Criminal gangs have infiltrated postal delivery services across the country to intercept secretly marked packages of drugs to divert into the £200m-a-year market in bootlegged medicines, according to officials.
Millions of pounds of knock-off pills have been seized in raids on black-market dispensaries that revealed the role of corrupt postal workers in hoarding imported drugs for criminal wholesalers, according to investigators.
Subcontracted drivers working for Parcelforce – the parcel delivery arm of the Royal Mail – are under investigation after delivery vans were suspected to have stopped outside addresses without dropping off packages, said officials at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The drivers are understood to have identified packages as carrying illicit drugs from their distinctive packaging – or because they were addressed to recognised false names.
Signatures from the “recipients” are forged. The packages are then passed on to middlemen conducting increasingly sophisticated warehouse operations to send the drugs – such as abortion kits, Viagra-style tablets and hair-loss treatments – to European and North American buyers. Six people have been arrested as part of the investigation.
Evidence of the postal staff’s role was revealed by a separate Home Office immigration operation which led to the detention of six suspects found living in a room packed from floor to ceiling with illicit medicines.
Emails on laptops seized at the property revealed that the six – who have been deported to India for overstaying their visas – were in regular contact with the delivery workers.
“We’re seizing loads of this stuff coming through,” said Danny Lee-Frost, the head of enforcement operations for the MHRA. “What we have seen is parcels sent to a cluster of addresses – there might be six or seven in the same street receiving a big box containing medicines on the same day.
“They [the people at the addresses] know nothing about it, but there will be someone lurking in the street who has tracked that parcel, would approach the delivery man and say ‘these are for us – here’s a fiver a parcel’ and that will be an ongoing arrangement.”
The MHRA said that postal workers had also been contacted by criminals and briefed on parcels to look out for. “When the delivery man goes to the depot to collect, they will have a list of names and addresses,” he said. If the addresses match for packages from India they will “put it to one side and then meet their contact in a pub car park and hand it over and get paid”.
Mr Lee-Frost said that in some cases, criminals approached and corrupted existing delivery workers. But in others cases, accomplices of the drug sellers set themselves up as “legitimate” couriers to run parcel delivery services, which were then used to smuggle drugs.
Parcelforce said that it uses couriers to run delivery operations but only in “exceptional” circumstances.
“It’s quite a complicated area… it is an illegal postal service operating within the postal service. We’ve seen that all across the country,” said Mr Lee-Frost. “It’s not solely related to medicines, but to anything you can order.”
The authorities are currently grappling with the issue of contraband slipping into the country through postal hubs, where tens of thousands of parcels are handled every day. One criminal was jailed for life earlier this year after using his mobile phone from inside prison to import sub-machine guns into Britain using Parcelforce. There was no suggestion of wrong-doing by Parcelforce staff in that case.
Britain has emerged as a key shipment centre for the multi-million pound industry in illicit pharmaceuticals sold through websites because of the country’s reputation as a highly regulated centre for legitimate drug sales.
The trade is driven through spam email. More than half of spam emails now relate to the sale of illicit medicines, according to a report released earlier this year by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).
The volume of the trade was highlighted by one case which saw a small Post Office employ a dedicated member of staff solely to deal with the sacks of product brought in every week by a Latvian gang.
The illicit drugs represent the shadowy, unregulated sector of the market for generics – medicines that can be sold at a 10th of the original cost after branded products lose their patent protection.
India is the source for 80 per cent of the generics used by the NHS, according to the industry, and the non-branded medicines help save £11bn of taxpayers money a year. The generics used by the NHS are produced under licensed conditions and overseen by UK regulators to ensure their quality. But other factories – licensed by India but not inspected by UK officials – are producing huge amounts of the drugs which are being marketed without any health checks.
The trade is popular for criminals as the drugs are relatively easy to smuggle into the country in small packages and cracking down on the traffic is a relatively low priority for law enforcement, said Calum Jeffray, one of the authors of the Rusi report.
“The money that is made can be just as substantial as Class A drugs but the sanctions if they are intercepted are very much lower,” he said. “We see it as being more in line with cigarette smuggling.
“We have seen this move from some organised crime groups away from trafficking high-risk drugs into low-risk things like illicit pharmaceuticals and cigarettes.”
The MHRA worked with the credit companies, and closed down a record 1,891 websites linked to illicit pharma sales during an enforcement campaign last year. The action has meant that online operations have now shifted offshore and to other countries where enforcement is difficult, such as China and Russia.
Officials say that the British end of the trade is largely a warehouse operation where the drugs are imported and sold on across Europe on behalf of Indian businessmen who arrange the deals. While the drugs are illegal in Britain, they are not in the country of manufacture, ensuring that there is little international cooperation on combating the trade.
A Royal Mail Group spokesperson said: “We take the security of mail, our employees and our customers very seriously. We do not knowingly carry any illegal items in our network.
“Where Parcelforce Worldwide has any suspicion that illegal items are being sent through our system, we work closely with the police and other authorities to assist their investigations and to prevent such activities from happening.
“We only use couriers in exceptional circumstances and the contracts we have require all such people that we contract with to be fully vetted to the same levels as our own staff.
“Uniquely among postal operators, Royal Mail is also recognised as a non-police law enforcement agency and private prosecutor and, where preventative or deterrent measures do not suffice, we investigate crime against our postal services committed by both employees and members of the public and prosecute to conviction.”
Case files: Medicine smugglers
Amin was jailed for 16 months in August after being convicted of running an illegal pharmacy from a storage unit in Essex.
Investigators seized more than 260,000 tablets for hair loss, acne and sexual problems that he had imported to a series of storage units. Amin then repackaged them and sent them out in small packages, some described as “sweets” to try to fool customs officials.
Amin, 57, had history as an illegal peddler of prescription drugs. He was jailed in 1995 after flooding Scotland with nearly four million capsules of temazepam, a prescription drug commonly abused by addicts.
He was subjected to a financial investigation after it was strongly believed that he had hidden assets and had tried to pass £40m in Swiss francs through a Jersey bank account. Then, as now, investigators have found little evidence of great wealth in Britain.
Ben Douglas-Jones, for the prosecution, said: “His operation was highly sophisticated and comprised one of the largest underground pharmacies which have been exposed by MHRA investigators.
“A conservative estimate of the street value of the medicines recovered – the tip of the iceberg in terms of the true number of tablets imported and supplied by the defendant – has been calculated to be almost £800,000.”
Hickman is currently serving 10 years in prison for failing to pay a £14m confiscation order following the destruction of his impotence pill empire.
He owned luxury flats, a substantial property in Marbella and a string of cars on the back of his illegal activity and used the profits to set up an online gambling site based in Malta.
He fled to Spain after failing to pay the majority of a £14m confiscation order. He was held on a European Arrest Warrant after he was questioned by police in Spain over a domestic dispute and returned to Britain to serve his sentence.