Dr M, a pathologist (who asked to remain anonymous), panicked after receiving a call from a woman who said she was a government agent. The caller, who knew Dr M’s full name and medical license number, said the physician’s prescriptions had been linked to criminals and that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was investigating.
“She transferred me to someone who claimed to be an officer. He said my prescription pad and also bank accounts associated with my name were found in an abandoned car in El Paso, Texas, with lots of drugs,” said Dr M. “They said they found $1.4 million associated with these bank accounts, and he asked me to cooperate with their investigation.”
When Dr M questioned the officer’s identity, he told her to search his name on Google. She searched and found a Houston DEA agent with the same name he provided. At that point, she believed the caller was legitimate, said Dr M, 51.
Over the next few days, Dr M received more calls from the same people with “updates” about the investigation. In one call, the number on Dr M’s caller ID appeared to be from “the national police,” she said. Through texts, the callers also sent pictures of drugs in a car and photos of possible suspects.
“I was pretty confident that it was real,” she said. “They told me not to tell anyone or it would jeopardize their investigation. My dad was visiting from Japan at the time, and they scared me that I could jeopardize my dad’s safety.”
Shortly later, the callers told Dr M they were going to freeze her bank accounts and urged her to transfer her personal funds to a foreign, underground account to secure her money. Believing her savings would soon be inaccessible, Dr M transferred $96,000 on November 23 and another $84,000 on November 29 to the foreign bank account, she said.
After the second transfer however, Dr M felt something wasn’t right. She called the DEA in Washington, DC, to inquire about the investigation and learned it was all a scam. She immediately called her bank to stop the transaction, but it was too late. The money was gone. Next, she called the local police who referred her to the FBI.
“An FBI officer came the next day and he said he would try to make it into a case, but he couldn’t guarantee it because there’s so many frauds,” she said.
Dr M was devastated to lose her savings and couldn’t believe she had fallen victim to a scam.
Such schemes against physicians are becoming more common, said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
“Scammers will do whatever they need to do to steal from people,” she said. “The common perception is that victims are usually naïve and uneducated. That is a misconception. This is a very sophisticated scam that is targeting some of the most educated people in our country — doctors. It shows how they are crafting their message for a certain professional population.”
Nofziger said scammers are frequently using the names of government agencies to threaten physicians and using information readily available online to boost their claims, such as physicians’ names, addresses, and registration numbers. Some criminals also are using spoofing technology to make their phone numbers appear to be from authorities.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network is also seeing cases in which scammers are sending letters on letterhead that appears to be from the DEA, she said.
“Some days we go to our mailbox and there’s nothing but junk mail, but when we go to our mailbox and there’s an official looking letter with a seal and a signature, we do pay attention to it a little more. I think the criminals know this and it adds a level of credibility when something comes in writing like that.”
The DEA did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In March 2021, the DEA issued a warning on its website about a widespread fraud scheme in which telephone scammers are impersonating DEA agents in an attempt to extort money.
“Employing more sophisticated tactics, schemers have spoofed legitimate DEA phone numbers to convince their target that the call is legitimate or texted photos of what appears to be a legitimate law enforcement credential with a photo,” the DEA said in a statement. “The reported scam tactics continually change but often share many of the same characteristics. Callers use fake names and badge numbers as well as names of well-known DEA officials or police officers in local departments.”
Nofziger said the scam against Dr M is particularly concerning, and that it’s likely the scammers in this case will strike again.
To avoid becoming a victim, Nofziger said physicians should understand the process of when and how government officials would normally contact them about a license or related issue. A direct call from someone claiming to be from a government agency who threatens arrest, prosecution, or loss of their license is a huge red flag, she said.
Be aware that credible agencies would never ask for immediate payment or request funds through cryptocurrency, gift cards, or peer-to-peer apps, she emphasized.
“Criminals are experts at making their communications appear credible,” she said. “So again, if someone is contacting you and you’ve never been contacted this way before, hang up the phone and check on it.”
And always confirm the status of your license directly with your medical board or an official DEA phone number, Nofziger said.
DEA officials stress that the best deterrence against scammers is “awareness and caution.” Physicians who receive a call from a person claiming to be a DEA agent should report the incident to the FBI at www.ic3.gov. The Federal Trade Commission also takes reports at reportfraud.ftc.gov.
For Dr M, the theft of $180,000 comes at a difficult time. She recently went through a divorce and said her finances were already depleted from the legal proceedings. She continues to work with her bank to try to get the funds back. She is upset her bank allowed the transactions to a foreign bank account without questioning the transfer or issuing fraud alerts.
Dr M also wishes she’d been more suspicious when the callers first contacted her and that she would have reached out for help.
“I had heard of foreign wire transfer fraud, especially in Thailand, but I was pretty sure the callers were legit. I didn’t doubt them right away,” she said. “I should have called the DEA to begin with.”
Dr M hopes her story might help other physicians who encounter similar scams.
“I learned that it’s important to be very sober and vigilant,” she said. “The scammers make it sound so immediate, so you don’t have time to sit and think. I think anytime this kind of pressure happens, it’s a good reminder to ask questions and have doubts.”
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