Facebook overrun by fake pharmacies peddling counterfeit drugs like Ozempic

Thousands of fake online pharmacies peddling counterfeit drugs to unsuspecting victims worldwide – including fake versions of the popular weight loss drug Ozempic – were removed from social media platforms, websites, and other online marketplaces in 2023, according to the latest Pharma Crime report.

The second annual report, released Monday, reveals a pharmaceutical battlefield where more than 6,900 fraudulent drug listings and 1,600 rogue pharmacies were found operating online – up 14% from last year.

The sites are said to sell everything from fake cancer treatment drugs and ADHD pills to counterfeit weight loss and diabetes drugs, with those focused on hormonal and metabolic medical treatments being the most popular.

The Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI), a non-profit advocate for public health safety, along with the digital risk protection company BrandShield, were tasked with identifying the sites, removing them from the internet, and putting it all together for the comprehensive pharma crime report.

“Efforts by fraudsters to deceive those suffering from chronic conditions into buying counterfeit, and otherwise harmful, medicines are growing,” said Yoav Keren, co-founder and CEO of BrandShield.

“Through our continued collaboration with PSI, we’re proud of our efforts to protect innocent patients and prevent bad actors from inflicting harm, which can go well beyond financial losses, to physical harm and in some cases even death,” Keren said.

Social media top targets for fakes

Keren said to get a website taken down, the organizations first have to obtain proof the products being sold are fakes. That evidence is then submitted to the service providers hosting the phony sites.

“Counterfeit medicinal products are a threat to the health and safety of patients around the world. They range from drugs with no active ingredients to those with dangerous impurities. They can be copies of branded drugs, generic drugs, or over-the-counter drugs, “ the Institute explains on its website.

FDA how to spot ozempic fakes
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

According to the massive fraud finder campaign, social media platforms are the top target for pharmaceutical crime, with Facebook having the highest number of illegal listings of all the social media platforms.

The report breaks down the number of scam pharmacy listings removed from the top platforms. At number one, Facebook is found hosting 60% of all the fraudulent listings, X comes in second place, and Instagram rounds out the top three:

  • Facebook – 2149
  • X (formerly Twitter) – 806
  • Instagram – 468
  • Reddit – 144
  • Pinterest – 119
  • TikTok – 51

The ailments themselves also were ranked by popularity in the report, depending on how many fake pharmacies were found selling drugs for which medical conditions.

The most popular drug category was for alimentary (stomach ulcers) with 644 listings shut down in 2023. Other popular conditions include:

  • Alimentary (e.g., stomach ulcers) – 644
  • Metabolism (e.g., diabetes) – 279
  • Hormone (e.g., growth therapy) – 277
  • Central Nervous System (e.g., dyskinesia) – 215
  • Cytostatics (e.g., cancers) – 92
  • Pain Management - 61

GLP-1 class drugs in demand

In 2023, BrandShield removed 279 websites selling fake versions of weight-loss and diabetes drugs – all in the GLP-1 class, according to Keren.

The GLP-1 drugs – originally developed for people with type 2 diabetes –have been proven to help people lose roughly 20% of their body weight, but at a cost of merely $1000 per month, which most are unable to afford.

GLP-1 class Weight loss drugs
Image by KK Stock | Shutterstock

The listings would advertise popular counterfeits such as Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic and Wegovy, as well as Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro and Zepbound.

Cases of harm linked to fake versions of Ozempic and other GLP-1s have been reported in at least nine countries, including Belgium, Britain, Switzerland, and the United States, reports Reuters.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see criminals try to use the growing popularity of these drugs to sell more counterfeits," said Keren, whose company often shares its intelligence with drugmakers.

The report also tracked the countries with the most marketplace listing removals in 2023. India topped the list with almost 1000 sites having to be removed, with Indonesia and China also in the hundreds, followed by China, Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Malaysia, and Poland.

The Institute has created its own Counterfeiting Incident System (CIS) where people and organizations can report incidents of counterfeiting, theft, and illegal diversion of pharmaceutical products worldwide.

The PSI states that an incident can be reported by anyone - including drug inspectors, customs officials, police officers, or the general public.

In December, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it had begun its own investigation into counterfeit Ozempic finding its way into the legitimate US supply chain.

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