Online buyer beware! Con artists are posing as U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents and are trying to extort money from people who buy medications online and over the telephone, the agency has just announced.
According to Reuters, The FDA says these fake government officials gather people’s personal information from online transactions, questionnaires and consumer lists and then call them demanding fines.
The scammers tell victims that buying drugs over the Internet or telephone is illegal and threaten them with prosecution unless a fine or fee ranging from $100 to $250,000 is paid, the agency said in a statement.
Though the FDA has warned consumers that some websites peddle unsafe medicines and offered advice on how to identify trustworthy Internet pharmacies, buying drugs online is not illegal.
“The call is likely a scam if the so-called agent directs you to send the money by wire transfer to a designated location, usually overseas, and if you are warned not to call an attorney or the police,” the FDA alert stated.
The agency noted that its personnel “are not authorized to impose or collect fines imposed for criminal acts.” “Only a court can take such action,” the FDA said.
“If you refuse to pay up, the caller threatens to search your properties, arrest or deport you, put you in jail, and even physically harm you,” the FDA said.
The problem is being investigated by FDA agents with help from other federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
Authorities acknowledge that scams of this kind are hard to trace. The crooks can sound convincing if they’re armed with your address, phone number, Social Security number, date of birth, purchase history and credit card account number.
“The best thing they can do is ignore the caller and hang up,” said Philip Walsky, special agent in charge at FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations. He stressed that true FDA agents do not call up consumers to demand payment.
The good news for frightened consumers is that no one is known to have been approached in person, so there is little danger of a physical threat. In fact, most of the fraudulent callers are based overseas.
According to Walsky, some fraudulent callers have a “veneer of legitimacy” about them.
Like many telephone solicitors for illegal prescription medications, he says, they’re based overseas and use voice over internet protocol (VOIP) telephone numbers, which enable extorters to select phone numbers with specific area codes, and change numbers frequently.
Some even go to the trouble of using the Internet to find names of actual FDA law enforcement personnel, Walsky says. And they are adept at exploiting people’s fears.
What is the best way to make the calls stop?
Walsky advises victims of these scams to change whatever phone number(s) the caller used to contact them in the first place, and to stop buying drugs online unless they know the website is trustworthy. If you have purchased medication online or via telephone, you may also want to alert your credit card company and make sure that your account is up to date, and that no suspicious charges have been made against your credit card.