Illegal online pharmacies find ways to deceptively gain business

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Photo Illustration by Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager Credit: Photo Illustration by Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager

In the age of the Internet, consumers are buying nearly everything online, from books to groceries and even prescription medications.

Online pharmacies have become a growing trend in the past few years. Some of these pharmacies order medicine in countries where it is not as expensive and then sell it in countries such as the United States or United Kingdom. A group of Carnegie Mellon researchers has recently found that many of these online pharmacies are unauthorized and illegal because they do not require a prescription when selling prescription drugs, and that much of the time the users are unaware of the pharmacy’s lack of legitimacy.

These online stores often have to resort to unsavory methods to promote their wares. Most Internet users have already experienced one form of these methods: e-mail spam. However, e-mail spam is unsolicited and untargeted, making its success rate very low.

Illegal online pharmacies are using a more targeted approach: manipulating the links to legitimate pharmacies in a way that causes the consumer to be redirected to the illegal pharmacy when clicking on links in search engine results.

In order to get to the top of search engine results, the illegal pharmacies have to use search engine optimization (SEO). According to the Internet marketing service company SEO Marketing World, “black hat SEO” is a term used to describe a large number of unethical methods that result in boosting the search engine rankings of websites in ways that violate the terms of service of the search engine provider.

Hackers and spammers use black hat SEO to increase Internet traffic to their manipulated links. When the user clicks on a relevant-looking link that has been bumped to the top of the search results, the link is then frequently redirected to a different site, such as that of an illegal online pharmacy.

Nicholas Christin, associate director of the Information Networking Institute (INI) at Carnegie Mellon and a senior systems scientist at the INI and CyLab, worked with his colleagues to examine how prevalent this form of search manipulation is in getting users to the websites of illegal online pharmacies.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the 20th USENIX Security Symposium, involved gathering the top search web results for 218 drug-related searches from April 2010 to February 2011. It was found that nearly one-third of the search results, from a total of 21,000 results, were infected websites that redirected users to hundreds of illegal pharmacy websites. According to a press release on, “One quarter of the top 10 search results were observed to actively redirect to illicit pharmacies, and another 15 percent of the top results were for sites that no longer redirected but had previously been compromised.”

Christin’s team concluded the study by using estimates of the popularity of drug-related search terms and payment-processing websites used by pharmacies to determine that that search engine manipulation is, in fact, much more efficient than e-mail spam. “To those who aim to reduce unauthorized pharmaceutical sales, more emphasis needs to be made in combating transactions facilitated by Web search,” Christin said in the press release.