congress, or submit your letter here.

Background / resources


Stories about counterfeit drugs and online crime

UK Paramedic Dies of Accidental Overdose of Drugs Sold Through Foreign Online Pharmacy

May 27, 2011

The death of a London paramedic has been ruled accidental after she ingested a fatal dose of pills purchased from a foreign online pharmacy.

Lorna Lambden, 27, a paramedic and Masters Degree student at the University of Hertfordshire, was found dead in her home on December 17, 2010, after ingesting pills purchased over the internet without a prescription, reports the Daily Mail.

The coroner, Edward Thomas, found a fatal level of the drug amitriptyline in her blood. Thomas added that the medication had not been prescribed to Lambden, but suspected she purchased an equivalent called “amitrip” from a foreign internet-based pharmacy.

Said Thomas, “…four milligrams [worth of amitriptyline were] found in her blood, and a therapeutic level is about one milligram.” He went on to say that after taking the drug she collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrhythmia, reports the St. Albans Review.

Lambden’s family knew that she had trouble sleeping and suspect she purchased the medication to rest between twelve hour shifts with the London Ambulance Service, reports the London Metro.

Lambden’s mother, a retired accident and emergency sister, said: “It’s terrible that these drugs are so freely available online and people can buy them without seeing any warnings about the harm they can do.”

Coroner Thomas said: “Amitriptyline can stop the heart and I think that is likely here. Lorna would not have known it had happened. It would not have been like a heart attack.”

Liang BA.*, Mackey T. Searching for Safety: Addressing Search Engine, Website, and Provider Accountability for Illicit Online Drug Sales. Am J Law Med. 2009;35:125-184.

December 10, 2010

Online sales of pharmaceuticals are a rapidly growing phenomenon. Yet despite the dangers of purchasing drugs over the Internet, sales continue to escalate. These dangers include patient harm from fake or tainted drugs, lack of clinical oversight, and financial loss. Patients, and in particular vulnerable groups such as seniors and minorities, purchase drugs online either naïvely or because they lack the ability to access medications from other sources due to price considerations. Unfortunately, high risk online drug sources dominate the Internet, and virtually no accountability exists to ensure safety of purchased products.

Importantly, search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN, although purportedly requiring “verification” of Internet drug sellers using PharmacyChecker.com requirements, actually allow and profit from illicit drug sales from unverified websites. These search engines are not held accountable for facilitating clearly illegal activities. Both website drug seller anonymity and unethical physicians approving or writing prescriptions without seeing the patient contribute to rampant illegal online drug sales. Efforts in this country and around the world to stem the tide of these sales have had extremely limited effectiveness. Unfortunately, current congressional proposals are fractionated and do not address the key issues of demand by vulnerable patient populations, search engine accountability, and the ease with which financial transactions can be consummated to promote illegal online sales.

To deal with the social scourge of illicit online drug sales, this article proposes a comprehensive statutory solution that creates a nocost/low-cost national Drug Access Program to break the chain of demand from vulnerable patient populations and illicit online sellers, makes all Internet drug sales illegal unless the Internet pharmacy is licensed through a national Internet pharmacy licensing program, prohibits financial transactions for illegal online drug sales, and establishes criminal penalties for all parties—including websites, search engines, and health care providers— who engage in and facilitate this harmful activity.

Doctor Pleads Guilty in Online Prescription Fraud Case, Loses License

November 3, 2010

A Grand Forks, North Dakota doctor has pled guilty on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. His counsel says that he client didn’t know he was breaking the law and even paid taxes on his earnings. Authorities say Enrique Rivera Mass, 56, illegally signed off on prescriptions for nearly 1.8 million pills…

U.S. Attorney General Touches on Illegal Online Pharmacies in Speech

September 20, 2010

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently spoke about the dangers posed by illegal online pharmacies at an opiate abuse conference in Montpelier, Vermont. Holder spoke of the importance of supporting law enforcement agencies, giving them the tools they require to stop not only drug abuse, but illegal online pharmacies as well. Holder described the deployment…

Prominent Wisconsin Pharmacist Arrested on Counterfeit Drug Importation Charges

September 8, 2010

A Wisconsin pharmacist was recently arrested on charges that she imported and sold millions of pills of phony erectile dysfunction medication and other counterfeit drugs. Marla Ahlgrimm, who owns a number of businesses in Madison, Wisconsin, was arrested when she walked into her office while authorities were executing a search warrant, according to the Wisconsin…

Feds Crackdown on Online Pharmacies in Utah and Illinois

August 26, 2010

Federal authorities are beginning to crackdown on online pharmacies that distribute prescription drugs without prescriptions. Federal agents recently filed court papers in Illinois and Utah over two online pharmacies that are allegedly run by the same man, Kyle Rootsaert, according to CNN. The agents had obtained search warrant affidavits for the two pharmacies in Des…

Web Company Accused of Registering Illegal Online Pharmacy Domain Names

August 16, 2010

A company that has registered 8 percent of the world’s website domain names has been accused of registering about one-third of all the world’s illegal online pharmacies’ websites. Critics are calling on Demand Media to end its registration of illegal online pharmacies, as well as saying it should stop some of its other controversial activities,…

FDA: Don’t Use Unapproved IUDs

July 27, 2010

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned women not to use unapproved intrauterine devices (IUDs), a form of birth control, in part because they can potentially be counterfeited. The FDA reminded health professionals in a July 22 letter that unapproved IUDs may be ineffective and unsafe. In the letter, the FDA said it…

Utah Doctor Sentenced to Three Years for Illegal Online Pharmacy

July 15, 2010

A Utah doctor is being sent to jail for his connection to an illegal online pharmacy that sold more than eight million weight-loss pills manufactured in Mexico. Dr James A Brinton was sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute phentermine and conspiracy to commit international money…

Consumer Protection Group Applauds International Efforts to Combat Illegal Online Pharmacies

November 20, 2009

The Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) issued the following statement regarding the International Internet Week of Action, code named Operation Pangea II, intended to curb illegal actions involving medical products. PSM is a group of organizations and individuals dedicated to protecting consumers from counterfeit medicines.

Tell Congress to kick COVID-19 scammers off the Internet!

PSM Coverage: