‘Canadian Pharmacy’ spam – a nightmare for legit firms

To most people, Canadian Pharmacy means just another spam e-mail message promising cheap Viagra pills that is deleted in microseconds – but to David Zimmer, it’s a reputation nightmare for his business.

Zimmer is the owner of Winnipeg-based The Canadian Pharmacy, a small company that legitimately sells pharmaceuticals over the Internet to American customers. In the U.S., drugs often cost much more than in Canada and there’s a swath of businesses across the country that are

But when his company is confused with the almost identically-named spammer group, his reputation takes a drubbing.

“It’s a big pain for us,” he says. He says he gets get inundated with complaints from angry victims of these spammers who haven’t received their medication.

About once a day, Zimmer says he personally takes a call from an angry victim of the fraudsters. They’ve paid money and received nothing in return. When they go searching for someone to contact and blame, it’s the legitimate companies they find.

The irony is Zimmer doesn’t even do any e-mail marketing. He started his company in 2003, before Canadian Pharmacy spam existed.

“I’ve considered changing our brand,” he says. “When people confuse us with Canadian Pharmacy, that hurts our ability to market ourselves by word of mouth.”

Canadian Pharmacy is well-known among spam researchers. Run out of Russia by a company called Glavmed, it has been one of the more successful e-mail scams run over the last couple of years. Using thousands of randomly registered domains and constantly shifting spam message techniques, they continue to perpetrate fraud with impunity — and there’s very little victims can do.

The spammers shifted tactics again during the month of July, according to Sunny Vale, Calif.-based security vendor Fortinet Inc. They pushed spam out through Web 2.0 services such as Google Groups, and Tinypic, a photo and video sharing Web site.

“It’s probably one of the most notorious spam groups,” says Derek Manky, project manager for cyber security and threat research at Fortinet. “Traditional spam filtering has become pretty effective against text, so image spam has become pretty popular.”

Canadian Pharmacy put code into a Google Groups page that redirected browsers to one of its own domains, Manky says. It also sent e-mail messages with a Tinypic image embedded, but when the image was clicked on, it led to one of the spammer’s Web sites.

The e-mail subject header claimed either the recipient had been sent an e-Card or had an expired profile that needed maintenance.

Legit Canadian pharmacies doing business over the Internet have little recourse against the spam. The Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA) is a group of 21 bonafide dealers that actively warn against the fraud being perpetrated.

The association’s front page has an obvious warning for consumers. “Do not deal with any sites called ‘canadarxconnection.com’, ‘Canadian Pharmacy’, ‘Canadian HealthCare’, ‘Canadianfamilypharmacy.com”, or “Drugs 5.com’,” it warns.

It’s just one part of the battle to separate themselves from the fraudsters on the Internet by conducting business in an ethical and safe manner, says Tim Smith, general manager of CIPA.

“We feel it’s important you deal with a real, licenced pharmacy that has a physical location and is easy to contact,” he says. “We are true pharmacies that require consultation both with a physician and a pharmacist, as well as a prescription where needed.”

Any pharmacy promising to sell prescription drugs without seeing the paperwork is surely fraudulent, Smith warns. As well as any site promising the sale of narcotics.

Other Canadian pharmacies with similar domain names to the spammers include canadapharmacy.com and canadapharmacyonline.com. Both are certified CIPA members.

Zimmer’s company does its advertising mostly through other organizations that will promote them as a value-added service. It also has opened up physical operations in the U.S. to communicate with customers. But it mostly maintains customer relationships with telephone reminders for prescription refills.

“Seniors are our target market,” Zimmer says. “Traditionally, they are not the most tech-savvy demographic out there.”

Meanwhile, he must explain to angry victims of Canadian Pharmacy spam every day that his company doesn’t even do e-mail marketing. It’s time he’s taken away from running his business, and there’s no way to stop the spammers – legal action seems impossible.

“When you deal in going beyond the borders of Canada, it’s pretty tough,” he says.

The spammers go to great lengths to give the appearance of authenticity. The sites even have what looks like a CIPA seal of approval. But closer examination of the logo shows it actually reads CIDA – for the non-existent Canadian International Drug Association.

No one has ever tried to prosecute the spammers, Fortinet’s Manky says. Many jurisdictions outside of North America lack the legislation needed to bring charges against spammers.

The affiliate program also means that there are so many spammers involved, it is hard to single out one single perpetrator. Spammers receive credit when they push traffic to the Canadian Pharmacy domains by getting a percentage of the resulting sales.

Thousands of random domains are created with registrars who are known to be slack on taking down malicious sites. This gives the spammers a greater window of opportunity to fool more victims.

The Canadian Pharmacy’s Google Group used to redirect traffic during July has been shutdown, according to a Google spokesperson. The group was deemed to have violated the terms of use agreement.

“Using Google groups to send spam is a violation of our policies,” the spokesperson said.

If a complaint is made about a Google Group, it is slapped with a warning for 30 days. Users are told they are at risk of viewing spam if they follow the link. If no one files a report showing the group is not spam within that time period, it is deleted.

Tinypic did not respond to a request for information about the spam messages by time of publication.

Canadian Pharmacy spam is bound to continue. Health-related spam accounted for 11 per cent of all spam in July according to Symantec Corp.

On Spamwiki, a European spam-tracking Web site, Canadian Pharmacy is the third-most viewed article and My Canadian Pharmacy is the fifth most-viewed article.

Zimmer has resigned himself to dealing with angry phone calls as a result of the spam. It’s become just another challenge in conducting business.

He still won’t be bullied into changing his company’s name.

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