March 15, 2006
Authorities Struggle to Shut Down Booming Internet Black Market in Prescription Drugs
Linda Surks remembers her son Jason as a good-natured kid who made friends easily. "He was always compliant and accommodating, and just a real pleasant person," she said.
So when Linda and her husband, Mark, got a call telling them their son Jason, a 19-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University, was in the hospital, they had no idea what to expect.
"We thought he had come down with something and really didn't have any idea when we got to the hospital," Surks said.
They were told their son had died of a drug overdose.
"It was a double whammy," she explained. "To hear that your child has passed away, but to hear it happened the way it did was a total shock. I had no clue he was abusing."
That's because Jason didn't buy typical street drugs from some corner dealer. He got his fix from the Internet, the latest front in the war on drugs.
"After we collected his belongings from the university we went through his computer and we found some Mexican pharmacy Web sites that he had visited," Surks said. "We also found some evidence of an account that he had with one of these pharmacies."
Jason's death was a tragic irony for Linda, who works for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "I work in prevention," she said. "That's a pretty telling statement to have to make — that I know what to look for, I know how to talk to my kids about drugs and he really kept it very well hidden from us."
Lethal and Addictive
What most young people don't know is that prescription drugs like Xanax, when abused, can be as addictive and lethal as heroin.
"There's no fear of prescription drugs," said Steve Liga, executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Middlesex County, N.J.
Liga said the Internet has the potential to change the way the younger generation gets hooked on drugs. "What we used to see before the Internet was that prescription drugs were a later-stage addiction," he explained. These users typically worked their way up through marijuana, cocaine and heroin, and were considered hardcore addicts who stole their drugs from a pharmacy or diverted them from a doctor.
"What's happening now with the Internet is that it's almost flipped," Liga said. "We have people who never dreamed of using heroin or cocaine, but they have no problem taking an Adderall."
Impossible to Trace
Law enforcement agencies now face the daunting task of taking down dealers who are almost impossible to trace, because they conduct their business and then disappear into cyberspace.
In just a few years, the number of Web sites selling potentially dangerous drugs without a prescription has increased exponentially. Right now, you can buy drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Xanax with your credit card from more than 1,000 Web sites and have them delivered directly to your door. And they are the real thing.
So how easy is it to get to one of these sites? Do you have to be a savvy insider? Drug Enforcement Administration agent Tim Stover took "Nightline" on a tour of the Internet-based drug world.
Agent Stover started with a simple Web search of "no prescription hydrocodon," which quickly yielded 141,000 listings. He then demonstrated how easy it was to submit an order. After selecting the drugs he wanted to purchase, he was asked to answer 10 simple questions and was then asked to submit his credit card information.
"From the time that we put our answers in here we've had drugs that we've ordered — at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Thursday — delivered to us at 10 a.m. on Friday," said Stover. "So it's a very quick, very efficient process."
It's as easy as ordering a book online: Prescription-strength drugs are available without a prescription. All you need is a credit card and a craving. And you don't even have to muster the courage to deal with someone face to face who may want to hurt you.
"It's all done from the comfort of your home," explained Stover, "and … the anonymity of the Internet."
In other words, you can potentially buy these drugs online without ever exposing who you really are. And aggressive advertising in the form of pop-ups, cookies and mass e-mails means you don't even have to search for the Web sites online; they will come to you.
A Massive Operation
It's a huge operation with no bricks and mortar involved. There are no buildings or person-to-person meetings because it's all done digitally. The dealers collect the information online, package the drugs, and send them out via overnight delivery.
"I mean, literally, people can do this and perpetuate these crimes throughout the world," said Stover.
Many of these Web sites are located in countries like Ukraine, Latvia and Mexico, where it's perfectly legal to buy and sell these drugs without prescriptions. So, even if law enforcement could find the dealers, they couldn't arrest them.
That's why the DEA has successfully tracked and busted only a few Internet prescription-drug trafficking rings.
In Texas a recent drug bust resulted in a number of indictments. Soon after, there was a noticeable drop in activity on related Web sites. But within weeks, the online ads were back. And to be sure, business is booming again.
"It's because of the anonymity, because of the ease of putting up these Web sites and taking them down, because of the global nature of the Internet, and how they can move money, and move information," Stover said.
"It's tremendously challenging."
Supply and Demand
Historically, attempts at decreasing the supply of drugs have rarely worked. Growers, manufacturers and dealers always find new ways to produce and distribute drugs, so experts realize it is important to work on decreasing the demand.
"The Internet blew the lid off prescription drugs," said Liga, of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "It's a new phenomenon and there isn't any research to say what works and what doesn't." When it comes to prevention, Liga teaches students that prescription drug abuse is serious, and he hopes they will spread the word to their friends.
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