Prescription sleuth deciphers fraud

December 10, 1992|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

When it comes to spotting inconsistencies in the loops an curves of doctors' signatures, and other telltale signs of prescription fraud in the county, Howard County Detective David J. Trapani is the man.

Since August 1990, the detective has acted as the county's first and only full-time pharmaceutical fraud investigator.

The one-man pharmaceutical diversion unit has so far netted 165 arrests and a conviction rate near 100 percent, Detective Trapani said. Almost half of the arrests were made in the first 10 months of this year. "We're pretty successful," he said.

Before the unit was established, Detective Trapani said the county had investigated only 12 cases of prescription fraud in the county, possibly because the crime was being mislabeled.

"The crime went through the cracks," said the detective's supervisor, Lt. Jeffrey Spaulding, commander of vice and narcotics. "We are certainly much better now than two years ago in addressing the problem."

The lieutenant said one important factor to the unit's success is Detective Trapani's rapport with pharmacists.

The detective visits the county's 30-odd pharmacies often and talks to pharmacists about the crime, providing them with tips on suspicious activity.

He advises them to scrutinize signatures, and he distributes mug shots of suspects.

Prescription fraud occurs when people steal physician prescription forms and forge a doctor's name to get drugs from pharmacies.

The forms sell for between $3 and $5 on the street. If blank forms are purchased, culprits can go to "writers" who charge $5 per forged prescription, Detective Trapani said.

Usually the forger goes to a pharmacy after 5 p.m. when doctors' offices are closed, so pharmacists cannot verify the prescriptions, Detective Trapani said. And they often travel with look-outs, so they can be alerted of police.

It is a lucrative crime for those who sell the drugs on the street.

"We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," the 31-year-old detective said. "Maybe, millions of dollars."

The popular drug Percocet, for example, sells for $7 per pill on the street. The stimulant Xanax sells for $4 each.

Many of the culprits are drug addicts or health care workers tempted by the proximity of the drugs, he said.

The forgers operating in Howard County come mainly from Baltimore and try to pass the forged prescriptions at numerous county pharmacies, he said.

In Maryland, the crime is a misdemeanor, but Detective Trapani said he thinks it should be a felony as it is in other states along the East Coast.

The county's arrests and the number of cases being investigated -- 181 so far this year -- are on par with larger units in other counties, Detective Trapani said.

Although he is the only officer assigned strictly to prescription fraud, he sometimes gets help from county narcotics detectives or officers from other jurisdictions.

The unit was established after receiving a $48,514 state grant in July 1990. The grant was extended to 1991, but it expired in July 1992. The county is now picking up the tab.

One pharmacist, Allen Karpe, director of pharmacy for the Valu Food chain, said Detective Trapani is quick about responding to his calls and pages. He said Detective Trapani comes, and, "Wham, bam. He locks them up."

Mr. Karpe said the tips have definitely made a difference at Valu Food pharmacies. "No doubt about it."

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