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Rogue Internet Pharmacies and Fake FDA Agents

This morning in a remote Internet cafe somewhere, someone is accessing office email.  The location is busy and crowded.  Someone at a nearby table is talking loudly on a headset to a potential customer using Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and his laptop.  His conversation hints he is in a formal office, but the chatter, scraping chairs and hissing expresso machines in the background might give him away.

The telephone boiler-room of old is being replaced by VOIP.  And with the transition come new financial crimes committed with a laptop and VOIP communications.

Consider the case of a group of criminals operating fraudulent pharmacies from the tiny Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. Using Internet connections, fraudulent online pharmacy storefronts and VOIP they sell harmful counterfeit drugs to medical patients, but then turn around and extort money from their customers.

In early January 2011, the FDA issued a public warning (not for the first time) about an ongoing international extortion scheme perpetrated by fraudulent online pharmacies.  The extortion targets are their customers.  Multiple phases of the scheme jeopardize the victims’ health and finances.

People who order drugs from these criminal pharmacies receive counterfeit pills that have been tested and found to contain trace amounts of heroin, other undisclosed and potentially harmful active pharmaceutical ingredients, or no active ingredient at all.  Following the initial purchase, the victim’s credit card may be used for fraudulent, unauthorized transactions or they may be repeatedly contacted by telephone and asked to make additional drug purchases.  Finally, the victim is contacted by telephone by a gang member who impersonates an FDA special agent or law enforcement officer.

The telephone calls are made using VOIP connections that appear to originate in the US. US law enforcement has traced the telephone calls to locations in the Dominican Republic.

Victims who receive these extortion telephone calls are told they are being contacted by an FDA special agent or by a law enforcement officer.  The gang member posing as an agent or officer has a record of the victim’s drug purchases.

Victims are threatened with exposure, physical harm, legal action and imprisonment unless a special fine is wired to the gang member in the Dominican Republic. These phone calls can be convincing.  Gang members have access to a large amount of personal information about the victim which they obtain from the fraudulent “pharmacy” They use this information to coerce victims to pay the extortion demands.  Demands have ranged in amount from $100 to $250,000.  One US victim reportedly paid $85,000 to the gang.

Last week, 11 individuals in Dominican Republic were indicted in a US federal court for multiple counts of wire fraud and conspiracy.  It is important to note these criminals were indicted -- but not (yet) imprisoned.  It is possible they will continue to contact potential victims for extortion and continue to use victims credit cards for financial fraud.

Among the crimes committed by this gang, impersonating an FDA official is a violation of federal law.  Victims who have already suffered financial loss or who have simply been contacted by someone who impersonates an FDA or law enforcement personnel can submit a complaint by contacting the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations and clicking “Report Suspected Criminal Activity.”

Fraudulent pharmacy activity also can be reported to LegitScript. We classify rogue Internet pharmacy websites by criminal organization, and our database of “rogue” Internet pharmacies is a helpful resource for other Internet users to avoid scams and unsafe drugs. And remember, you can find legitimate Internet pharmacies using