OSINT: A weapon against counterfeit drugs

OSINT: A weapon against counterfeit drugs

osintThe development of the digital world has brought about various changes, including the circulation of counterfeit drugs. As information becomes more accessible on the internet, an increasing number of methods of advertising and selling counterfeit drugs are carried out anonymously by various people.

In reality, this is nothing new. Since 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a statement about the circulation of counterfeit drugs, which has grown in line with the advancement of digital information.

The internet has enabled the sellers of counterfeit drugs to reach out to prospective customers all over the globe and sell their illegal items anonymously through marketplaces and social media. As a result, customers are more exposed than ever before, since they may purchase and consume counterfeit medicines unintentionally, which can potentially cause major health issues.

In this regard, WHO created a worldwide surveillance and monitoring system that same year. This approach promotes counterfeit drug reporting in order to map and detect traffic related to counterfeit drug circulation in the market.

However, the system seems to be inefficient since it works passively, waiting for reports from the public. Only about 920 counterfeit drug brands were discovered a year after its launch. Thus, a more active and aggressive approach to combating counterfeit and illicit drug distribution is required.

Using OSINT to your advantage

This is where Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) comes in. This intelligence method can explore various sources of information, including web niches, social media posts, digital advertisements, cookies, and even search history to obtain accurate information about individuals or entities associated with the circulation of counterfeit drugs.

Among the various OSINT methods that can be used for monitoring, there are two methods that are most often used to investigate information about counterfeit drugs and other commodities which are traded online—marketplace and social media monitoring.

(a) Marketplace monitoring

Marketplace monitoring is a crucial tool for combating counterfeit medicines. By constantly observing the market, authorities may uncover probable sources of counterfeit drugs being marketed, their pricing, and the persons or organizations engaged in their manufacturing or distribution. This information may be used to identify potential suspects and collect evidence for prosecution.

The grand operation carried out by Euro authorities in 2022, in which large quantities of abused or counterfeit drugs, doping products, drugs and dietary supplements, as well as counterfeit COVID vaccines, sanitary products, and medical devices were seized, is one example of marketplace monitoring in combating counterfeit drugs.

Unfortunately, due to the large number of marketplaces and websites selling counterfeit drugs, authorities find it difficult to monitor them all. Many new marketplaces and websites are constantly being created, posing a challenge for authorities to keep up.

In such cases, it is vital to bring together numerous stakeholders, including law enforcement, drug and food control authorities, owners of official pharmaceutical brands, and, of course, customers. Third parties who specifically work with pharmaceutical brand owners to supervise products in the marketplace using various methods such as market surveys, may also play an important role in the process.

(b) Social media monitoring

Another method is social media monitoring. This method involves tracking and analyzing user conversations, posts, and behavior across various social media platforms to identify potential cases of counterfeit medicines.

By tracking relevant hashtags, keywords, and user accounts, authorities can monitor and detect suspicious activities related to the circulation of counterfeit drugs. The monitoring also targets drug-related communities or social networking groups.

There are many social networking groups born out of hobbies, interests, needs, regions, or other reasons. There are groups for alcoholics, groups for buying and selling potent drugs, groups for herbal medicine enthusiasts, and so on. Such groups are ideal spots to monitor.

The role of an investigator is needed at this stage to ‘infiltrate’ the group as a member, to gain access to and gather information about manufacturers or dealers of counterfeit drugs. Reviews and comments from users can also help authorities identify if there are any suspicious activities.

More importantly, on social media platforms, authorities can find posts advertising medicines at significantly lower prices compared to their standard rates, which is a prime indicator of counterfeit drugs.

Social media monitoring can also help authorities identify networks and tactics used by counterfeiters. By analyzing the behavior of users who promote counterfeit drugs, authorities can gain insight into how counterfeiters work, who they target, and how they distribute their products.

One distinct case that highlights the crucial role of social media monitoring is the recent raid on counterfeit drugs conducted by Polda Metro Jaya. Further investigation and prosecution was carried out after the authorities received reports of accounts selling counterfeit drugs.

The need for an OSINT expert

The use of OSINT has become an important tool in the fight against counterfeit drugs. By leveraging technology and online platforms, authorities can detect and prevent the distribution of counterfeit drugs, identify networks and tactics used by counterfeiters, and provide valuable evidence to support legal action.

However, OSINT is a branch of intelligence that requires resources with specialized expertise. Integrity Asia‘s team of analysts has a strong competency in operating OSINT to track fraudulent and counterfeit activities through online media, analyze, interpret, and present data in comprehensive reports.

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