Acellphone beeps, and the conversation goes like this.
"Mr. Wilson, this is Agent William Wright with the DEA in Washington, D.C. I'm calling about the Viagra you bought online last year. It was purchased from a company in Canada and imported into the U.S. without a prescription. Do you remember that?"
"Um, I did buy some Viagra online."
"Did you know that's a felony?"
"You're facing federal drug charges. A warrant is going out for your arrest this afternoon."
"I didn't know I was breaking any law."
"You'll be taken into custody, your home will be searched, and you're going to jail." (silence) "It's federal. You probably won't have a bail hearing for a month." (long pause) "OK, there might be a way out. Look, Mr. Wilson, we know you're not a drug dealer. The fine is $1,950. If you take care of it right now, I think I can hold up the warrant. Do you have a pen handy?"
"Write this down. It's $1,950. It has to be sent by MoneyGram. Use a credit or debit card, otherwise it won't get there in time."
Send it to (an address in the Dominican Republic) for pickup by Manny Hernandez. It has to be there by 4 p.m., or you'll be arrested. Do it now.
"I know you're not a drug cartel, Mr. Wilson, you're a good guy. So don't let me down or federal agents will be at your door today, and you'll be in jail tonight."
The Central Point man who took the call, who asked that his name not be used, was stunned. It was hard to believe that the DEA would be bothering somebody over this. But a few years ago, it was hard to believe anybody would go after people downloading Napster tunes, too.
This scam has been around for more than a year. Posing as DEA agents, sometimes using actual agents' names, the crooks make threatening calls to scare their marks, then offer a lifeline. Pay up, and the charges will go away.
Medford Police Sgt. Brent Mak, a fraud investigation specialist, says it doesn't have to involve Viagra.
"We've seen this where one gal purchased a weight-loss drug," he says.
The caller talks tough. He has your cellphone number and your address. The call comes in the afternoon, leaving only a sliver of a window for action.
Some of the names scammers have used are Special Agent William Wright, or Rice, Lt. Lynn Taylor, Agent Curtis Jackson, Special Agent Mark Trouville (badge number ASNL9975), Robert Castillo, Harry Sommers.
Sometimes the person who takes the call can hear a police scanner in the background, or even what seems to be somebody dispatching agents to your home over another phone.
If you say you didn't buy meds online, the scammer might claim the DEA intercepted a shipment of illegal drugs addressed to you, and you're in a lot of trouble. Local authorities will take your kids as wards of the court. You'll do time in a federal prison. Or worse, a prison in the Dominican Republic. If he doesn't get the money in an hour or two, the scammer calls back, angry and threatening.
The caller may be part of a gang that sold the drugs online and then used the customers' information for extortion. Mak says scammers also can buy data from crooks who compile the profiles of ID theft victims and sell them to other crooks.
He says the scam is pretty transparent, if somebody has time to think about it.
"If the DEA were going to take action, they'd come to your door," he says.
The DEA cannot levy fines, and its agents won't demand money.
Mak says anybody receiving a call from somebody claiming to be from a law enforcement agency should hang up and call the agency's nearest office to check it out.
"In almost all cases, there are two main red flags with these scams," he says. "One, a sense of urgency. It has to be today. Two, they require that the money be sent a certain way, like Western Union.
"These people cause a lot of trauma. The victims are often elderly, and they're embarrassed. They don't want their family to know."
In addition to exposing yourself to the DEA scam, to buy drugs online is to risk getting bogus drugs. At the very least, you're giving your address and credit card number to people whose business model is illegal.
Impersonating a federal agent is a violation of federal law. If you're contacted by these lowlifes, the number to report the scam to the real DEA is 877-792-2873.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.