The consequences of drug counterfeiting are far-reaching and worldwide. Illicit medications in the supply chain can harm consumers or cause deaths in a worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, the problem is persistent because counterfeiters have many avenues to ply their criminal trade online.


But pharmaceutical brands can protect products with the right ecosystem of anti-counterfeit safeguards. The challenge is determining which risk factors warrant an advanced technological solution as counterfeit medications remain in circulation online. Manufacturers and distributors have a part to play in securing the global supply chain, but applying the optimal solution requires a thorough understanding of the risks of drug counterfeiting. Indeed, it’s a problem worldwide, and here’s why.


Why do people make counterfeit drugs?

Drug counterfeiting is more lucrative than narcotics trafficking It may be a concern to learn that counterfeiters profit more than narcotics traffickers, yet statistics by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggest it’s plausible. Counterfeit products, such as counterfeit drugs, can be more lucrative for organized criminals than trafficking narcotics, weapons, or people. Sometimes the frauds intertwine where dealers add illegal substances to medications to mimic the active ingredients. Ultimately, the consumers are unaware of the danger before it’s too late since they believe the medicines they’re receiving via pharmacies are safe. In total, it’s estimated that the black market for counterfeiting exceeds $250 billion, according to the UNODC.


Furthermore, the penalties and laws against producing and distributing counterfeit pharmaceuticals differ widely from state to state, although drug dealing statutes are typically more strict. A conviction for counterfeiting products can lead to a 10-year prison sentence while distributing narcotics can lead to longer sentencing of several decades. Complicating the issue further, the legal landscape varies worldwide – and counterfeiters exploit the inconsistency.


Not only that, but drug counterfeiting also has a larger market than narcotics as more people use medications than illegal drugs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently identified 9.5 million counterfeit medicines from April 2020 to April 2021. That figure alone was double the previous two years. Today, drug counterfeiting is a multi-billion dollar market and will likely remain until pharmaceutical brands bolster security because lives hang in the balance.


Why are counterfeit drugs a problem?

Drug counterfeiting is killing people. The size and scope of the crime are only part of the issue. The high prices for life-saving medications increase the risk that people will settle for questionable websites promising cheaper, more affordable alternatives. Also, if the remedy is a controlled substance like opioid drugs, consumers require a prescription, so buying cheap pharmaceuticals via the internet circumvents the restriction.


Additionally, not all drugs are available in all countries. Online consumers purchase medicines where they are available when people can’t find the drugs locally. They risk their health to save money on medicine they can’t afford on their own. The unfortunate outcome is that some people will die as a result of trusting internet pharmacies, which have no oversight whatsoever.


Statistics on black markets are always hard to come by, but in 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that approximately 144,000 people died from consuming fake pharmaceuticals. The good news is that brands can combat counterfeit medicines and other pharmaceutical products.


How can brands combat drug counterfeiting?

The first lines of defense start at the manufacturing and distributing levels when importing pharmaceuticals, but law enforcement also plays a significant role. The U.S. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works actively to stop illicit websites peddling potentially dangerous fraudulent medicines. Still, there are thousands of websites offering counterfeit medicines.


As a safeguard, doctors recommend that their patients only acquire medicine through authorized pharmacies to ensure safety. Most consumers choose to fill a prescription at trusted pharmacies, yet some choose to find alternatives online at a lower price, dramatically increasing health risks. All parties have a stake in protecting consumers, and manufacturers apply anti-counterfeit technologies to packaging or on products, verifiable via a smartphone app. Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical industry and other associations created global initiatives to strengthen protections, such as Pharmaledger and the WCO Initiative.



This platform allows companies to utilize blockchain technology to create an ever-lasting “ledger” of data and foster an ecosystem of solutions. The project’s goals are far-reaching, but Pharmaledger aims to develop a scalable blockchain-based platform that ensures more data privacy without sacrificing security. The system will make validating drugs and other products in the supply chain easier while also evoking a compliance framework. As of this writing, the platform will launch in December 2022.


WCO Initiative

Likewise, the World Customs Organization also launched an initiative in 2021 to thwart drug counterfeiting, particularly illicit vaccines, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project aims to strengthen customs control to ensure that criminals don’t exploit public health and safety concerns for their own ends. Using technology, this type of coordinated, cross-border customs control will lower the likelihood of fake COVID-19 medications and vaccines entering the supply chain.


What kind of technologies can thwart drug counterfeiting?

Pharmaceutical brands can combat drug counterfeiting, but some protections are outdated. For instance, overt technologies like holograms make it easier to replicate the safeguard. It’s easier for the consumer to verify a medication at a glance, yet a sophisticated fraudster can copy overt anti-counterfeit measures.


On the other hand, covert technologies make it more difficult to counterfeit items, if not impossible. The benefit of covert defenses is that the protection isn’t easily detectable. But even some covert securities are vulnerable as counterfeiters actively and persistently try to outwit consumers, law enforcement, and international distributors.


As such, brands would do well to implement an anti-counterfeit system that’s never been successfully copied like AlpVision technologies. Our solutions are compatible with both Pharmaledger and the WCO initiative, which adds value to implementation. Con artists don’t have access to the underlying technology, and thus, it’s significantly more challenging for them to detect covert measures and even more difficult to make facsimiles.


AlpVision Fingerprint – Physical Products Protection

AlpVision Fingerprint is our state-of-the-art anti-counterfeit system, which can identify counterfeited medicine at the product level. The technology works by pinpointing the intrinsic microscopic defects in the plastic part molds, which in this case would be a medicine bottle or the packaging. The software uses reference images of the defects to determine if the item is genuine. The product is authentic if the same markings and imperfections are present.

The random processes used to create plastic molds like electro-erosion are extraordinarily challenging to mimic with any semblance of accuracy, thus giving brands a clear advantage over counterfeiters. AlpVision Fingerprint is a powerful solution, but we can also implement our packaging and label protection software Cryptoglyph.


Cryptoglyph – Packaging and Label Protection

Cryptoglyph excels at securing packaging and labeling with digital verification. The technology works by punching thousands of microscopic holes in the package’s varnish layer, or it can be applied to certificates of authenticity. Criminals simply don’t have access to the underlying technology because it’s a state-of-the-art system. The solution works with a smartphone app for fast scanning and packaging verification, including packaging with reflective surfaces.


Cryptoglyph is a powerful solution that counterfeiters won’t anticipate, but you can enable a more robust ecosystem of protections if you combine protections. The question is: which AlpVision systems would work best for your organization?


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