For years, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that it is not safe to buy medications from pharmacies and websites outside the country because the drugs may be counterfeit.
Now, the agency says there’s a new danger in buying drugs from foreign vendors—an extortion scam by phony FDA agents.
The ruse works like this: Victims are first called with an offer to buy discount prescription drugs by wiring funds to the Dominican Republic. After you send the money, however, the medications never arrive.
Then comes a second sting: Scammers call their pigeons back, this time pretending to be FDA special agents. The “agents” tell their victims they’ve broken the law and must pay a fine of several thousand dollars to avoid being jailed. (Real FDA officials would not call consumers to demand money.)
The FDA has issued a warning about this scam. In the several instances reported, consumers who received the calls are believed to have previously bought drugs from overseas pharmacies via phone or the Internet or have been past victims of identity theft. The agency won’t release any other details about this scam, which began in November. Because there’s an ongoing investigation, FDA spokesman Christopher Kelly declined to comment on the number of victims, the medications offered or which sites the victims had previously used to purchase medications.
The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 percent of drugs sold from developing countries may be counterfeit. In industrialized countries such as Canada, Japan and the United States, less than an estimated 1 percent of medicines sold are counterfeit. Last year, the FDA issued a warning about 24 online pharmacies that were selling counterfeit medications, which may contain wrong or even dangerous ingredients.In addition, the agency says that medications sold online may be lacking in FDA approval, outdated, too weak or too strong, mislabeled or improperly stored and shipped.
If you choose to buy prescriptions from online vendors—which typically charge less than brick-and-mortar U.S. pharmacies—officials recommend you make sure the seller posts a VIPPS seal, showing it’s a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site recognized by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
A physician-run website, PharmacyChecker.com, rates the safety and prices of mail-order pharmacies.
If you receive a call enticing you to buy mail-order drugs from the Dominican Republic or any other country—or have already sent money in this scam—report it to the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations at 1-800-521-5783.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).