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'Pharma hack' preys on small nonprofits to peddle Viagra online

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Hackers look for vulnerable websites ending in .org to hijack and turn into online pharmacies to sell Viagra, Cialis and other drugs. Several Pittsburgh nonprofits and organizations have been victims of the hack.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Hackers look for vulnerable websites ending in .org to hijack and turn into online pharmacies to sell Viagra, Cialis and other drugs. Several Pittsburgh nonprofits and organizations have been victims of the hack.

The top places to buy Viagra online in Pittsburgh might surprise you.

Among the first Google search results recently for “Viagra for sale Pittsburgh” was the Brightwood Civic Group, a community organization for the North Side neighborhood that apparently offers prescription drugs from Canada, according to its search result listing.

The civic group's website was hacked, and the organization didn't know it until contacted by a Tribune-Review reporter.

“That's crazy,” community organizer Nancy Noszka said. “How do they do that?”

The “pharma hack,” as it is known, has plagued websites for years. Websites including public libraries, churches, retirement homes and Pittsburgh's City Theatre Company have been hacked. Pittsburgh-area IT consultants who work with nonprofits in the region said they have noticed several organizations fall victim to the hack.

Hackers get access to a website through a backdoor and hijack the website to transform it into an online pharmacy. They sometimes build separate webpages within the site to host the pharmacy page or slip in linked keywords such as “Viagra,” “Cialis” and other drugs into the text of a website.

WordPress sites are particularly vulnerable because of their open-source nature and widespread use. A search of “pharma hack” in WordPress' support forums turned up more than 130 results. There were more than 250 results for “Viagra” in the forum. WordPress did not respond to an email sent to its security account.

Hackers often gain access to a WordPress site through an out-of-date plugin, cybersecurity experts told the Trib. Victims often don't realize they've been hacked.

Cleanup is laborious, often involving deleting single lines of code throughout a website's infrastructure, and expensive. A hacked site can damage a company's reputation and hurt its standing in the eyes of Google and other search engines.

Hackers do this to elevate an online pharmacy in the Google search results. Nonprofit and organization websites that end in .org are often targets. Sites ending in .org are highly ranked by Google, and implanting an online pharmacy on one can earn it a prominent spot in search results.

“They're sort of leeching off your good name,” said Andrew Garberson, the search department manager at LunaMetrics, a South Side search marketing firm that works with nonprofits.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

City Theatre learned its website was hacked in the spring when Google sent the organization's webmaster an email saying the search giant found “unusual” content, said Laura Greenawalt, City Theatre's marketing director. Someone had inserted linked keywords throughout the organization's website.

The theater company removed the malicious content, deleted unneeded plugins, updated all remaining plugins, strengthened security, hired an outside firm to help manage the site and asked Google to remove any other URLs missed during their cleanup.

“It is incredibly frustrating,” Greenawalt wrote to the Tribune-Review in an email. “We don't fear that our artistic or public reputation was at risk as we addressed the matter immediately and did a full diagnostic review and repair; however, we did want to make sure that people felt comfortable using our site to learn more about City Theatre.”

City Theatre's WordPress site is purely informational. Purchases, donations and data collection occurs through a separate site, Greenawalt said. City Theatre is confident its website is secure and functioning correctly, she said.

Protecting websites can be a burden for some nonprofits, whose typically small staffs have many other tasks to handle, Garberson said.

Cindy Leonard, a consulting team leader at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University who manages the consulting and technology programs, said nonprofits have a hard time budgeting money for website development and ongoing maintenance. Sites often are developed internally or by a well-intentioned volunteer.

“And not to ever discount the goodness of volunteers helping, but if their intention is to set up a good website but not secure it properly, it could cause more problems down the road,” Leonard said.

Leonard offered tips for protecting your WordPress website:

• Remove the default user named “admin” and create complex usernames and passwords;

• Hackers love to get into WordPress sites through out-of-date core files and plugins, so keep software updated and use something like Easy Updates Manager to stay on top of it;

• Install a strong security plugin and keep it updated.

Leonard uses WordFence. Anytime there is a hacking attempt on any site she manages, the plugin blocks it and sends Leonard an email. She then goes in and manually blocks the IP address where the attempt originated.

Noszka said she has reached out to the person who designed and manages Brightwood Civic Group's website. The organization is small — just Noszka and few other volunteers — and she hopes they can find help cleaning up the site.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or 412-336-8448.

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