Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab
The Optimax Scam: An intricate web of international health product fraud

The Optimax Scam: An intricate web of international health product fraud

Minhaj Aman

Research-Lead, Dismislab

The scenario is as follows: advertisements are strategically placed across social media platforms to promote a supposed miracle drug or health product. Various web pages spring up, luring in curious users. Clicking on these ads, or merely expressing an interest in purchasing the product through messages or comments, directs users to a cleverly disguised website. This site, seemingly of a reputable media outlet, features an interview with a specialist, scientist, or doctor who extols the virtues of a particular drug, promising swift relief from a health issue. The interview ends with a convenient method to purchase the drug.

In reality, the media outlet is a sham, the interview a concoction, and the expert credentials nothing but smoke and mirrors. The images used are deceptive, and the messages are false.

Recently, such a deceitful campaign surfaced in Bangladesh. A product named Optimax was touted by replicating the webpage of the daily Prothom Alo, complete with fabricated interviews of several well-known Bangladeshi professionals. Optimax, it claimed, could miraculously cure severe eye problems in a short period. However, research by Dismislab unveiled that this is not an isolated incident but part of a global scam involving various health products.

Evidence of this elaborate campaign has been unearthed in at least 15 countries spanning Europe and Asia, including Italy, Poland, Serbia, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh. Over the past month, the campaign has gained momentum, hawking cures for eye problems, diabetes, and joint pain. Yet, none of these products are recognized medical drugs or used in standard treatment protocols. Some are mere dietary supplements, while one is a pain relief cream.

The trail of this campaign can be traced back to Russia in 2020. From there, it proliferated to Eastern Europe and the Balkans, before making its way to various Asian countries. In 2023, a factcheck report about such a campaign was published by SEE Check, a network of six organizations from five countries in South-Eastern Europe. However, the global scope of the campaign has never been as clearly depicted as it is in the findings of Dismislab.

The campaign’s problematic nature is multifaceted. It involves the counterfeit reproduction of media to spread false messages, exploits social media loopholes to disseminate deceptive information and images, and promotes health products through fake advertisements. In at least two instances, authorities of concerned countries issued warnings against the use of these health products. Furthermore, the reputational damage inflicted on the experts whose names or images are misused is profound.

The Campaign in Bangladesh

On July 3 in Bangladesh, the issue came to light when microbiologist Dr. Senjuti Saha exposed the fraudulent use of her name and image in the fake campaign and filed a general diary (GD) at the police station. Several advertisements on Facebook featured her photo, claiming that Dr. Saha had developed a novel method to restore eyesight and that her discovery, a drug named Optimax, could “help restore vision at any age in just two weeks.” These advertisements used two web page links to promote the drug. One link led to a counterfeit webpage mimicking the Daily Prothom Alo, featuring a fake interview with Dr. Saha and renowned journalist Munni Saha. The other link pointed to a ten-year-old news article from Prothom Alo. Both Rumor Scanner and Prothom Alo have published reports on this issue.

Dismislab discovered two more web pages promoting Optimax in Bangladesh. The strategy was the same: an expert is interviewed, and in response to the journalist’s questions, the expert explains how they made the discovery or why one should purchase Optimax. At the end, there is a form (or a button leading to a form) where one can enter their phone number for the sellers to contact them. In both cases, fake identities of expert doctors or scientists were used, and established media websites were counterfeited or fake media pages were created to lend credibility. The campaign in Bangladesh was primarily conducted through three web domains and subdomains: healthymedproduct.pro, l3-Optimax-bd.wowtop.shop, and vision-bd.tantanika.com.

Among these, the first domain mimicked the design of the BBC website, with “BBC News” appearing in the title when searched on Google. The second domain combined the Prothom Alo logo with “Prodhan Sangbad” title to give the appearance of a news portal, though no such portal could be found through searches. The third domain, as previously mentioned, was a counterfeit version of Prothom Alo. Interestingly, several users were found to have posted positive comments about the product’s efficacy on interviews published across these three different domains.

Users were directed to these links through Facebook pages and advertisements. YouTube video promoting Optimax were also discovered.

A global tour

Before delving deeper into the fake experts, counterfeit media, and the use of social media, let’s take a global tour of this fraudulent campaign.

According to the findings, the campaign has been conducted in at least 15 countries across Asia and Europe, using no fewer than 12 languages, including Bengali, English, Spanish, Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Bosnian-Croatian, and Turkish. The modus operandi remains identical, but different health products are sold in different regions. In each country, the campaigners have mimicked local or international media websites.

One notable example is the domain ocaps-new.com. This site markets a supplement named O-Caps, claimed to enhance vision. The domain includes 13 subdomains, each promoting the product in a different language, and some domains trigger security warnings in browsers. The Spanish subdomain, for instance, imitates BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Latin America website. From this subdomain, the product is sold in ten countries: Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey, and Kosovo.

O-Caps is also promoted in Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia with three entirely different domains, each targeting consumers in specific countries and offering the product in local currencies. In some instances, the name of the expert changes but the photo remains the same, while in others, the photo changes but the name remains the same. The interviews are identical, only translated into different languages, apparently using online translation tools.

The primary domain for the Serbian campaign is fair-2sale.com, which has over ten subdomains under various product names, although not all are accessible. Among the accessible ones, one is in Italian and another in Polish. They sell “Diastine” for diabetes in Italy and “Flexio” for joint pain in Poland.

A coalition of fact-checking organizations from Southeast Europe, SEE Check, published a report in April 2023, detailing the fake ads for O-Caps targeting Slovenia. Despite this exposure, the campaign persisted.

In Bangladesh, the primary domain promoting the health product Optimax was wowtop.shop. Under this domain, Dismislab found two separate websites, primarily in English, marketing supposed diabetes cures in the Philippines and the UAE. The products were named “Diabetin” and “Diabextan.” Both featured interviews with a Japanese doctor on an unknown media site called Medinews. Although the content and webpage design differed slightly from previous examples, the nature of the campaign was the same.

The oldest trace of this campaign was found in Russia. In August 2020, a post was published on the local social media platform VK, featuring an interview with the supposed 105-year-old Japanese educator Aretha Tanaka. 

Use of Misleading Information, False Identities, and Deceptive Images

The campaign pages introduce a so-called expert who is claimed to be the inventor of the drug. For instance, the site already identified as spreading fake campaigns in Bangladesh featured a fake interview with Dr. Senjuti Saha. It also included statements from two other doctors who praised the supposed benefits of a product called Optimax. One of them was Dr. Fatema Begum, who was falsely presented as an ophthalmologist while she is actually a cardiologist, and the details of her workplace were also incorrect.

The same trend was observed on the other two websites promoting in Bangladesh. For example, a website mimicking BBC claimed that a medical final-year student named Waqil Akhtaruzzaman had invented a drug to restore vision. A photo of this person was also included. However, verification revealed that the person in the photo was not named Vaqil or Waqil Akhtaruzzaman; his name is Masudur Rahman, and he is an associate professor at Gastro Liver Hospital, not a final-year medical student.

On multiple pages, a person’s photo, name, and statement were used, presenting him as Tomás Moya, a doctor with 35 years of experience. In another advertisement, he was introduced as  Dejan Spasić. His name appears on multiple medical-related websites (1, 2) in Ukraine as Vavryshchuk Anatoliy Semenovich. In a fake interview with microbiologist Senjuti, the doctor with 35 years of experience whose photo was used was actually the renowned professor and writer Dr. Muhammed Zafar Iqbal.

On three separate sites, the same person’s name was written as Marko Ristov, Jovan Grujić, or Adnan Hodžić. In the campaign for Bosnia, the photo of Adnan Hozic was used to represent a completely different person. The common link is that each of these individuals is a fifth-year medical student who has supposedly discovered a cure for a specific disease.

In a fake advertisement in Bangladesh, an individual was introduced as Nobel laureate Indian ophthalmologist Ananta Shikdar. Verification revealed that the photo was actually of Dr. Randeep Guleria, a professor of pulmonary and sleep medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.

The report featured another person’s photo alongside Ananta Shikdar, which was also used in the campaign in the Philippines. It was claimed that his name was Aretha Tanaka and he was a Nobel laureate scientist and hormone specialist. Verification revealed that he is actually the famous Japanese doctor and author Shigeaki Hinohara. In the UAE campaign, a different person was introduced as Aretha Tanaka.

Using the same strategy, a Polish-language campaign for a cream featured an orthopedic doctor named Maksymilian Balcerowski. Verification showed that the person in the photo is actually Dan Negrescu, a professor of classical linguistics and a teacher at a university in Romania.

At least 12 individuals have been falsely identified in this campaign. Sometimes the same person’s photo is given different names, or different people are given the same name.

Other Connecting Elements

All but one of the websites used in these campaigns mimic news portals. They feature similar menu bars as mainstream news portals. Additionally, they use the names of credible or fictional media outlets.

The names of media and news outlets used in the campaign
BangladeshProthom Alo, BBC, Pradhan Sangbad
ItalyRai News
United Arab EmirateMedlife 

The design of the campaign web pages is more or less the same. Each page ends with a description of the product and instructions on how to purchase it. The price of the product is listed in the currency of each country, and there is a form or button with a country code for ordering the product or contacting the sellers. Dismislab found that even though the products, countries, and domains differ, the contact form or button provided on the pages is identical.

Dismislab used this form to “apply” to buy Optimax with a phone number and was contacted by a seller within an hour. After placing an order over the phone, a box of Optimax was sent from an establishment named Trust Pharmacy via courier.

The bottle mentioned that the manufacturer is a company called MaxHerb Limited, and it provided two addresses: one in Germany and the other in Singapore. Both addresses are shared office spaces, meaning any person or company can rent space there by the hour, day, week, or for a specific period.

Health Products Sold in the Campaign

Eleven websites promoted a total of six different health products. In Bangladesh, the product being sold as Optimax is claimed to improve vision. Optimax is essentially a dietary supplement, not a drug.

In Europe, a product called O-Caps is being sold, also claimed to enhance vision. This too is a dietary supplement, allegedly containing beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc. In 2023, the Public Agency for Medicinal Products and Medical Devices in Slovenia labeled O-Caps, among others, as a “common online scam” and advised against purchasing it.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drugs and supplements are not the same. However, supplements may sometimes contain medicinal uses, and the FDA advises consulting a doctor before taking them.

In the Philippines, UAE, and Italy, three different products for diabetes management are being promoted: Diabetin, Diabextan, and Diastin. Philippine Food and Drug Administration formally warned its consumers against Diabextan and advised not to consume it.

The Polish-language website sells a cream named Flexio for joint pain relief. According to its Polish language campaign, Flexio contains ingredients such as root of the thunder god vine, creeping wheatgrass roots, creeping dust roots, mint, and birch oil, along with various other auxiliary elements. This so-called miracle drug claims to cure at least ten diseases that primarily affect the joints, bones, and connective tissues.

Use of social media violating rules

The promotion of these products is not limited to websites; social media is also being used. At least 17 Facebook pages for the Optimax product exist in Bangladesh, of which five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) are running ads. Meta’s advertising policy states that Ads can’t:

  • Use deceptive or exaggerated claims about the success of a product or service to mislead someone into purchasing or sharing sensitive information
  • Use the image of a public figure and misleading tactics in order to bait people into engaging with an ad.

However, in most of the 30 active Facebook ads targeting Bangladesh in the first week of June, Senjuti Saha’s photo was used, containing false information. In 2023, O-Caps was promoted using a fake photo of the Slovenian health minister.

There are several Facebook pages for Diastine (1, 2, 3), Diabetin (1, 2), and Flexio (1, 2). O-Caps (1, 2, 3) has multiple Facebook pages and ads. These pages allow users to message the sellers to purchase the products.

In the past two years, several posts about selling Optimax have appeared on Facebook in Bangladesh. Comments on these posts show that many people expressed interest in trying the product, and the pages responded by providing phone numbers for contact. Several customers posted negative comments about the product. For example, in a Facebook post on July 3, a user wrote, “Optimax is bringing bad news for the people of Bangladesh. It’s a capsule that ruins your eyesight. If you buy it, you’re being deceived. I bought it and was deceived.”