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Microsoft, Pfizer target fake Viagra spammers

Firms launch legal battle against sellers

Looking to put a dent in illegal Internet commerce, Pfizer Inc. and Microsoft Corp. teamed up yesterday to target elusive e-mail spammers who peddle phony Viagra.

Pfizer filed lawsuits against two Web-based businesses that flood e-mail accounts with unwanted solicitations. Pills purporting to be "generic" Viagra turned out to be unapproved versions of erectile dysfunction drugs similar to Viagra that were shipped from India.

Pfizer said it also is taking action to ban the domain names of another dozen websites, which sport addresses like freegenericviagra.com.

Microsoft filed three separate lawsuits that will give it subpoena power to hunt down the individuals who distributed what the company said were hundreds of millions of spam messages relating to the illegal pharmacy business.

The actions capped an unusual seven-month investigation conducted jointly by Pfizer and Microsoft, which the companies said was the first time companies had teamed up to target all aspects of an illegal Internet operation. The move is one response to an explosion in the distribution of unapproved and counterfeit drugs into the United States.

"With Microsoft suing the spammers, and Pfizer going after the online sellers, we are targeting the entire supply chain," said Microsoft lawyer Aaron Kornblum.

This black-market commerce is vastly different from the practice of Americans buying legitimate drugs over the Internet from Canadian pharmacies. Although the purchases from Canada are illegal, the Canadian pharmacies are mostly carrying the same Food and Drug Administration-approved products that are available at US pharmacies.

In the case of fake Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs sold through spam solicitations, the drugs are sold by shadowy businesses and sourced from countries like China and India that do not have rigorous patent laws. The illegal copies may or may not contain Viagra's active ingredient, say specialists familiar with the trade.

By taking action against two websites yesterday, Pfizer hopes to raise consumer awareness about the problem, Beth Levine, Pfizer's general counsel for US pharmaceuticals, said in a conference call.

Levine could not provide an estimate on how much Pfizer loses in sales to the illegal knock-offs.

She said Pfizer computers aren't immune to receiving spam, and that the company never sends out such solicitations.

"Some Viagra spam makes it through our own firewalls," she said. "Stockholders have written to the chairman, asking why Pfizer is sending Viagra spam to them."

Pfizer has taken similar actions against 30 other Internet sites in the last year, with one case resulting in a criminal guilty plea, Levine said.

"The Internet is an unregulated market that needs to be subjected to closer scrutiny," said Tom Kubic, executive director of the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, a Washington group that is funded by the drug industry to assist in global anticounterfeiting efforts.

Consumers often respond to a spam message that offers real Viagra without a prescription at a discounted price. Then the illicit Internet operators offer an unapproved generic version at a much lower price.

"It's a classic bait and switch," said Kubic.

The lawsuits Pfizer filed yesterday targeted entities identified as CanadianPharmacy and E-Pharmacy Direct. The E-Pharmacy Direct website, www.myepharmacydirect.com, showed a picture of a smiling doctor yesterday, but the blue pill listed above "Viagra" was not the shape of real Viagra.

The whereabouts and identities of the people behind the websites aren't known. Pfizer and Microsoft said they hope to trace individuals by examining Internet server information and credit-card billing records.

Pfizer officials said the only thing Canadian about Canadian Pharmacy was a call center at an unmarked, third-floor office in Montreal. The drugs originated from a large, well-known Indian generics manufacturer, Cipla Ltd., based in Mumbai, Levine said. She said the product did not resemble Viagra and was called "Progra 100." The website for CanadianPharmacy did not work yesterday.

Many counterfeiters have begun setting up websites that appear to be Canadian but are actually fronts for businesses in Asia, said Donald deKieffer, a Washington lawyer who is an expert in international counterfeiting.

"We've seen an explosion of these so-called Canadian pharmacies that are not shipping from Canada at all," he said.

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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