Reporting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. - Extortionists posing as federal agents have taken as much as $31,000 from frightened people who thought they would be prosecuted for purchasing their medications from outside the country, federal regulators say.
The Food and Drug Administration has received 75 to 100 reports nationwide recently of people receiving calls from individuals claiming to be FDA special agents or law enforcement officials, the agency said this week. The targets were told that buying drugs online or over the phone was illegal and that if they did not immediately pay their "fine," they would be arrested, jailed or deported, the FDA said.
Several dozen people sent the money, usually through a wire service, to an address in the Dominican Republic, FDA spokesman Tom Gasparoli said. Most paid about $1,000 to $5,000, although some sent much more.
"People thought they just had been trying to save money by buying from online companies, and some of them really panicked," Gasparoli said. "They thought there would be an officer outside their door at any moment."
It is against the law for American consumers to re-import drugs from foreign countries, but only the courts can impose fines, with penalties payable to the U.S. Treasury.
It's unclear how those running the extortion scheme decided whom to call, but Gasparoli said the majority of victims had bought, or thought they were buying, prescription drugs from Canada. It's estimated that almost 2 million Americans a year buy their medications through pharmacies in Canada, whose healthcare system negotiates with manufacturers, keeping prices substantially lower than in the U.S.
Gasparoli said telemarketers associated with the extortionists posed as an online pharmacy and, in some cases, called consumers and tempted them with low prices. Those who bought the drugs were later called by the fake agents.
Experts say prescription shoppers should be cautious when buying online. An Internet pharmacy may not be legitimate if it:
* offers to sell you medication without a prescription.
* will sell you a controlled substance.
* does not have a secure website. Secure sites show a padlock icon toward the bottom of the page.
* does not have a telephone number or a way to contact a pharmacist.
FDA officials encourage anyone who gets a call from a fake federal agent or law enforcement officer assessing and collecting fines to file a report by calling (800) 521-5783.