Hundreds of chronically ill people, who are lured by online “miracle” supplements, are seriously endangering their health. The facts and evidence gathered by Investigative Network Albania show that we are dealing with a fraudulent scheme, behind which is a call center in Bosnia entraps “patients” in Albania, in North Macedonia, in Montenegro, in Kosovo, Serbia and even Croatia. A market that is calculated in millions of Euros, health experts consider it criminal and demand its regulation. At the end of December of last year, 16 Albanians ended up in handcuffs among the 400 people arrested by Europol as being involved in this fraudulent scheme, where 40 million euros of medicines and drugs were seized.
Author: Zylyftar Bregu
The tranquility of December 31, 2022 for the well-known infectious disease specialist, Arjan Harxhi, was broken by a “barrage” of phone calls and text messages from family members, friends, colleagues and patients. They informed him that several online pages, located and sponsored on the social network, Facebook, on behalf of the well-known infectious disease specialist, Harxhi, advertised a miracle drug that cured heart diseases.
“These forgotten pills will clean the blood vessels in 3 days and remove the pressure!”, – were the words put in the mouth of doctor Harxhi, on the page named “Whitney Miller”.
Screenshot from the fake advertisement with the name of Dr. Arjan Harxhi
Although on New Year’s Eve of 2023, in less than two hours one of these posts had received more than 300 likes, about 150 comments and more than 5 thousand views.
“To our greatest surprise, some of them even believed that I was the author of these posts or these advertisements”, – says doctor Harxhi, who explains that he does not have a profile on social networks.
Taking into consideration the fact that in some news portals the news was “sponsored” on Facebook, the well-known doctor is convinced that it is an organized activity with precise manipulation goals to earn money. He has hesitated to report the case to the police. He filed a complaint on the social network, Facebook, where he requested the blocking of the page. Some of them have been blocked, but some others are still in operation.
Harxhi is not the only victim of the fake business and smuggling of health products. In the Prosecutor’s Office of Tirana, there have been several similar denunciations, but the investigations have ceased or have been suspended.
Trap with offers, “when soap is sold for cheese”
Online sites advertise miracle products that cure every human ailment. The prices are almost the same for each of them. About €80 (euros). But, for anyone who enters the page, there is an offer, which is halved immediately, so it goes to €40 (euro). This is the first trick to tempt, to lure patients, to complete the order, which is done online.
Investigative Network Albania traced how this fraud scheme works.
After entering the page, you enter your first name, last name, phone number and address. Less than five minutes after placing the order, your phone rings. On the other side of the phone, a lady can be heard speaking Kosovar Albanian. Says she’s calling from the Alternative Medicine Center about the request.
“It is a 100 percent herbal product and has no side effects, because it is completely natural and has a composition of 24 plants. Each does its job, sir. It is used twice a day, before meals, sir”, – the lady hurries to clarify.
After you think that “the fish has taken the bait” and shows you how to make tea, instructing you not to add sugar, the next offer comes to you. The package we ordered only has tea for seven days, but the therapy takes at least one month.
“You can order four packages for only 100,000 lek, sir,” – says the lady.
To the question of the origin of the product, she answers, saying that it is made in Germany, packed in Sarajevo and distributed throughout the Balkans, even in Croatia.
On the page where INA MEDIA placed the order, the address of the company Limited Charm is marked as “Eqrem Qabej, Milloshevë – Obiliq, p. n. Prishtina“, but on the social network, Facebook, of the same company, “Limited Charm” , the address changes and says that it is located in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The products purchased by INA MEDIA – O-Caps and DIATEA
Investigative Network Albania ordered another “medicine”, on another portal. This time to cure profound vision impairment. The price of the preparation is the same as the product we ordered to fight diabetes, 9,600 ALL, but above this figure there is an asterisk, informing you that the price has dropped to 4,800 ALL. After a few minutes the phone rings. It’s the same phone number as the first time, but this time a man’s voice is heard on the phone. Intonation and dialect, same as the girl; speaks Kosovo Albanian. Asks routine questions, but does not ask at length about the diagnosis. Simply prescribes the medication and rushes to make the offer.
“Because of the holidays, because of the anniversary of the company, we have made offers, offering two therapies, full therapy and half-therapy. Full therapy is therapy for two months of use, while half-therapy is for one month of use. For each therapy, the company also helps you, covering 50% of the expenses. The full therapy, for two months, which you have with eight packages, you get for 145 thousand lek, while you have the half-therapy for only one month, only 102 thousand old lek, because one package, which is 48 thousand old lek, is for one week of use”.
Despite my insistence on getting only one package, the voice behind the receiver continues to repeat the offers, and even lowers the price for the semi-therapy again, from 102 to 100 thousand old lek, removing another two thousand old lek. Tries more than 7 minutes to convince us to get more than one package. When you lose hope of completely selling drug therapy, the next question comes.
“Can you, sir, tell me what other health problems you or other family members have?”
I am tempted to tell him that a family member of mine suffers from bone pain. The medicine is ready.
“We have a product called Bone Control. It is used two to three times a day, the lotion. It is used on clean skin surface. You wash it, apply the lotion, perform a massage for 5-10 minutes and then relax. It takes half an hour for the skin to absorb it.”
The question about the warranty of the products he sells is answered by his colleague.
“We have a European license. We sell all over the Balkans and our center is in Bosnia-Herzegovina”.
The medication was ordered on Thursday and on Saturday morning a phone number announced that the order had arrived. A guy around 35, in a car full of medicine boxes, doesn’t get out of the car at all, as he has a lot of orders to deliver, he cuts the conversation short: “We are the post office and we don’t know anything about what’s inside the package”.
Fraud with non-existent doctors
The Covid-19 epidemic is being replaced by the portal epidemic. With unidentified addresses, the portals advertise and market miracle drugs that cure almost all diseases. Mainly chronic diseases.
“Men finally have medicine no. 1 in Europe for the elimination of prostate problems, this is Prostex , they even have several choices for the same disease. On the same page, ProstaGenius is advertised as the most effective preparation for men over 40 who have prostate problems. On this page you can find medications to fight arthritis, arthritis, joint pain, etc. Of course, there is no lack of preparations for diabetes, even of different types. ” Diatea is a product that can replace a whole complex of medicines”, – is written in a blog, which has almost the same medicines as some other blogs; or Diafix can be ordered.
“Even the blind have a chance to regain their eyesight, regardless of whether they can’t see far, near or not at all. It is enough for the patient to regularly receive the cure, which lasts up to 8 weeks”, – says the marketing agent from Sarajevo over the phone.
With the medications advertised there, you can live twice as long. It is enough to consume the preparation to remove wrinkles together with the one that returns the sexual potency, as in your youth. After you have completed a good cure with the medicine you lose some of your excess weight.
Doctor Florian Toti, at the same time president of the Diabetics Association of Albania, appeals to the sick to stay away from these temptations. According to him, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases, which are included in the group of chronic diseases, are diseases that accompany you throughout life, they can be managed, but not cured.
“Many people get bored or start looking for another, alternative solution, often falling prey to these sites or false advertisements, which present some supplements as miracle drugs”, – says doctor Toti.
Pages have irregular domains (addresses). Sometimes they are in the form of blogs, while sometimes they are in the form of portals. They have different sections, similar to news portals, but the sections are empty. If you click on any of the columns, the cursor will lead to the advertisement of the drug being marketed. After observing some of the addresses identified, Tomi Kallanxhi, expert in information technology, declares that such domains are classified as scam sites. He says that scam sites generally target third world countries, such as Albania.
Scam pages are filled with names of institutions that do not exist at all in Albania or with names of fabricated doctors, illustrated with pictures taken from the Internet.
“This product has not been evaluated by the Agency for Medicinal Products and Medical Devices of Albania”, – it is written on one of these pages. Meanwhile, the relevant institution in Albania is called the National Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices.
On another page, the head of the Department of Endocrinology, Laura Abedini, “speaks”, while in Albania, according to the official website of the University Hospital Center (QSUT), the head of the Endocrinology service is prof. Agron Ylli.
From a search at QSUT, it is confirmed that there is no doctor named Laura Abedini, while such an identity is not even found in the Civil Registry.
Nor does the name of the eye doctor , Ali Zogaj, who according to one of the portals “received the most prestigious award in Albania in the field of ophthalmology and bio-technology, developing an innovative drug that can restore vision at any age”, exist.
Although it is written in the Albanian language, it seems that they are translations made by computer programs.
“This spring, at the European Congress of Ophthalmologists, held in Albania, an event occurred that shocked the entire scientific world. People in the audience applauded the young man, who was on stage for 10 minutes.”
This is the introduction to the article marketing an eye medication. In fact, the European Congress of Ophthalmologists was not held in Albania either this year or the year before.
The sites make sure there are dozens of reviews to prove the efficacy of the medicine they market. The comments have only names (with some care, so that they look like Albanian names) and age commenters. It seems that the phrases of the commentators are careful. Translated by computer programs.
The IT expert, Tomi Kallanxhi, after analyzing the sites, thinks that in general the scam portals, which advertise these medications, are located in the advertiser Tabola.
The National Cyber Security Center in Great Britain writes that scam sites are used for deceptive advertising, which can be encountered on specific pages or when customers use search engines or social media.
“These ads often seem real. They may try to lure you in using fake celebrity endorsements or offering discounted merchandise, but often the goal is to steal your money or sell you merchandise that bears no resemblance to what’s advertised,” – writes the UK’s official cyber security website.
Our country adopted the Cyber Security Law six years ago . In the same year , the National Authority for Electronic Certification and Cyber Security (AKCESK) was established and operated. But, in the National Strategy Document and the Action Plan for the period 2020-2025, prepared by this institution, it is written: “Currently, it is noticed that the necessary tools to obtain and create cyber intelligence, using necessary resources, human and logistical, to exercise law enforcement activity.
In this document, approved on December 24, 2020, the National Authority for Electronic Certification and Cyber Security recommends the review of the entire legal and regulatory framework, with the aim of full harmonization with the directives of the European Union, as well as with the aim of internal institutional coordination. Speaking about the field of health, according to the study they carried out, it turned out that the information infrastructure, which is administered by private operators, also does not fulfill the elements of security, which must guarantee a critical infrastructure.
The Electronic and Postal Communications Authority, AKEP, in an official response, says that “it has no legal authority to review the contents of electronic communications, that is, the contents of websites, online social media, etc.“
Regarding the question of whether it has the technological capacity to block portals (addresses) that do not have the cc.TLD.al domain, AKEP says that, “if institutions with such legal competence decide to block access to domains or pages internet, AKEP forwards the institution ‘s decision regarding internet service providers (ISPs), to close access to those domains/websites in the territory of the Republic of Albania new Access blocking is done by ISPs and not by AKEP”.
But the former head of this institution, Pirro Xhixha, has stated that AKEP has neither legal nor technological capacities to guarantee cyber security in Albania.
Supplements, rescue of pharmacies, ruin for patients
The laws treat medications and supplements differently and separately. Supplements or food additives are assigned by the Albanian law to the National Food Authority to control them. According to the AKU, supplements are concentrated sources of nutrients and are intended to correct nutritional deficiencies. They are not medicinal products and as such cannot exert a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action.
“Therefore, their use is not intended to treat or prevent diseases in humans or to modify physiological functions”, – says AKU.
Meanwhile drugs are controlled by a number of institutions and structures, starting from the Ministry of Health and especially from the National Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices. The latter in an official response declares that ” the online trading of various supplements is not subject to inspection by the AKBPM”.
The problem is that the marketers themselves call the products they sell as medicines and serve them as miracles to people suffering from a chronic disease.
For Diana Toma, the president of the Order of Albanian Pharmacists , the increase in the consumption of supplements is related to the dynamics of the pharmaceutical market.
According to the president of the Order of Pharmacists, the legal gap and institutional chaos regarding the way this market is regulated has increased speculation.
“First, is the freedom to introduce these products to the Albanian market. Secondly, is the freedom to advertise them and thirdly, is the false purpose, for which they reach the citizen”, – says Toma.
Even for the head of the Association of Diabetics, doctor Florian Toti, the way supplements are marketed in Albania has produced a chain of problems. Through advertisements, even on television, some supplements are presented in most cases as miracle drugs. This first problem becomes the cause of the production of a subsequent problem.
“Many medications are reimbursable and patients receive them at greatly reduced prices. With reimbursement of almost 100 percent, but even on free sale they cost very little, in the range of 100, 200 or 500 lek new monthly treatment. Meanwhile, the cost of these scientifically unproven supplements is of a much greater financial value, starting from 3,000 ALL to 5,000 or 7,000 ALL monthly costs. The recommendation is to take the treatment for several months”, says Toti.
But this dampness can lead to endangering the patient’s life. Often in such advertisements patients are told that there is no need to use medications, as they create problems. Therefore, they recommend stopping the therapy given by the doctor and treating the disease with natural medications, without side effects.
Doctor Toti says that recently there have been several cases where patients, who have abandoned medical prescriptions, replacing them with these medications, have ended up in a coma.
“They are basically lies, which harm the patient health-wise, financially and destroy or try to damage that relationship between the medical staff and the patient, which is the basis of treatment for chronic diseases”, – says Toti.
Acknowledging that sometimes patients replace the medications prescribed by the doctor with these uncertified products, the president of the Physician’s Order, Dr. Fatmir Brahimaj, calls this practice a criminal activity.
“In the advertisement for this supplement, it is said that this is a natural insulin and what better than mother nature, which makes them whole, just like they should. But to take away insulin from a diabetic, that is, to put them in a coma in a few days and then to bring them out of the coma is quite difficult, sometimes in different circumstances it is even impossible. So, such a thing threatens a patient’s life”, – says Dr. Brahimaj.
The President of the Order of Pharmacists, Diana Toma, makes the state responsible as the regulator of all steps and links as a whole, but especially in the field of health. According to her, supplements have been found as salvation from the contraction of the pharmaceutical market.
“The shrinking of the market led to the weakening of the financial possibilities to survive or to have the status that the pharmaceutical companies had, which had invested. It led to the departure of prestigious companies, either innovative or generic”, – says Toma.
This pressure from the state forced the actors of the pharmaceutical market to find other opportunities.
“The possibilities were magic pills, which were inserted without a procedure, while drugs have a totally controlled procedure. Supplements do not need a full professional staff, which is again a reduced cost. They are not subject to control by the Agency of Medicines, but simply customs control and are then taken to warehouses. The state does not set a trading price. This means that the price is set by the pharmacist, as much as he wants. With this inflated margin, I also cover the damages that the state caused me in terms of grass management”, – explains Toma.
Statistics of the Customs Directorate show that in less than 10 years, the number of supplements that have entered Albania has tripled.
Amount in dollars of supplements that have entered Albania for the period of 2012-2020, according to the General Directorate of Customs
The National Food Authority, in a response to INA MEDIA, has emphasized that for the period of 2022, 522 act-controls were carried out at the border inspection points by AKU inspectors. Meanwhile, a source within this structure explains that this is the total number of checks that AKU has made at border inspection points and not special control acts for food supplements.
During a period of 6 months, the police and robbery organization , Europol has coordinated the third phase of the operation “Shield“, against the trafficking of counterfeit drugs. The operation was led by France, Greece, Italy and Spain and involved police and customs authorities from 28 countries (19 EU member states and 9 third-party countries).
In Albania alone, 14 citizens were put in handcuffs, 6 citizens were criminally prosecuted, and various medical pills, worth over 100,000 euros, were seized. According to the official announcement of Europol, published on December 20, 2022, on the day of the finalization of the operation, 59 organized crime groups were investigated, 10 underground laboratories that produced these products were closed, 588 websites were monitored, which were used by organized crime groups, 89 of which have been closed.
Over 218,000 shipments of these orders were checked, of which over 74,000 shipments were seized.
For the European police structure, the trade and consumption of non-prescription drugs by medical professionals constitutes a social problem, encouraging illegal activity. This activity is considered quite profitable for organized crime.
Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.