How a Con Man Helped Expose Google's Love Affair with Illegal Drug Ads

Pulkit Chandna

Google last year agreed to part with $500 million to settle a U.S. Department of Justice probe into allegations that it connived at online ads from rogue pharmacies. While the search engine giant expressed regret for allowing these ads, it excused itself from further commenting on the issue, absurdly enough, due to the “extensive coverage this settlement has already received.” With no more details forthcoming, it seemed like the end of the whole episode. But the Walls Street Journal has now published a new report, detailing a 2009 sting operation that helped expose Google’s collusion with rogue online pharmacies.

The report is based on the account of convicted con man David Whitaker, who played a key role in the sting. The story goes that Whitaker was arrested in 2008 in Mexico for entering that country illegally and extradited to the States, which he had fled a couple of years back to escape legal action in a fraud case. During his time in Mexico, he ran an internet pharmacy that illegally sold prescription drugs to U.S. citizens.

Upon being repatriated, Whitaker revealed to the U.S. authorities how Google seemed to have absolutely no problem with him advertising prescription drugs to U.S. consumers through AdWords. This was despite the fact that such ads are contrary to both U.S. law and Google’s own advertising policy. Whitaker’s allegations piqued the curiosity of federal prosecutors to a point where they decided to set up a sting with the con artist's help.

"It was very obvious to Google that my website was not a licensed pharmacy," Whitaker told the Journal. "Understanding this, Google provided me with a very generous credit line and allowed me to set my target advertising directly to American consumers."

Whitaker assumed a new identity under the name Jason Corriente and federal agents set up fake websites specially for the sting operation. These websites, in the words of Whitaker, were deliberately made to look “as if a Mexican drug lord had built a website to sell HGH and steroids.” There was one problem, though. Google rejected the sites citing its advertising policy vis-à-vis online pharmacies.

But as it later turned out, Google wasn’t actually too keen on enforcing these rules. In fact, it seemed to have no problems with helping shady pharmacies circumvent them. For instance, the company’s executives advised Whitaker (aka Jason Corriente), who was posing as an agent for a bunch of wealthy advertisers, to replace the “buy it now” option on one of the sites with a request form in order for it to be eligible for AdWords. However, they weren’t always that cautious. In one instance, these Google ad executives allowed an ad for one of the site’s to carry the words "no prescription needed.”

The whole operation cost $200,000, a paltry sum when you consider the fact that Google ended up forfeiting as much as $500 million.

Around the web