Drug dealers that sell prescription steroids, opioids and other “Schedule 8” controlled drugs, are exploiting the lack of consistency in legitimate Australian prescription documents, according to a Queensland Health investigator.
“One of the things that we’ve seen is a fairly significant and increasing escalation in prescription theft and fraud and one of the things we have identified is that identity theft is a big, big part of it,” Rebecca Thompson, Queensland Health Drugs of Dependence Unit Investigations Officer and analyst told AusCERT delegates last week in Queensland.
Older methods that take advantage of the absence of real-time prescription reporting in Australia include ‘doctor shopping’ (for multiple prescriptions) or ‘fossil farming’ where an elderly family member is co-opted to acquire the prescription.
However, Thompson says blank prescription paper theft and forged prescriptions are also on the rise, with the latter spurred on by improved printing, and easier access to information on the web that help fraudsters format a prescription correctly.
“What we’re now seeing is huge amounts of the A4 paper that your doctor runs through your printer to print out a script -- that stuff’s extremely valuable on the illegal market. It’s paper without a script written on it, but it is still a valuable commodity.”
Would-be dealers of anything from injectable steroids, which are not controlled, to highly controlled substances like “Hillbilly heroin”, the opioid Oxycodone, are also testing the waters with higher quality forged documents.
While forged prescriptions often contain tell-tale signs, such as a misplaced logo, incorrect formatting or spelling errors, the wide variety of legitimate prescription documents has made it near impossible even for Medicare Australia staff to identify real from fake documents, she said.
“There isn’t consistency between that legitimate paper,” said Thompson, when asked by a delegate about the quality of paper used for real prescriptions.
“The colour can vary, the font can vary.”
“Unfortunately that has made it quite difficult to the point where I have had to take a couple of hundred samples, each one completely different‚ to Medicare Australia, lay them on the table and say, ‘Could you please tell me if any of these are forged?’.
“To have someone say to me, ‘Uh, they all look fraudulent to me’, kind of left everybody in the room a little bit speechless.”
Thompson highlighted two recent scams that exploited weaknesses in prescription reporting between pharmacies and prescribers.
In 2010, a person or group faxed a batch of prescriptions to several pharmacies in one area. The drugs would be picked up before the mandatory 24 hour period doctors have to submit the original prescription.
In January 2011, Thompson, suggesting an evolution in health fraud, said another large scale attempt employed fake prescriptions for non-controlled injectable steroids that contained roughly accurate printed back and front sides.
“These people were testing a product,” she said, noting that they would wait outside the pharmacy close to a vehicle.
“The people that were doing it obviously wanted to see how the pharmacists engaged with those forged prescriptions.”
While the fraudsters used a lower weight paper than real prescription paper, anyone intending on printing fake prescriptions could do it easily enough by searching Google.
“‘Australian prescription’, that’s all you need and you will get a nice little image that shows you how to write it, how to format it, and even gives you a pretty good idea how to set it out if you’re going to have a crack at it.”