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Your Cyber Monday Shopping Could Send Cash to Criminal Cartels

Americans shopping online spent nearly $10 billion on Black Friday and are expected to spend a record $12 billion on Cyber Monday. Unfortunately, law enforcement experts say, too much of that holiday cash will go to criminal cartels — the same ones responsible for drug smuggling and smash-and-grab robberies across the U.S.

How? Thanks to the massive amount of illicit, stolen, and counterfeit consumer goods being sold to Americans, mostly via online shopping.

“The harsh reality is Santa is not the only one handing out toys this season,” said Alysa Erichs with United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT). “Black market criminals have exploited the boom in online shopping by misleading consumers into buying stolen and counterfeit goods, many of which threaten the economy and our nation.”

Erichs, a former Acting Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations, made her remarks at a recent press event featuring members of law enforcement and America’s retail sector. They all had the same message: Shopping for deals online could mean sending money to criminal gangs.

Michael Ball with Homeland Security Investigations told reporters the largest counterfeit bust in U.S. history had just happened two weeks earlier. The Department of Justice announced the “seizures of approximately 219,000 counterfeit bags, clothes, shoes, and other luxury products with a total estimated manufacturer’s suggested retail price (‘MSRP’) of approximately $1.03 billion.”

Ball presented a display of seized counterfeit goods ranging from high-end electronics like iPhones to toys and luxury retail items, including Louis Vitton handbags. One popular item is a hoverboard built with batteries that “tended to burst into flame,” Ball said.

Jennifer Hanks, director of brand protection for the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), also highlighted the dangers consumers face from fake goods.

Authorities recently seized a shipment of children’s sleepwear marked as flame retardant but was not. And she noted a recent study that tested 47 counterfeit products. Of those, 17 were found to have dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, or other substances, she said.

And, Hanks added, counterfeit product and organized retail crime cost real Americans their jobs. The fakers destroyed over 300,000 U.S. jobs in various industries, such as toys, water filters, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and car parts.

“If it can be made, it can be counterfeited,” she said.

Some of those job losses have been felt here in the Keystone State. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association is a member of USA-IT, and PMA President and CEO David N. Taylor told DVJournal counterfeits are part of the “ongoing economic warfare” being waged by the Chinese communist government against U.S. businesses and workers.

More than 75 percent of the value of counterfeit and pirated goods seized in the U.S. originate in China and Hong Kong, and online Chinese sellers often rely on Mexican drug cartels to skirt U.S. Customs and import lethal goods like fentanyl and fake pharmaceuticals, according to USA-IT.

“This is something that’s systematically bigger than any one company,” said Taylor. “We need a whole of government response.”

The counterfeiting taking place is “systematic and unrelenting,” Taylor added. “The problem is out of control.”

The impact of organized retail theft is being felt by shoppers in cities like Philadelphia, which has seen stores close across the city over the past two years. In September, The  Wall Street Journal reported retail theft in Philly increased by more than 30 percent compared to a year earlier. Some of the same goods being stolen in smash-and-grab robberies that make the nightly news also make their way to holiday shoppers, often via the internet.

Ball said the organized gangs grabbing armloads are luxury goods and high-end clothes aren’t shopping for their girlfriends. “It’s being resold to criminal organizations to fund organized crime,” he said. “That’s what’s happening.”

“People are being duped to be part of organized crime,” he said. “You’re giving hundreds and thousands of dollars to people who are flooding guns and drugs onto your streets. It’s one of the most foolish things you can possibly think of.”

Ball said counterfeit goods affect the economy and consumers who purchase them.

“It’s crucial that we all remain vigilant about the dangers posed by counterfeit goods,” said Ball. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Is Rubio’s DRUGS Act the Right Prescription for Counterfeit Pharma Problem?

The FDA and DEA issued warning letters in April to and, two websites selling what it claims are pharmaceuticals like green Xanax bars and Viagra pills, all without prescriptions. The sites are so sketchy, not only does the drug description at fail to tell consumers the drugs’ dosage, it also sources Wikipedia when listing its precautions.

The letters gave the sites 15 days to respond with the steps they will take in order to address violations. But according to Libby Baney, senior advisor with Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies Global,  those warning letters carry little weight. Both sites are still in operation, and that is why Baney believes the DRUGS Act needs to be passed.

The problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals often made with the deadly drug fentanyl moved into the open during the COVID-19 lockdown. People who needed their prescription drugs, including older customers unfamiliar with internet commerce, went online rather than to their local drugstore. Knock-off versions of prescription drugs were popping up in Google searches made by unsuspecting customers.

Counterfeit Oxycodone pills seized by DEA (Courtesy photo)

In an effort to curb the sales of illicit drugs online, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Domain Reform for Unlawful Drug Sellers Act—better known as the DRUGS Act. The bill would require internet domain registrars like Verisign and GoDaddy to lock and suspend websites illegally selling drugs.

“We need to crack down on bad actors, including those from China, that target our youth and families with the online sales of counterfeit and illicit drugs like fentanyl,” Rubio said. “Without legislative action, this highly addictive drug will continue to fuel the growing opioid crisis in America.”

The DRUGS act was inspired by a voluntary, 120-day pilot program launched by the FDA in 2020 to help curb the sale of illicit drugs. Partnered with three internet registrars, the program shut down nearly 30 websites illegally selling opioids.

“Domain registrars are like the landlords of the internet,” Baney said. “They control the dot-coms and namespaces of websites. They have the ability to shut down bad tenants on those landing pages. Just like a landlord can’t keep a lease from a tenant using a house for drug trafficking, internet landlords should not be making money from criminals.”

As the bill is written, a trusted notifier like a state or federal agency or a chosen nonprofit organization would issue a warning letter to a site. The registrar would be notified and would have seven days to suspend the site.

Opponents of the DRUGS Act, however, fear it casts too wide a net and would cut off American customers from their medications.

Backed by the British Columbia government, Tim Smith, general manager of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association said his organization has a 20-year track record of providing patients with safe prescriptions and is worried the new legislation would strip approximately 2.3 million Americans of access to affordable prescriptions.

“There is a lot of room within the bill as it exists right now for subjectivity,” Smith said. “Let’s address opioids. Let’s address fentanyl. Let’s address falsified and substandard medications. If that’s what this bill intends to do then the way it is drafted should change. But in my reading of it, the words opioid or fentanyl don’t appear once.”

Jay Baldwin is a thyroid cancer survivor from Detroit. For the rest of his life—every day—he must take Synthroid. Even with insurance, Baldwin’s out-of-pocket expenses buying his meds in the U.S. would still be more than double paying full retail in Canada.

“I have saved thousands of dollars in the past 10 years by filling my prescription at a reputable Canadian pharmacy. That’s money I need to live on,” Baldwin said. “I am concerned that the legislation will be used to shut down reputable online pharmacy websites, especially considering the special interests backing these bills and their co-sponsors.”

Once a co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has withdrawn her support. Klobuchar previously authored legislation supporting the importation of prescription pills from Canada, and the Campaign for Personal Prescription Importation argued the DRUGS Act would also target pharmacies offering legitimate prescriptions.

According to Niamh Lewis with the National Association of Board of Pharmacy, three requirements are necessary for a pharmacy to operate legally in the United States. First, the pharmacy must have a pharmacy license in the state where it operates and the state where it dispenses. It must only sell prescription drugs that have been authorized for sale by the FDA, and it requires a valid prescription.

Technically, no states have measures on the books which would license pharmacies from Canada, and the FDA hasn’t approved drugs from Canada. However, the FDA is allowed discretion in permitting personal importation of drugs when the product is clearly for personal use and doesn’t appear to present an unreasonable risk to the risk.

With malicious sites selling fake medication, Gabe Levitt founded with Dr. Tod Cooperman to inform consumers which sites are offering safe prescriptions.

“There’s a middle ground on this issue,” Levitt said. “It has to do with patient-focused guidance on how to find the safest online pharmacies and avoid dangerous websites.”

But according to Lewis, without a valid pharmacy license, it is difficult for state regulators to directly investigate claims of patient harm and for patients to know if what they are getting is safe.

“We do not walk out of our neighborhood pharmacies and wonder if our drugs are safe and effective,” Lewis said. “We also rely on our well-regulated healthcare professionals to ensure drug therapies are correct for individual patients.”

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Frustrations Flare During Hearing on PA Fireworks Law

For many Pennsylvania lawmakers, more access to fireworks is nothing to celebrate.

During a legislative hearing Wednesday on the possibility of repealing or amending Act 43, the 2017 measure that allowed Pennsylvania residents to purchase consumer-grade fireworks, state Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) had a dire warning.

When people in his North Philadelphia district hear fireworks explode they might mistake it for gunfire and begin shooting back, and the situation “turns into gunplay,” he said.

Before the new law passed, only ground-based fireworks, like sparklers, were permitted to be sold to residents, although people from neighboring states could buy aerial fireworks from shops in Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver, Butler, Lawrence), chair of the Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee and Rep. Dan Moul (R-Gettysburg), who chairs the same committee in the House, held the joint hearing. However, Vogel said no legislative action will be taken on the fireworks law until next year.

Legislators are considering whether to increase the fines to $1,000 for a first offense, $2,500 for a second offense, and $5,000 for a third offense for disregarding the law and also making violations a misdemeanor.

Because the law requires fireworks not to be set off within 150 feet of an occupied building there is nowhere that is legal for them to be used in densely populated Philadelphia, except for a park, Street said.

Calls about fireworks often come in as gunfire reports, said Scott Bohn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. It is also hard to track how many complaints about fireworks occur since those can be categorized as other things, such as noise ordinance violations. When calls come in, law enforcement officials are not necessarily going to prioritize fireworks when more serious crimes are happening at the same time, Bohn said.

Also, once police respond to the scene the person who set off the fireworks is usually gone.

State Police Sgt. Jerry Harper, supervisor of the fire marshal unit, said fireworks have been used as weapons against police during some protests, so they are also a danger to first responders.

Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jerry Delaney, president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, said the widespread use of fireworks poses a “significant public safety risk.”

“Some communities are like a war zone on July 4,” he said. And when fireworks are launched into the air, no one knows where they might land, including on rooftops and into leaf-filled gutters, he said.

This past July 4, an 8-year-old boy in West York died from injuries from discarded fireworks, and they are believed to be the cause of a Lower Merion house fire that claimed the life of volunteer firefighter Sean DeMuynck. Also, in Wilkes-Barre a family was left homeless when fireworks set their house on fire, Delaney said.

Representatives of the associations representing townships and boroughs said that dealing with fireworks is “an unfunded mandate.” However, there seemed to be general agreement that local municipal officials would like to be able to set their own rules instead of adhering to overly broad state law.

State Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks), minority chair, said the fireworks law costs Reading $28,000 in overtime. When fireworks are confiscated there is also a cost to dispose of them.

Daniel Peart, director of government affairs for Phantom Fireworks, said his company makes sure retailers tell customers the rules and directions for fireworks use. There are signs on every aisle and pamphlets are given out with purchases.

He suggested local municipalities should also have a role in educating their residents about what is legal.

Asked about limiting fireworks to 500 feet of an occupied structure, rather than the current 150 feet, Peart said, “You’re essentially banning fireworks.”

“We want to continue to expand and operate legally,” Peart said. Questioned about how much sales have increased since the law was changed, Peart would not give a direct answer but did admit there was “a notable increase in business.”

Asked to comment, Berwyn Fire Company Chief Eamon Brazunas agreed education is the key to preventing fireworks tragedies and added he would like to see warnings on television. For example, people do not realize how hot fireworks can get and that they cannot be immediately discarded in the regular trash. They don’t realize they should not be setting fireworks off on dry and windy days, when the risk of brushfires is high.

“We’ve had a couple of fire calls (from fireworks) locally,” Brazunas said. People don’t realize there is a rule to stay 150 feet from structures, which can be any building, even a shed, he said.

Also, there is the noise factor, which is a problem in the denser areas like Radnor and Easttown Township, compared to more rural parts of Chester County.

People complain that the police aren’t doing enough but “what do you want them to do, crawl under fences?” he asked. And now, neighbors complain on social media instead of just talking to each other about the fireworks noise issue, he said.

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