Transcript: Extortion Scam (September 2016)
Host: Captain Catherine Chew
Pharmacist #1: Dr. Sonia Kim
Pharmacist #2: Lieutenant Zachary Oleszczuk
CAPT Chew: We’ve all heard about online scams which put your personal information in harm’s way. Since 2008, hundreds of people who have purchased prescription drugs over the Internet or via telephone have unknowingly exposed themselves to extortion by individuals posing as FDA and DEA agents.
Hi, I’m Captain Catherine Chew, and this is Drug Info Rounds, brought to you by the pharmacists in FDA’s Division of Drug Information. I’m joined today by two FDA pharmacists, Dr. Sonia Kim and Lieutenant Zachary Oleszczuk, who will discuss an extortion scam by FDA impersonators. Sonia, explain how a typical scam can work.
Dr. Kim: Typically an individual will call and identify himself as an FDA or DEA special agent or another kind of law enforcement official. This individual will then state that purchasing drugs over the Internet or telephone is illegal. The fake agent threatens with prosecution unless a fine or fee is paid, ranging from $100 to $250,000. The criminal requests the money be sent by wire transfer to a designated location, usually in the Dominican Republic. If the victim refuses to pay, they are threatened with searches of their property, arrest, deportation, or even physical harm.
CAPT Chew: This is a very serious matter, and there are some simple steps to take if a potential victim receives this type of call.
LT Oleszczuk: The best course of action is to ignore the caller and hang up. You can be assured that no federal official would ever contact a consumer by phone to demand money or any other form of payment.
Dr. Kim: FDA special agents and other law enforcement officials are not authorized to collect fines imposed for criminal acts. Only a court can take such action, with fines payable to the U.S. Treasury.
The extorters are mostly based overseas and have the technology to constantly change their phone numbers to different numbers with U.S. area codes. If the victims change whatever numbers were used to contact them, and they do not engage in any additional risky pharmaceutical transactions, the threatening phone calls should cease.
LT Oleszczuk: Also, victims of this scam who received a telephone call from a person purporting to be an FDA or DEA special agent or other law enforcement official seeking money may report the threat to the DEA online or by calling 1-877-792-2873. And unfortunately, in almost all instances, victims will not be able to recoup losses.
CAPT Chew: I’m sure there must have been arrests.
Dr. Kim: Yes, arrests have been made. Impersonating an FDA official or DEA Special Agent is a violation of federal law. However, this scheme will likely not be eradicated and instead will continue to evolve. For example, extorters now occasionally reference other countries, such as Costa Rica, instead of the Dominican Republic, as a means to avoid all of the publicity regarding this scheme.
CAPT Chew: Pharmacists should remind patients that ordering pharmaceutical products online and by telephone through sources of unknown origin can pose a substantial health risk. Patients should only make purchases from licensed pharmacies located in the United States. For tips on how to purchase medication safely online, visit www.fda.gov/BeSafeRx.
Call or email FDA’s Division of Drug Information.