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The ‘Fake’ Medication Age Is Here

A recent study suggests that the presence of thousands of fraudulent COVID-19 posts and messages on Social Media is luring in unbeknownst users.

A hand pouring out medical pills from a bottle.
Representive photo of pharmaceutical drugs | Pinterest

The COVID-19 Pandemic has engulfed the world since early this year. The still relatively unknown virus has taken the world by storm. To help the prevention of disease, social media has played a crucial role in information dissemination regarding safe practices and quarantine related notices. The pandemic has also caused a surge in the sales of medical products among nervous crowds sold once again, through internet services. However, a recent study conducted at the University of California, San Diego found thousands of social media posts related to COVID-19 and related products tied to financial scams and counterfeit or non-existent goods. The study found more than 2000 such fraudulent posts on platforms such as Instagram and twitter between March and May.

The study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research identified suspicious posts using a combination of Natural language processing and machine learning. Primary topic related information was fed to a deep learning computer algorithm which detected the fraudulent posts and listings. The team had been active in research on the opioid crisis and detecting illicit drug dealers online. The team used the same method in this study identifying fake products and claims. They played on the vulnerability of users stuck in a pandemic by sharing unproven marketing claims for prevention or cure of COVID-19 and fake testing kits. Author of the study Timothy Mackey said that these fraudulent and misleading posts came in two waves. The researcher says,

“A third wave of fake pharmaceutical treatments is now materialising and will worsen when public health officials announce development of an effective vaccine or other therapeutic treatments.”

In early August, Interpol shared information regarding its operation PANGEA IX. The operation found anc cracked down on multiple internet websites selling fake cancer medication, substandard HIV and diabetes testing kits, counterfeit dental equipment and illicit surgical equipment. The products were seized and the sellers were identified. The Interpol later shared that online sale of fake medical supplies, drugs and personal protective equipment using teleconference tools have become a major cyber crime trend in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An example of such a cyber fraud case gone wrong came in 2015. A woman in the UK was found dead and another man from France fell seriously ill after ingesting a weight loss drug called 2.4dinitrophenol or DNP. The victims had purchased the drug from the internet. A similar case occurred in the US in 2013 when a customer died as a result of DNP ingestion. The source of the drug was later found by the US food and Drug Administration task force, a 29 year old man from California. The accused pleaded guilty to introducing an unapproved drug to interstate commerce in May this year. INTERPOL had to later issue an Orange Notice warning people about the dangers of DNP.

‘Fear and insecurity make for a lucrative business.’- Something that is proved by the internet today. Irrespective of the state of the world, internet users must stay informed of such frauds and better decipher such posts from genuine ones. The issue also raises the question of more stringent policies and monitoring of such malicious activity on the internet by cyber crime authorities.


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