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Speakers Corner: Exposing the underground world of prescription fraud

Speakers Corner is back! CityNews wants to hear from you. We’ve been asking you to send us interesting stories, videos or questions you want answered. The Queen Street booth maybe a thing of the past, but we’re still listening and want to hear what’s on your mind.

This week, a recovering drug addict who was once part of an illegal prescription drug ring is speaking out about the problem, which we’ve learned is only getting worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s pretty much thirty minutes of someone’s day to get all of these narcotics,” said the man who did not want to be identified, concerned about the backlash he might receive from those who are still taking part in the fraud.

He says he’s exposing this so others don’t get addicted like he did.

“I just want to be able to put it out there publicly to warn people,” he said.

He told us blank prescription templates, that look like the real thing, are being sold online for anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500.

Once someone has the template, they can fill out the prescription in a way to make them look legitimate.

“It’s pretty much 10 minutes to fill out the template. They put their name, or someone else’s and whatever drug they want. They then either fax it in or go in and it gets filled.”

The prescriptions also include a doctor’s name chosen at random.

“I don’t want to give out the website but there’s a whole thing that people go onto, they search a random last name for a doctor who can be put on for a heavy narcotic drug.”

That means many doctors are being targeted but have no idea their name is being used.

“I think physicians would probably be quite disheartened to know that their name, their license, their sense of professional identity is being used fraudulently in any way,” said Vinita Arora, a pharmacist and associate professor at the Leslie L. Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto.

PROBLEM GETTING WORSE DURING COVID

Arora says pharmacists are very well trained to sniff out and detect fraudulent prescriptions but some of these fraudsters are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to get their hands on certain drugs.

One of the hot ticket items is cough syrup containing Hydrocodone, a powerful opioid that could become addictive if used incorrectly. It’s also a medicine that might be prescribed to someone with COVID-19 to help alleviate symptoms.

“People can prescribe that medicine along with an antibiotic, so it appears legitimate,” Arora said.

Pharmacists have also seen their workloads increased during the pandemic. On top of filling hundreds of prescriptions in a day, they’re also fielding calls from people with questions about COVID-19 testing and vaccines.

Arora says pharmacists who are suspicious can use tactics to try and investigate a prescription that might need more scrutiny.

“Using a delay tactic, sometimes you say you may not have enough inventory or sometimes you want to tell the client who’s there in front of you that you need to verify the order before proceeding or if you are busy, you can tell patients to come back a little bit later to pick up their prescription while you investigate.”

FRAUDSTERS BOASTING ABOUT SUCCESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA

While the process for getting ahold of the prescription templates is mainly underground, people who get the narcotics by using this system are celebrating their success online.

CityNews was able to find photos of hydrocodone cough syrup on social media.

“That’s the way they market these drugs,” the man who spoke to CityNews said. “They always post and show the date and say ‘oh ya we just scored this.’ ”

He said many people behind this are snatching up these drugs not only for themselves but also selling them on the street.

“Most of their customers are teenagers,” said the man.

LARGER CONVERSATION MAYBE NEEDED TO CUT DOWN ON PROBLEM

CityNews reached out to The Ontario College of Pharmacists about the drug fraud.

“The College continues to remind registrants to use their due diligence and remain alert for fraudulent prescriptions.  As always, pharmacy professionals are expected to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the validity of prescriptions and use their professional judgment in determining whether to seek additional information from the prescriber and/or patient prior to dispensing,” said a spokesperson for the College.

But many argue a bigger conversation is needed to try and find better ways to cut down on the problem.

“I think there’s quite an opportunity to bring the health care professionals together with the Ontario government and make use of a lot of information that we already have,” Arora said. “There’s a lot of information that can be collated and pooled and shared in a confidential manner so that we’re able to detect patterns to make some real changes here.”

“I think different stakeholder groups have these conversations. To my knowledge, we haven’t yet to come together at a larger table.”

NOT ALL FRAUDULENT PRESCRIPTIONS GET FILLED

The man who spoke to CityNews said he had a lot of success in getting ahold of narcotics while he was doing this, but the system does work in some cases. In fact, he was arrested and charged for prescription fraud several months ago.

“I am going through the court right not so I cannot say a lot,” he told us.

Now in recovery, he’s hoping his voice sheds light on the problem.

“These people are pretty much coming in and duping people. They’re tricking the person into thinking it’s a real document — a real prescription anyone would have. It’s very sad.”

The Ontario College of Pharmacists has a helpful link for those working in the industry which can be found here.

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