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Officials worldwide hunt down fake drugs

NEW YORK — In highly orchestrated raids around the world this week, Interpol officers in Europe, drug agents in the United States and task forces from Sweden to Singapore hunted down counterfeit prescription drugs to stem a rapidly growing criminal business preying on financially pressed consumers looking for bargains.

The operation, code-named Pangea, is an effort to fight back against fraudulent businesses, which have become a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States alone.

The national crackdown uncovered nearly 800 alleged packages of fake or suspicious prescription drugs including Viagra, Vicodin and Claritin, and shut down 68 alleged rogue online pharmacies. Some counterfeit drugs may have as much as three times more of an active ingredient than is typically prescribed; others may be placebos. Drywall material, antifreeze and yellow highway paint have been found in counterfeit pills.

Counterfeit drugs are the latest — and potentially most dangerous — front in the long-running battle against intellectual-property crimes. Law enforcement officials said consumers typically think of counterfeited products as fake Louis Vuitton purses or Nike sneakers. Although shoes are the most common phony product, accounting for 38 percent, or $102 million, of counterfeit products seized by customs officials last year, pharmaceuticals are one of the fastest-growing categories.

In 2007, they made up about 6 percent of total seizures. Last year, they accounted for 10 percent to become the third-largest category. Federal officials say that trend is particularly disturbing because of the health dangers that such drugs present.

"The public safety part of intellectual property has really taken off in the last couple years and become the moving force," said John Morton, an assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which led the Pangea operation. "This is a huge problem."

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