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DEA: Scheme targets online prescription drug buyers

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The Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the public about criminals posing as DEA special agents or other law enforcement as part of an international extortion scam, stating that what started as a scheme based overseas, now has roots in the United States. 

"I was one of those people who thought it could never happen to me," said Kathy Plouffe.

She didn't know it at the time, but the valley resident says she was the target of an extortion scheme where criminals pose as DEA agents.

She received this  voicemail a few weeks ago:

"This is a message for Kathy.  This is special agent Anthony Williams with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Give me a call as soon as possible at 617-***-****.

"They actually gave me a deposition number," said Plouffe.

Plouffe called the Boston number back and left her information on the voicemail where they again identified themselves as the DEA.

FOX 10 called the number as well and got the same official voicemail, asking for the caller's name, docket number and officer who originally contacted them.

"About 20 minutes later, this DEA agent Anthony Williams called me back and asked me if I purchased medication online through an online pharmacy and if when I did that if I knew it was illegal," Plouffe.

The DEA says the criminals target people who have bought prescription drugs over the internet or by phone -- something Plouffe admits to doing years ago.

"So they not only knew I did this, I ordered by credit card they had my address and  monitoring my phone calls," she said. "Immediately I got hysterical and I was just crying and couldn't believe that here they could have come arrest me."

In most cases, the DEA says the criminals ask victims to wire money, but Plouffe says that's not what happened in her case.

"So he put me on hold, talked with the district attorney, got back on the phone, said what we can do is let you off with a fine, but you're going to need to come down to the courthouse and pay us today and it will be wiped off your record," she said.  "He gave me the address -- 401 West Washington and they said it was going to be $5,400."

So Kathy drove to where she thought the closest bank was, at the Fry's at 27th Avenue and Bell Road, but the bank was no longer there, but it gave her husband a chance to catch their breath -- they got online and quickly realized it was a scam.

"It was very emotional stressing horrible experience for me," said Plouffe.

"No DEA agent will ever call members of the public demanding money or other forms of payment," said the DEA's Ramona Sanchez.  She adds that the agency is well aware of the scheme, which they say has been going on for years.  But she says the scams are starting to originate in the U.S.

So whereas in years past, you've seen this originating overseas.  In May, you started seeing them originating in the east coast.

"That is correct they have expanded through the western states hoping more people will fall prey to these types of scams," said Sanchez.

The DEA says the criminals are preying off people's vulnerabilities since it is illegal to buy prescription drugs online or over the phone unless stringent requirements are met.

"And those rogue operations circulate that information to other rogue criminals' operations and they use that information so they could take advantage of vulnerabilities from the public," said Sanchez.

Sanchez doubts anyone would have actually met Plouffe at the courthouse, but no one's certain how the scheme would have ended.

"We have not at least in Arizona.. I am not aware of any scams that have played out," said Sanchez.

Plouffe didn't lose any money.  She reported the incident on the DEA's web site.

"They contacted me back the next day and did tell me in fact it is something that's going on.  There is no Anthony Williams, no special agent Jeff Summers in Arizona," she said.

"These criminals are not dumb criminals.  They're very savvy," said Sanchez.

"They knew exactly what was going to sound legitimate in the eyes of whoever they were scamming," said Plouffe.

According to the DEA, impersonating a federal agent is a violation of federal law.  The DEA says sometimes, victims will find fraudulent charges on their credit card, associated with this scheme.

For more information or if you've had this happen to you, you can report it to the DEA online: https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/esor/

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