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Scammers pose as gov't. agents to extort cash

The government is battling a disturbing trend on multiple fronts: Imposters, posing as government agents, are calling up and harassing people for money.

The scam started a few years ago with phone calls from people claiming to be Food and Drug Administration officials. Now, the callers say they're from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The imposters' targets are Americans who buy medications online. And, reports CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano, victims are being threatened by the imposters until they give up cash.

Drug Enforcement Administration agent Scott Collier is at the forefront of battling the serious and ongoing problem.

Collier explained that the scam instills fear: "When someone calls and says, 'Hey, we're with the government, and I will potentially arrest you unless you pay a fine,' there's certainly some fear there, and they'd rather pay that fine and keep their activities hidden from their loved ones."

Collier said that, during the DEA investigation, more than 4,000 calls were logged from people who said they'd been contacted by someone who said they're a DEA or FDA agent.

It works like this: People seeking drugs find outfits online and either order over the phone or via the Internet -- no prescription needed, but definitely cash -- drugs that can run up to $500.

"Typically, we see folks trying to buy narcotics, such as hydrocodone products, most common is Vicodin; ... anti-anxiety drugs, such as Xanax or Valium, are very common," Collier said. "Also, some diet medications such as phentermine."

They fork over their personal information, and that's how authorities believe those who run these sites get information -- and then, Collier explained, "When these phone calls begin, the person will identify themselves using a false name as a DEA or FDA agent. They will claim they have evidence that the individual has purchased drugs illicitly via the Internet."

That's what Daniel Sirek told CBS News he believes happened to his wife, Carolyn Sirek, after she purchased diet pills online.

"She was getting a lot of calls on her cell phone, on her iPhone, and I'd say, 'Who's calling you?' ... the thing would be going off all the time, and she'd say, 'Oh just somebody advertising,' and that concerned me," Sirek said.

His concern was justified. Sirek said he believes his wife was a victim of egregious extortion -- and the consequences were tragic.

"Her car was in the driveway, and when I walked out there, I saw her laying alongside the shop -- just out there -- towards the back. And I thought she may have just fell and got knocked out," Sirek said.

But as he got closer he realized his wife had been shot.

Sirek recalled, "So I ran over to the neighbors and he called 911, and we both walked back to her and that's when I'd seen her pistol lying there in the grass."

She had taken her own life. After her death, Sirek found messages on Carolyn's cell phone.

"The man said, 'Caroline, you need to call me, this is Lieutenant so-and-so,' -- I don't recall what name he used. And so I called the number. And he said, 'This is about her drug charges,' and I said, 'What drug charges?' ... I believe she was being extorted," Sirek said.

It was more than one phone call and Sirek said he believes the pressure was too much.

"One victim paid a total of about $85,000 over a period of time," Collier said. " ... They never ask for that much up front. But once you make one payment, it's quite common for them to keep calling, again; it's blackmail."

The problem is so pervasive, the DEA and FDA have combined efforts to fight it.

"As we began our investigation as we, began moving along, identifying suspects," Collier said, "we began to cross paths with the FDA, because that had been receiving similar calls from other victims across the country."

But for victims like Carolyne Sirek it is too late

"Life changed in a heartbeat. I cried for two months straight. Every day, all day. It's just something you hear about, but never think will happen to you," Sirek said.

If you believe you have been a victim of this kind of scam, both the DEA and the FDA have information on their websites on how to report the crime.

  • Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.