- How Extortion Schemes Work
- How to Beat Extortion Scams
- Report Extortion Schemes
- How Law Enforcement is Fighting Back
Criminals can and do use nearly any means toward one goal: getting money for themselves. Some criminals will seize opportunities to commit extortion schemes and steal your data by impersonating law enforcement, convincing you that they’re the good guys and that you’ve done something wrong.
How Extortion Schemes Work
Understanding how these scams work is the first step to protecting yourself, your data, and your money.
Extortions begin with some form of communication. Telephone calls, voicemail, text messages, and emails are among the most common—rarely does a scamming extortion scheme occur face to face. In reality, many extortion scammers reside overseas, utilizing technology to appear local. These scammers enjoy the haze of legal complexity that accompanies crimes committed in a different country from the victims.
Communications by extortion scammers may be either “generally sent phishing engagements” (general) or “specifically targeted communications” (targeted at specific people or groups). Each has its nuance, but both can catch you off-guard and willing to cooperate with what appears to be contact from law enforcement or a government agency.
Where They Get Your Information
It’s easy for extortionists to get your contact information (e.g., phone number, email address) through open-source data, which can include:
- Online subscriptions
- Website interactions
- Online purchases
These data lists are often sold, resold, and exchanged among advertisers and product merchandisers and find their way to criminal scammers, both domestically and in foreign countries.
Likewise, registrations for subscriptions and raffles at fairs and trade shows are accumulated, sold, and exchanged with advertisers and product merchandisers. Nearly any place where you provide an email, phone number, and a name, opportunities present themselves for scammers to acquire your contact information.
Postings and profiles on mainstream social media—including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Nextdoor—may also unwittingly provide background and details to scammers.
2. The Introduction
The extortion communication begins with the introduction of the scammers themselves, disguised as who they are pretending to be.
General Phishing Attempts (Example)
Generally sent phishing engagements may occur as automated telephone voicemails about a non-specific violation. In these instances, there often is no mention of your name or information. That’s why it's considered “generally sent.”
These extortion scammers have a list of phone numbers but little or no other accompanying information about you. If you answer the call or nibble at their bait by calling back, these extortion scammers will try interview tricks to learn your name and location and pretend they know more about you than they really do.
A common scam involves the caller claiming there is a violation involving your IRS tax return or a breach of your Social Security number (SSN)—without them citing your name or identifying information (because they don’t have it).
A telephone caller could begin with, “This is Agent Smith with the IRS. Who am I speaking with?” and would follow up asking you to verify your current mailing address. If you answer their questions, they are up and running, having tricked you into providing information they didn’t have. And if you have responded to their basic questions, you’ve also signaled that their scam (so far) is working, and you are susceptible to being lured in further.
Law Enforcement Don't Call You
Ignore the call or message. If it’s real, the real police or government agency will correspond in writing by mail and in person.
If you are concerned that a call or message could be from legitimate law enforcement or a legitimate government agency, contact that agency through other trusted means, including a verified government website or other verifiable sources.
Do not call them back using the number they provide in the message.
Targeted Phishing Attempts (Example)
Specifically targeted communications, however, are levels above general phishing. Extortion scammers who have procured data lists with your information will leverage the data with more directed assertions about a crime that you, specifically, committed. They will usually tell you to pay restitution, or a fine or an arrest warrant will be issued, albeit a fictional one.
One prevalent example of a targeted scam involves lists of consumers who’ve made online purchases of drugs, pills, pharmaceuticals, or other ingestible substances not clearly affirmed as legal or illegal.
In many cases, consumable substances held out as medication or unregulated substances are manufactured overseas (in India, China, Israel, and Europe) and advertised for sale on websites that may appear legitimate wholesalers or retailers of medications, supplements, or pharmaceuticals. They invariably are not.
Indian and Chinese governments routinely approve the manufacture of generic pharmaceuticals without the originating drug manufacturers’ approval, as workarounds for providing otherwise expensively imported, licensed medicines for their citizens. These substances, however, are often diverted from that use and illegally sold outside the countries they were intended to stay within.
These pills are neither licensed by the original manufacturer nor are they made with safe dosage consistency. And, as is prevalent now, many counterfeit pills of Xanax and Percocet, among others, have been laced with dangerous substances, including fatal amounts of Fentanyl.
Aside from the health hazards associated with these counterfeit pills, each online purchase generates specific customer information, including:
- Mailing addresses
- Telephone numbers
- Email addresses
- Date and time of order
The extortion scammer will forcefully assert what pills were bought by whom, when, and where they were delivered in these specifically targeted communications.
3. The Request for Payment
Having contacted you and introduced themselves, the extortion scammers now make the pitch to get your money. You’ve committed a crime (or so they say). You’re in violation of the law (according to them). But, all that can be remedied by paying a (fictional) fine.
The dollar amount can vary from hundreds of dollars to several thousand. The extortionists will usually claim that the crime occurred in a foreign country, where the counterfeit pills were sold. And so, the scammers will direct their victims to pay the fines to “the officials overseas.” Two prevalent methods extortion scammers utilize for receiving funds include:
- Money remitter services (MoneyGram, Western Union, etc.)
- Stored value cards (Green Dot MoneyPaks, etc.)
With both kinds of methods, the recipients must provide identifying information meant to dissuade illicit transactions. But because the extortion scammers often operate in other countries from the victims and outside of the U.S., the scammers often boldly use their real names or variations of those names that can be accounted for to a money remitter clerk overseas.
For example, a scammer can convince the money remitter clerk that money transmitted to “Jason James” and “James Smith” was meant to go to “Jason James Smith,” and that the full name was mistakenly cut off due to language barriers or the sender has simply made a mistake.
In more sophisticated scamming operations, a friend or criminal associate of the scammer works at the store where the money remitter service operates and readily allows transactions to criminal associates to transmit successfully.
4. The Extortion Continues
Once an extortion scammer receives a payment, the extortion will continue. After they see you have paid, they will milk the scheme with more requests for payments of “additional fines.” And the scammers themselves, who often work in teams, will hand off your “case” to a “supervising agent” to reinvigorate the scam and add authenticity to the fiction they have you believing in (and continue to collect more and more money from you).
Do not pay any money to anyone claiming to be law enforcement, contacting you via email, text message, or phone.
Law enforcement agencies have become savvy to these impersonations and have made clear on their websites and social media that these are not methods of legitimate law enforcement.
Fines for actual criminal acts are imposed through U.S. criminal courts. Penalties for non-criminal/motor vehicle infractions are accompanied by physical documentation (e.g., serialized infraction ticket) presented by enforcement personnel (e.g., police issuing infractions for motor vehicle violations), with the opportunity to dispute the charged fine or offense in court.
How to Beat Extortion Scams
Beating these types of scams is all about awareness and education. Look for these red flags when contacted by someone from "law enforcement"—if you notice any, it's likely a scam:
- A call from the FBI, police, DEA, or other law enforcement agency.
- A call requesting money to pay a fine or other penalties.
- A request for payment via money transfer or other untraceable methods.
- The use of threats or urgency to encourage you to pay.
- A return phone number that doesn't match the phone number on the agency's website.
- A robocall asking you to press a number or call a number to be transferred to a law enforcement representative.
- Emails with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes.
- Emails where the sender's email address doesn't match the agency's website domain.
- Links in texts and emails that don't go to official government or agency websites.
- Logos in emails that look blurry or sketchy in any way.
If you receive such a call, text, or email, follow these tips:
- For phone calls:
- Hang up immediately.
- Don't press any button or call any number to be transferred to a representative.
- Don't give away any of your personal information.
- Tell the caller you'll call them back. Use the agency's official number.
- Don't hand over any money.
- For emails and texts:
- Don't click on any links.
- Don't download any attachments.
- Don't reply or respond.
- Don't call any phone number they've supplied.
- If you do click on a link, don't enter any of your personal information on the website.
- Don't hand over any money.
Report Extortion Schemes
Victims of these extortion schemes often can feel trapped in a “trick box” of either:
- Paying extortionists in futile attempts to keep the (fictional) violations from coming to light
- Shying from legitimate law enforcement out of fear that their online pill purchases could lead to their own arrests if they come forward about being victims of the extortions
In truth, many of the online medication and pill purchases made—while not legal—often fall below the quantity thresholds for federal prosecution. Federal law enforcement often chooses to engage in investigations that will lead to successful criminal convictions, particularly for criminals who distribute illegal substances to others or those who impersonate federal law enforcement.
If you're ever contacted by someone claiming to represent law enforcement asking for money, report it to the authorities.
How Law Enforcement is Fighting Back
While extortion scammers have exploited people for decades now, law enforcement has channeled resources and efforts to fight back, lifting the veil on such criminals and bringing scammers to justice.
In 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) successfully charged 21 members of an extortion enterprise operating from the Dominican Republic, following a multi-year investigation of the extortionists who pretended by phone to be DEA agents to exploit online pill purchasers in the U.S.
This investigation, while not commonplace, demonstrates that U.S. law enforcement has the appetite, patience, and capacity for foiling international criminal conspiracies.
The resulting arrests, extraditions, and convictions may leave some scammers worried, but not enough to dissuade all of them from stopping. While some scammers might decide to go straight to avoid the possibility of arrest and prison (even from overseas), others adapt their schemes with the change of technology and fresh opportunities for exploitation.
The DEA and the U.S. Department of Justice continue to take steps to avert extortion schemes from occurring. Awareness is a critical element of prevention. According to the DEA:
Quote from the DEA
DEA personnel will never contact members of the public or medical practitioners by telephone to demand money or any other form of payment, will never request personal or sensitive information over the phone, and will only notify people of a legitimate investigation or legal action in person or by official letter. In fact, no legitimate federal law enforcement officer will demand cash or gift cards from a member of the public. You should only give money, gift cards, personally identifiable information, including bank account information, to someone you know.
The best deterrence against these bad actors is awareness and caution. Anyone receiving a call from a person claiming to be with DEA should report the incident to the FBI at www.ic3.gov. The Federal Trade Commission provides recovery steps, shares information with more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies and takes reports at reportfraud.ftc.gov. For any victims who have given personally identifiable information like a social security number to the caller, can learn how to protect against identity theft at www.identitytheft.gov.