DEA Warns of Extortion Scam

Scammers ask victims to pay fine to avoid arrest for purchase of prescriptions over the Internet, by phone

A telephone scam that frightens people into believing they are about to be arrested for drug crimes has targeted at least one woman in the Chicago area, NBC5 Investigates has learned. And federal agents have issued an alert, warning that others may be targeted as well.

Julie Patterson, a northwest suburban mother of two, answered her phone early last week and found herself talking to someone who claimed to be an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Why would the DEA be calling me?" Patterson said. "This was really strange."

The agent asked Patterson about a prescription drug she purchased online. She said the caller made it sound like the purchase was illegal -- even though she had simply purchased prenatal prescription victims from a legitimate online pharmacy.

The caller hung up, but a few days later, Patterson received another call while she was at work. The caller said Drug Enforcement Administration agents were on their way to arrest her.

Patterson, who is seven months pregnant, started to panic.

“I became so afraid that I started breathing really rapidly,” Patterson said. “I know my blood pressure went up. I couldn’t catch my breath at all.”

Concerned that she had possibly fallen victim to identity theft, Patterson contacted her local police department and rushed home. She also called her babysitter to get her two young children out of the house.

Police soon confirmed there was no warrant for Patterson’s arrest., and no federal agents knocked on her door.

But DEA impersonators have possibly victimized thousands of others, according to the real Drug Enforcement Administration.

“They know just enough information -- just enough terminology -- to come off as legitimate special agents,” said Jack Riley, a special agent at the DEA’s Chicago bureau.

A warning posted on the DEA’s website says scam callers are informing their victims that purchasing drugs over the Internet or by telephone is illegal, and that enforcement action will be taken unless they pay a fine.

“Normally, they’re asking the money to be wired,” Riley said.

Riley said impersonators have even used his name in their attempts to scare people.

“No DEA agent will ever call you on the phone and ask for money or information,” Riley said. “We don’t work that way. Nor will we call you on the phone and tell you we’re going to arrest you.”

The DEA is urging consumers to use caution when purchasing controlled substance pharmaceuticals by telephone or through the Internet. Scores of unregulated online pharmacies dot the web, and it is illegal to buy controlled-substance pharmaceuticals online or by telephone unless very stringent requirements are met.

But Riley said the scam callers are purporting all online pharmaceutical purchases to be illegal, which clearly is not the case.

Riley urged people who receive similar calls to hang up and contact local police. The DEA is also aggressively tracking the impersonators, who, Riley said, are more than likely on foreign soil. People are also urged to report any suspicious calls to the DEA at 1-877-792-2873.

Patterson said she is speaking out about her experience so others don’t fall victim.

“Had I been educated ahead of time that this was going on, I wouldn’t have fallen for it,” Patterson said. “I wouldn’t have allowed that snowball effect to have happened with how upset it made me.”

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