First Alert Investigation: Rogue online pharmacies selling meds laced with meth

Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 5:28 PM CDT
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - The coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how much we rely on technology and the internet.

That’s sparking a new concern about people going online to buy their prescription medications.

While they think it’s cheaper, they’re not getting what they bargained for, instead ending up with medication laced with methamphetamine or other harmful chemicals.

Federal prosecutors say it’s happening in Wisconsin because of the work of a man from Texas.

Rakesh Saran is now facing multiple charges the Eastern District of Wisconsin’s federal court for what prosecutors say was a years-long operation shipping prescription medications from countries like Romania to the U.S.

On September 9th, a grand jury indicted Saran after prosecutors say thousands of pills commonly used to treat ADHD actually contained the presence of meth.

Court records show Saran spent 12 years in federal prison for conspiring to commit health care, mail and wire fraud in 2005 in a similar case as this.

It’s now prompting the question of: Are online pharmacies selling you bad medicine?

The FDA has sent letter after letter to online pharmacies, many of which are based in foreign countries, telling them to stop selling what it calls ‘misbranded’ and illegal drugs to people in America.

Yet we found most of those sites are still in operation, claiming to give you great deals on prescription medications.

We did not identify any by name to prevent further abuse.

An investigation eventually led the DEA to 58- year old Rakesh Saran, who started with an online pharmacy.

Federal court records show undercover investigators purchased and received codeine, pain pills and medications used to treat anxiety, most shipped from Romania though the U.S. Postal Service.

During that investigation, in 2018, prosecutors say Romanian National Police executed 43 search warrants and made 12 arrests to dismantle the supplier, saying hundreds of thousands of controlled pharmaceuticals were seized.

The five-year long undercover investigation that began in 2015 eventually led to the discovery of thousands more pills being shipped from India, Singapore and the Philippines to Texas where Saran lived, according to federal court documents.

With the help of a dealer in Florida, prosecutors say popular medications like Xanax, Oxycodone, Percocet and Adderall made it to Wisconsin.

The DEA intercepted and tested them.

Court records show multiple shipments of Adderall tested positive for meth.

“We’re seeing more and more case where we’re getting illicit pharmaceuticals that are coming from internet pharmacies all over the world,” says director of the Brown County Drug Task Force Lt. Kevin Kinnard. “The concern with that is let the buyer beware, because you have no idea what you’re getting. There’s no regulation.”

The Brown County Drug Task Force was not part of Saran’s investigation, but Kinnard says cases like it are becoming too common.

The reason? Price.

Kinnard says people with no criminal background or intention of buying illegal drugs are shopping these online pharmacies, drawn in by claims of big discounts, bulk shipping and huge cost savings.

“We have run across people that are legitimately doing this just because they think they’re going to save money,” says Kinnard.

In early September, the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association published a report finding 61 of the 62 online pharmacies it searched, in this case specifically for buying Adderall, were rogue.

They claimed to be located in the U.S., but the report found they were actually in Bulgaria, Russia, the Netherlands, Romania, Canada, Panama, Ukraine, or Hong Kong.

The association found prices for Adderall were actually not cheaper than buying them here.

“I do not believe anybody should use these pharmacies,” advises Dr. Ken Johnson, chief medical officer and vice president of clinical operations at Prevea Health.

He’s concerned the coronavirus pandemic may be driving more people to these rogue pharmacies.

“As people are socially isolated, they are spending more time online, which means the likelihood of finding one of these is higher” says Dr. Johnson.

Like with the investigation into Rakesh Saran, where anxiety and depression medications were routinely shipped from overseas, Dr. Johnson worries rogue pharmacies are advertising those medications to target a vulnerable population.

“With all the change and uncertainty we currently face, rates of anxiety, depression and isolation are much greater than they have been. This will lead more people to look for a solution,” he says.

What they end up buying is a mystery.

The DEA warns the pills could be expired, or counterfeit ones contain dangerous fillers.

“It’ll look like the pill, but it’s not,” says Kinnard.

“They might be using talc or baby powder or other things to hold the pill together,” explains Dr. Johnson.

He says that could include Fentanyl, or meth, like those Adderall pills the DEA intercepted.

Kinnard says pills might come from actual pharmacies or drug companies in other countries, but if they’re not licensed by the FDA, consumers are left to gamble with poor odds.

The FDA shows only three percent of online pharmacies reviewed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy comply with U.S. laws and standards.

“If it seems shady, it’s probably shady,” says Kinnard.

Here are some red flags:

  • Rogue sites won’t require a prescription, but they will offer deals too good to be true.
  • They often ask buyers to use cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and communicate with encrypted messaging services.
  • You can also look at the domain on many of these websites and tell they’re not based in the U.S.

The FDA also has more tips and information as part of its BeSafeRx campaign.

Keep in mind, even if you do have a prescription from a doctor, but buy your medication from an unlicensed online pharmacy, it is illegal.

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