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Feds cuff 18 in $126m pharmacy bust

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A bust on an illegal pharmacy that's reckoned to raked in $126m in illicit revenues from the sale of prescription pharmaceuticals has led to racketeering and related charges against 18 suspects.

A 313-count grand jury indictment, returned on July 27 and unsealed last week, alleges offences ranging from distribution and dispensing of controlled substances to mail and wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering against alleged members of the Affpower distribution network. Defendants in the case (who are yet to be named) include three doctors, two pharmacists, a credit card processor and eight affiliate website operators. Each faces the prospect of a long stretch inside and massive fines if convicted.

Between August 2004 until June 2006, the Affpower network allegedly processed 1m internet order for controlled and non-controlled prescription pharmaceuticals from customers across the US, generating more than $126m in gross revenue. "Little or no doctor review while prescribing possibly dangerous drugs" was involved in the operation, according to Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher

According to the indictment, Affpower allegedly paid licensed doctors from different states and Puerto Rico to "haphazardly" review health questionnaire answers provided by customers on the net and issue prescriptions solely on the basis of those answers. Affpower doctors were allegedly paid just $3 per review. Some reviewed hundreds of customer orders per day, inevitably leading to mistakes.

Affpower doctors allegedly issued prescriptions for pharmaceuticals "even when a customer’s answers to the health questionnaire suggested that the ordered drug could pose a danger to the customer, or that the customer did not have a medical condition for which the ordered medication was an appropriate treatment," prosecutors allege. In some cases, prescriptions were filed by unqualified member of the Affpower syndicate, and issued using the name and registration of a licensed physician.

Affpower located its administrative headquarters in Costa Rica, and its computer servers in Cyprus. It used an Israeli firm to process credit card payments and banks in Cyprus to disperse payments. Use of foreign-based agencies was part of an orchestrated bid to avoid US prosecution.

Tracing the flow of money through this illegal network was a key element in the investigation, leading to a number of arrests and seizures.

The network was brought down by a diverse task force consisting of agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, the FBI, and the US Postal Inspection Service. Special agents from the DEA also worked with the San Diego-based team of modern-day "Untouchables".

A DoJ statement on the case can be found here. ®

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