Buy Prescriptions Online or over the Phone? Beware of Bogus FDA Agents

Consumers face an increased risk of purchasing unsafe and ineffective drugs from websites operating outside the law

Buy Prescriptions Online or over the Phone? Beware of Bogus FDA Agents
Image: Pixabay
April 22, 2016

Purchasing your medications online is quick and convenient. But it could also place your personal information in the hands of criminals.

Since 2008, hundreds of people who have purchased drugs over the Internet or via telephone have unwittingly exposed themselves to extortion by individuals posing as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents.

Despite ongoing investigations and arrests by the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations directorate, such scams are hard to trace and eliminate.

The FDA has warned in the past that consumers face an increased risk of purchasing unsafe and ineffective drugs from websites operating outside the law, and about the danger that personal data can be compromised.

These criminals are getting personal information from transactions with individuals buying drugs online or by telephone, or from medical questionnaires frequently sought by illegal online websites. Personal information can also turn up on customer lists obtained by criminals. These lists can contain tens of thousands of names and a great deal of self-reported information, including names, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, purchase histories and credit card account numbers.

how does the scam work?

Someone will call you and identify him or herself as an FDA special agent or another kind of law enforcement official. You'll be told that purchasing drugs over the Internet or telephone is illegal and be threatened with prosecution unless a fine or fee—ranging from $100 to $250,000—is paid.

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.

According to Philip Walsky, special agent in charge at FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI), no federal official will ever contact a consumer by phone and demand money or any other form of payment. As for actual physical danger, no known victim has ever been approached in person. Most of the fraudulent callers are actually based overseas.

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. In fact, FDA special agents and other law enforcement officials are not authorized to impose or collect fines imposed for criminal acts. Only a court can take such action, with fines payable to the U.S. Treasury.

Like many telephone solicitors for illegal prescription medications, most of these scammers are 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. And they are adept at exploiting people's fears.

What is the best way to make the calls stop?

Victims of these scams should 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.

Victims can report their experience to the FDA via the OCI website. Click on "Report Suspected Criminal Activity."