Addicts and their suppliers get their opioids many ways — overprescribing by health care providers, theft and wholesale illegal trafficking are most common.
But as a recently unsealed federal indictment reveals, thousands of Americans get those drugs and others by simply ordering them via illegal online pharmacies.
Five Argentine men who prosecutors say used Americans to set up websites, do online marketing and launder millions of dollars in illegal profits from the sale of drugs from Romania and India now face charges in Milwaukee.
Scott Simons is a Greenfield police officer and member of a local Drug Enforcement Administration task force focused on pharmaceutical diversions. His sworn affidavit in support of a search warrant for emails lays out much of how the case unfolded but does not specify why or how local authorities came to lead the investigation and prosecution.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger declined to discuss the pending case.
According to court records, GOLDPHARMA24.com, 24hsmeds.com and several other sites connected to the Argentines’ operation sold oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, tapentadol, alprazolam, amphetamine, diazepam (Valium), methylphenidate, tramadol, carisoprodol (Soma) and zolpidem without prescriptions to buyers throughout the U.S.
As part of a DEA investigation started in February 2015, agents made undercover orders of their own and would get the drugs, usually accompanied with a fake prescription in the agent’s name signed by “Dr. Ladislav Smercek.”
Agents also examined thousands of email and phone records that revealed the complex web of companies, websites, internet service providers and individuals who ran the operation headed by “Biff Tannen” and his affiliate group.
Tannen turned out to be an alias for Luciano Brunetti, one of the five Argentines named in the indictment and the only who remained at large as of last week.
Along the way, agents gained cooperation from a Maryland man, Anthony Hardy, who said he’d been involved in internet pharmacies since about 2000, registering thousands of domain names and creating websites for sellers. Hardy said he never played any role in taking orders or shipping drugs, but earned a commission based on the volume of sales through sites he created for the Biff Affiliate Group
Brunetti and his crew used a Chicago-area firm called 7Search to promote their sites and generate traffic, according to court records. 7Search shut down in 2017, in the middle of the GOLDPHARMA24 investigation, according to internet traffic industry reports.
Many of the profits of the operation were laundered through an Atlanta company called Global Transaction Services — until the head of that business was indicted on money laundering charges in May 2016.
It appears the new way to wash the profits was to buy Florida real estate. The indictment seeks forfeiture of 28 residential properties, mostly condominiums, from Orlando to Miami.
In one unspecified year, the records state, the Biff Affiliate Group made about $6.7 million in sales of controlled substances and pharmaceuticals to U.S. customers alone.
A confidential source not part of that group told investigators in early 2017 that he ran what appeared to be a different illegal internet pharmacy. He said that between 2012 and 2015 he wired more than $1 million to the same Romanian source of the drugs used by the Biff Tannen group.
Simons’ affidavit lists names of several sources of drugs in Romania and India, but so far, none of those people have been charged, or if they have, the charges have not been made public.
Four of the five men, ranging in age from 30 to 51, named in the indictment were arrested in Argentina last month. U.S. officials will seek to have them extradited to face charges in Milwaukee federal court.
Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.