New report finds uptick in shadow pharmacies claiming to peddle coronavirus cures with no prescription

A new Babel Street report found a spike in coronavirus related drug mentions on rouge pharmacy sites in mid-March and early-April.
By Laura Lovett
03:01 pm

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, consumers are turning to ecommerce as a way to purchase everything from groceries to prescription medications. Now so-called “shadow pharmacies” are seeking to take advantage of pandemic fears and spending by claiming to sell unconfirmed coronavirus treatments without a prescription, according to a Babel Street report

As consumers make the shift to online purchasing, they should be aware of the risks in purchasing from questionable or shadow pharmacies,” wrote Brittany Mason, senior solutions specialist for Babel Street and author of the report. “Per FDA guidelines, there are several signs of “rogue online pharmacies.” These signs include allowing individuals to buy prescription medicine without a valid prescription, offering very low prices that seem “too good to be true,” operating from locations outside of the United States, or offering worldwide shipping.”

Babel reports that these shadow pharmacies employ hacked sites with legitimate roots, and then redirected the potential customers to the online pharmacy. By using these hacked sites, the fraudulent pharmacies are able to post the site in blogs and articles, and then boost their SEO. 

While these shadow pharmacies have been around for some time, the Babel report indicates that ones claiming to have COVID-19 cures have been on the rise in recent months. Analysts at Babel combed through sites in multiple languages claiming to sell Ritonavir, Ritomune, Lopinavir, Lopimune, Fluvir, Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) and Aralen (chloroquine). 

The analysis recorded a spike of these specific coronavirus-related drugs mentioned from mid-March to early-April. The rate dipped a little mid-April, but emerged again mid-May. 

URL analysis for the COVID-specific collection also revealed the emergence of a more direct TTP employed by the online pharmacies offering COVID-related drugs. Some of the COVID-19 associated URLs continue to use hijacked root domains for obfuscation and redirection; however, several sites have begun to include the specific COVID-19 related drug names in the root domain name. These URLs are new sites created to sell these newly popular drugs online. 


The coronavirus pandemic has also brought with it a wave of misinformation. The internet is jam packed with theories that sprout cures and preventions for the virus, including everything from drinking hot water with a lemon to drinking alcohol. However, today there are no drugs licensed to treat the virus, according to the World Health Organization. There are several trials ongoing and FDA has granted a number of Emergency Use Authorization for drugs, which have to be prescribed by a physician. 

WHO warns of the dangerous effects of misusing drugs to treat coronavirus, specifically noting that hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects and illness.

Shadow online pharmacies remain active and seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for financial gain – often using established [tactics, techniques, and procedures],” the report said. “Consumers need to be wary and pay heed to the red flags of shadow pharmacies lest they be financially bilked and subjected to potentially ineffective or dangerous drugs.” 


While the report focuses specifically on these rogue pharmacies, we are seeing a booming number of online pharmacy providers offering more legitimate treatments. In fact, Amazon even got in the game when it acquired PillPack in June of 2018. The e-commerce giant recently made a deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts that integrates with Amazon’s PillPack’s platform into the payer’s myBlue member app. 

Another on the market is Capsule, a New York City-based startup, scored $200 million to expand its hand-delivered same-day medication drop-off services. 

Also coming into the space is NowRx, an online pharmacy specializing in same-day, same-hour prescription deliveries. In October, the company announced a $7 million Series A raise.

Security in the COVID-19 Era

This month we look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is fundamentally changing healthcare organizations' approaches to security, now and in the future.


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