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Scam Alert

Buying Prescription Drugs Online?

Here's how to protect yourself against extortion by fake DEA agents

En español | For nearly three years, scammers have been posing as FDA officials in extortion cons aimed at Americans who buy medications from Internet pharmacies. Now the scammers have found a new role — the fake DEA agent.

But the intent remains the same as when Scam Alert previously reported this ploy: to squeeze money out of people who have bought prescription drugs online or by phone from "telepharmacies." Pay a fine, they tell you, or face arrest for making an illegal purchase.

See also: A call for a wire transfer could mean trouble.

This scam involves an email claim that you have illegally purchased drugs online and offers to help you avoid prosecution.

When buying prescription drugs online, be sure to check the website for the VIPPS seal. — Photo by Corbis

In the past year, as many as 2,000 people have reported receiving these calls. Recent targets included a Hollywood producer and various residents of Aspen, Colo. There are many illegal pharmacies online, but also many perfectly legal ones, which bear the seal "VIPPS," for Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site, issued by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Still, some people think that all online purchases are somehow illegal, and are susceptible to the new DEA scam.

How the extortion works

With the new scam, the impostor agents typically demand payments ranging from $100 to as much as $250,000.

People are normally told to send the money as a wire transfer to the Dominican Republic — that should serve as the first clue it's a scam.

Also, real federal agents don't contact people demanding money to avoid arrest, or provide warning of impending handcuffs.

To make their calls seem legit, the scammers may use Internet phone services that allow them to control what appears on your caller ID screen. The number you see shows the call originating in the U.S., though the scammer may in fact be abroad.

In a warning to the public, the DEA reports that some recipients of impostor calls discovered that fraudulent charges had been made on credits cards they'd used to buy online medications.

How you can protect yourself

So, if you've received one of these calls — and even if you haven't — it's important to pay close attention to your credit card accounts. You should also check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure the scammers haven't opened accounts in your name.

Everyone is entitled to three free credit reports every 12 months. It's best to look at one every four months, rotating between the big three credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Also, report any call from a DEA impostor to the agency's toll-free hotline, 1-877-792-2873. Or you can file an online complaint with the Food and Drug Administration.

If you buy medicine online, you can minimize the danger by sticking only to websites that have the VIPPS seal. A physician-run website, PharmacyChecker.com, also rates the safety and prices of mail-order pharmacies.

For more information about online medication purchases in general, visit this special FDA website.

Also of interest: Free ID theft protection. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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