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Microsoft, Pfizer Sue Viagra Spammers

Microsoft and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer join forces to file 17 lawsuits against a pair of pharmacy spam rings running sites that allegedly sell generic Viagra.

InformationWeek Staff

February 10, 2005

3 Min Read

Microsoft and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer joined forces Thursday to file 17 lawsuits against a pair of pharmacy spam rings running sites that allegedly sell generic Viagra.

The lawsuits were the result of a seven-month investigation by Microsoft and Viagra to track the alleged illegal drug distributors running the sites and the spammers enticing consumers to those URLs.

"The collaboration is another wake-up call to those who abuse the Internet for illegal purposes," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, in a statement. "Businesses are teaming up, pooling resources, and sharing investigative information to stop this illegal activity at the source."

Pfizer, the maker of the erectile dysfunction (ED) drug Viagra, filed 12 lawsuits, including ones naming CanadianPharmacy and E-Pharmacy Direct for allegedly promoting and selling products not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

For its part, Microsoft took on the spammers said to advertise for those two Web sites, as well as other online pharmacies which operate under a variety of names, including Discount RX, Virtual RX, and EzyDrugStore.com.

Microsoft claims that the spammers have sent millions of messages to its Hotmail users in the past year, and charges that they violated the federal CAN-SPAM Act by engaging in deceptive e-mail practices. Some estimates peg Viagra and other ED medicines or cures as accounting for a fourth of all spam.

Because the spammers charged by Microsoft in its lawsuits mask their true identities, it's named multiple John Does as defendants. Microsoft said it plans to request subpoenas to force ISPs to identify and locate the real spammers. That approach, while common when filing against spammers, has a mixed track record, as ISPs often balk at opening customer records, or if they're off-shore, simply ignore them.

The scam that Pfizer and Microsoft uncovered is "highly sophisticated," the companies said. A large spam ring, composed of several groups of spammers, all blast out messages advertising Web sites associated with CanadianPharmacy (which does business on the Web as cndpharmacy.com; as of Thursday morning, however, that URL was unavailable).

The spam directs consumers to one of dozens of identical Web sites. Many of these sites, however, are registered to names and addresses of people not associated with the online pharmacies or spam rings, and whose identities -- likely stolen -- were used to set up the sites.

Microsoft and Pfizer investigators said that the scam is global, as the orders are received by servers located in New York, sent to a call center in Canada, and then to India for processing. The drugs are shipped from India to the U.S.

Pfizer has good reason to protect Viagra. Even though it said last month that sales of Viagra had drooped 8 percent in the fourth quarter, the male impotence drug still generated $469 million in sales. Pfizer claims that Viagra owns more than 70 percent of the ED market.

The public relations messaging Thursday, however, mentioned nothing of profits. "Pfizer is committed to protecting the public from health and other risks associated with the illegal sale of fake and unapproved generic products claiming to be Viagra," said Jeff Kindler, Pfizer's general counsel, in a statement.

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