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Rogue Internet Pharmacies Targeted

Times Staff Writer

Federal drug enforcement officials Wednesday launched a crackdown on operators of rogue pharmacies on the Internet, arresting more than 20 people in an alleged scheme to smuggle and resell millions of doses of prescription drugs from India through hundreds of websites.

The arrests were part of what officials described as the first international enforcement action against operators of online pharmacies.

It is a burgeoning but largely unregulated industry that authorities view as a growing health menace because consumers -- including teens -- are able to obtain drugs without a prescription or consulting a doctor.

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A federal indictment unsealed in Philadelphia accused a physician based in India, Brij Bhushan Bansal, of building a family business that illegally sold 2.5 million doses a month of drugs, including narcotics, anabolic steroids and amphetamines, starting in July 2003.

The indictment also named his son, Akhil Bansal, described in court papers as a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is accused of running the U.S. branch of the organization.

The Bansal operation had approximately 100,000 customers worldwide, with 60% to 70% of them in the U.S., federal officials said.

Charges against other members of the alleged ring were also unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., where authorities said many of the drugs were repackaged for sale.

According to the indictments, the Bansal family solicited business on Internet bulletin boards and by sending e-mails to operators of pharmacy websites.

Eventually, the drugs were sold through more than 200 sites and shipped out of Chester, Pa., by a felon who went by the alias Leroy Jones, authorities said. He was also charged, officials said.

“The websites we targeted today gave an illusion of safety and legitimacy, depicting seemingly legitimate pharmacists in white lab coats in sterile environments,” said Karen P. Tandy, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, at a news conference. “But in reality, the drugs ... were smuggled from India and Europe and stashed in cars and homes and stuffed in plastic bags. When they arrived on the Internet customer’s doorstep, the drugs were in the proverbial brown plain wrappers.”

Tandy said the packages often had no dosage directions or warnings.

Officials said they had no indication that the drugs were of substandard quality or contaminated, but that they were being evaluated. The federal indictments allege conspiracy to import and distribute controlled substances and money laundering, among other charges.

Along with the arrests, officials seized 5.8 million doses of drugs and bank accounts valued at about $6 million.

Federal officials said they were concerned about the growing abuse of prescription drugs by teens. They cited statistics showing 1 in 10 high school students had used prescription drugs without the supervision of a doctor. They also cited recent cases where youths had died after taking drugs they acquired over the Internet.

At the news conference, Linda Surks of Kendall Park, N.J., spoke about the role of the Internet in the death of her son, Jason, 19. She said he overdosed on the anti-anxiety medication Xanax in December 2003 after ordering the drug from a pharmacy website in Mexico. That website was not implicated in the indictments unsealed Wednesday.

The indictments highlight a cultural disparity in the role doctors play as gatekeepers to medicine. In a number of foreign countries, pharmacists can distribute drugs without the oversight of a licensed physician.

Officials said the scheme was hatched at a computer store in Radnor, Pa., where, they allege, Akhil Bansal and another defendant approached an ex-convict, Richard Dabney, offering to pay him money to mail packages of drugs on their behalf.

The federal inquiry began in February 2004, when a supervisor at the Airborne Express terminal at Philadelphia International Airport became suspicious after receiving 119 packages that were not accompanied by a shipping manifest listing the contents.

The packages were received from a Leroy Jones -- an alias investigators say Dabney had been directed to use -- and a Chester business he operated known as Abbas Enterprises.

Two of the packages were opened, revealing tablets of the generic form of Valium, officials said.

The express-mail firm checked its records and discovered that Abbas had shipped more than 4,000 packages to “consumers throughout the United States” during a 19-day period in February 2004.


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