The operator of World Express RX has been sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to forfeit the profits from what prosecutors called one of the largest Internet pharmacy schemes ever.
Mark Kolowich was sentenced by U. S. District Court Judge Jeffrey T. Miller in San Diego. Kolowich had pled guilty to conspiring to sell counterfeit pharmaceuticals, commit mail fraud, and smuggle pharmaceuticals, and conspiracy to launder money.
In a related case in Florida, Kolowich pled guilty to conspiring to import unapproved drugs into the United States, introducing such drugs in interstate commerce, and smuggling unapproved drugs into the United States.
Assistant Attorney General Peter D. Keisler said, "The Department of Justice's increasing willingness to pursue court action and criminal penalties against those who are diverting and counterfeiting prescription drugs for profit should communicate our commitment to stop those who threaten the health of the public."
United States Attorney Carol C. Lam of the Southern District of California also announced that charges have been filed in San Diego against five other individuals in a related Internet pharmacy fraud case involving MyRxForLess.com.
The simple fact is that when people use the Internet to obtain prescription drugs, they take a risk because the drugs might not be what they appear to be. Consumers need to be aware that many of the safeguards that exist for bricks-and-mortar pharmacies do not exist for Internet pharmacies," Lam said.
Kolowich operated an Internet pharmacy website at www.WorldExpressRx.com, from which customers could order prescription drugs without having a prior prescription. The website directed the customer to fill out a health questionnaire, and pay a $35 fee for a doctors consultation. The website falsely represented that a doctor would review the questionnaire and issue a lawful prescription before the drugs were shipped to the customers. However, there was no doctor employed by, or otherwise associated with, World Express RX, who reviewed the questionnaires.
"The sophisticated criminal scheme carried out by the defendants in this case reinforces why FDA strongly advises consumers against buying medicines from websites and underscores the efforts of FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations to protect American consumers from counterfeit and unsafe prescription drugs sold over the Internet," said Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting FDA Commissioner.
The distributed pharmaceuticals included tablets and capsules containing the active ingredients for Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, Propecia, Celebrex, and Xenical, which were marked by World Express RX as generic versions of those drugs.
Kolowich caused counterfeit drugs to be manufactured in Mexico, and co-conspirators smuggled the phony drugs across the border into California. The drugs were then packaged by co-conspirators and sent to customers throughout the United States and the world. Some of the ingredients for the drugs were shipped in from China and India using false shipping documents.
Kolowich also conspired with co-defendants John Aldaz, a licensed pharmacist in the United States, and a physician in Mexico, and Gustavo Garcia-Uriza to smuggle unapproved Viagra from Mexico into the United States. Kolowich had planned to manufacture unapproved versions of Cialis and Viagra with Aldaz and Garcia in Mexico prior to his arrest. Garcia turned the pill press dies for these drugs over to the Government at the time of his sentencing.
Co-defendant Chris Reed in San Diego handled the credit card processing for World Express RX. He was a partner with Kolowich in World Express Processing. Kolowich and Reed offered their services, for a fee, to other Internet pharmacies which were unable to get traditional banks to handle their processing.
World Express Processing received about $1 million per month from credit card charges in 2003, about half of which resulted from sales from World Express RX or its affiliates.
In addition to smuggling prescription pharmaceuticals into the United States from Mexico, Kolowich also conspired to have unapproved drugs made in India and Pakistan enter the United States via the Bahamas, prosecutors said.
Kolowich conspired with Douglas Matthew Drew in Miami, Florida, and Jean Francois Blanc in the Bahamas to import the counterfeit Viagra, in the case that originated in the Southern District of Florida. As a result, counterfeit drugs were shipped from India to Blanc in the Bahamas. Blanc then shipped the drugs to World Express RX customers in the United States.
More than 900 of these packages were intercepted in Miami in September 2003. The government seized approximately 1.6 million pills in Florida, valued at approximately $9.8 million. Blanc pled guilty to charges in the Southern District of Florida for his role in the scheme, while Drew pled guilty to unrelated charges.