Criminals posing as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) special agents and other law enforcement personnel are running an international extortion scam.

The criminals call the victims -- who in most cases previously purchased drugs over the Internet or via "telepharmacies" -- and identify themselves as FDA special agents or other law enforcement officials. They inform the victims that buying drugs over the Internet or the telephone is illegal, and that law enforcement action will be pursued unless a fine or fee ranging from $100 to $250,000 is paid.

Victims often also have fraudulent transactions placed against their credit cards.

Victims threatened

The criminals always request the money be sent by wire transfer to a designated location -- usually in the Dominican Republic. If victims refuse to send money, they are often threatened with a search of their property, arrest, deportation, physical harm and/or incarceration.

"Impersonating an FDA official is a violation of federal law," said Dara Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “FDA special agents and other law enforcement officials are not authorized to impose or collect criminal fines. Only a court can take such action.”

Double whammy

In most instances, victims of extortion-related calls have also received telephone solicitations for additional pharmaceutical purchases from other possibly related, illegal entities located overseas.

The extortionists use customer lists complete with extensive personal information provided through previous purchase transactions. These include names, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, purchase histories and credit card account numbers.

Typically, these criminals use telephone numbers that change constantly and make it appear as though their calls originate in the United States.

No known victim has been approached in person by a law enforcement impersonator associated with this scheme.

On the case

The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, with the support of various U.S. Attorneys, are pursuing multiple national and international criminal investigations.

Arrests have been made and additional prosecutions are pending; however, the scheme is likely to continue. The FDA has issued similar warnings in the past:

 

 

What you can do

Victims of this scheme who have suffered monetary loss through the payment of funds in response to an extortion call, or anyone receiving a telephone call from a person purporting to be an FDA or other law enforcement official who is seeking money to settle a law enforcement action for the illegal purchase of drugs over the Internet may obtain a victim questionnaire by contacting the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations  and clicking “Report Suspected Criminal Activity.”

Anyone receiving a purported official document on agency letterhead may verify its authenticity by contacting that organization directly via a publicly available phone number. Additionally, all federal agencies use email addresses with a “gov” email extension.

The FDA also reminds consumers that pharmaceutical products offered online and by telephone by sources of unknown origin can pose a substantial health risk. Products recovered during this investigation that were purchased from online or telephone sources have been found to contain trace amounts of heroin, other undisclosed and potentially harmful active pharmaceutical ingredients, or no active ingredient at all.

Purchases should only be made from licensed pharmacies located in the United States. In addition to the increased risk of purchasing unsafe and ineffective drugs from Websites operating outside the law, personal data may be compromised.

For more on unlawful drug sales on the Internet, see Protecting Yourself.