WASHINGTON - Drug enforcement agents said they arrested at least 18 people and halted prescription writing by dozens of doctors and a pharmacist in a crackdown Wednesday on illegal sales of medications over the Internet.
Thirteen arrests were made in Texas and five in Florida. The Drug Enforcement Administration suspended the registrations of 20 doctors and 22 Internet pharmacies in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, to stop them from writing or filling prescriptions.
Agents also shut down at least 4,600 Web sites the suspects controlled, and seized 2,400 checks and money orders written by individuals for $200 each. They also seized seven luxury cars and boxes of cash that had not yet been counted in the yearlong multi-agency investigation dubbed "Operation CYBERx."
They have started legal procedures to seize several homes belonging to those arrested, valued at about $7.85 million.
"E-traffickers are just a modern way of saying drug dealers," DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said in a statement. The arrests were announced Wednesday in a news conference in Dallas.
The sting "puts out of business cyber criminals who were selling powerful narcotics without legitimate prescriptions to anyone with a computer and cash," Tandy said. "This operation makes more Americans aware that buying prescription drugs from these rogue Web sites is illegal and dangerous."
Those arrested largely operated Internet sites where orders were placed or handled.
Among the suspects were five people the DEA alleged were ringleaders. They were identified as Johar Saran of Arlington, Texas; Gaston Blanchet and Gil Lozano of Miami; S. Ted Solomon of Orlando and Steve Rosner of Boca Raton, Fla.
DEA alleged Saran operated 22 Internet "pharmacies" in the Dallas area, allowing him to order the controlled drugs in bulk without suspicion.
The agency also alleged Saran sold codeine cough syrup to local drug traffickers from the back of his warehouses and in one year bought more than 70,000 pints of the syrup, used by high school and college students.
The overwhelming majority of the drugs sold were pain killers, anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium, and weight loss drugs, DEA said. Most of them cost far more than they would if purchased legitimately and were bought by addicted people. Electronic bulletin boards exist that list Web sites where people can go to buy such drugs without having a legitimate prescription.
The DEA said drug orders were submitted online to thousands of Internet sites, then forwarded to a central site known as an Internet Facilitation Center. The central sites were run by the five people the DEA labeled as ringleaders.
The orders were placed on Web servers where doctors could sign in to approve them. Doctors were paid an average $20 per order.
The doctor's approval created the appearance of a doctor-patient relationship required in many states for drug prescriptions, DEA said. Doctors could make up to $1.7 million approving the illegal drug orders, the agency said.
All information was placed in a database used by pharmacies set up by those involved in the schemes to fill the orders, for a fee of about $10 to $15 a prescription for the pharmacist, DEA said. DEA said pharmacies could fill about 5,000 orders a day.
Orders were delivered to addresses that were actually empty buildings. The drugs were collected from those locations, then repackaged and distributed through a legitimate shipping service. One order placed as part of the investigation was delivered to the DEA building in Fort Worth, Texas.
Operators of the Internet pharmacies averaged more than $50,000 a day in profits from the drug orders, Tandy said.
The investigation also involved law enforcement officials from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Attorney's Office, including its Dallas office.