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United Parcel Service agreed to forfeit $40 million to settle a probe into its shipments on behalf of illicit online pharmacies. According to the story in the Wall Street Journal, the deal was the latest move in the U.S. government’s expanding crackdown on illegal sales of prescription painkillers. More than 16,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the agreement between UPS and the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco, the company won’t be prosecuted. The Justice Department said UPS cooperated with investigators and has already made changes “to ensure that illegal Internet pharmacies can no longer use its services to ship drugs.” UPS spokesman Bill Tanner said: “We believe we have an obligation and responsibility to help curb the sale and shipment of drugs sold through illegal Internet pharmacies.” In addition to paying $40 million to the government, the company “has agreed to enhance its compliance policies with respect to Internet pharmacy shippers,” he said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has also been probing FedEx over similar issues, but FedEx wasn’t part of the settlement announced Friday. The Justice Department said it has been looking into Internet pharmacies’ use of shipping companies between 2003 and 2010.

Last year, a FedEx spokesman called the government investigation “absurd and deeply disturbing,” saying drug agents wanted to “deputize” FedEx delivery workers to catch criminals, which he said wasn’t their job.

After the UPS settlement was announced Friday, FedEx spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said the company is confident it is complying with federal law. “It is unclear what federal laws UPS may have violated,” he said. The company is ready to support law enforcement and is trying to persuade the DEA to provide a list of suspect pharmacies “so we can immediately shut off shipping services to those pharmacies,” he said.

UPS and FedEx, the nation’s two biggest shipping companies, were served with subpoenas starting more than four years ago, according to their public disclosures. Last year, a lawyer for FedEx said the company was informed by the Justice Department that it could soon face criminal charges. The company said it was innocent and planned to contest any charges.

UPS opted instead to negotiate a settlement. According to court papers filed as part of the settlement, UPS employees had numerous exchanges showing they were aware of legal problems surrounding many Internet pharmacies. As a result, UPS workers were told they couldn’t offer discounted pricing to such customers.

In August 2005, a law-enforcement drug task force in Virginia wrote to UPS security officials expressing concern about the company’s delivery practices there, citing evidence the company was making deliveries in parking lots and roadsides to customers of the Internet pharmacies.”Your drivers and managers already know who these people and locations are,” the letter said. The government said UPS continued to make such deliveries after receiving the letter.