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International Scheme to Extort Americans by Impersonating DEA Special Agents Foiled

Seventeen arrests in Dominican Republic target those calling innocent citizens demanding payment in exchange for dropped bogus charges

MAY 28 (WASHINGTON) –DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart and United States Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York today announced that 21 citizens of the Dominican Republic have been charged with conspiring to impersonate United States law enforcement officers, extortion, and wire fraud.  Beginning two weeks ago, authorities in the Dominican Republic, acting on requests from the United States, located and arrested 17 of the defendants in the Dominican Republic, who are now awaiting extradition proceedings in that country.  Four defendants remain at-large.

The defendants are alleged to have engaged in a scheme to extort money from individuals located in the United States by posing as DEA agents or other representatives of the United States Government.  The defendants targeted individuals who they believed had illicitly purchased prescription pharmaceuticals through call centers located in the Dominican Republic.  As part of the defendants’ scheme, a member of the conspiracy would call a victim located in the United States and identify himself or herself as a DEA agent or representative of another United States agency.  The victim would then be told that he or she was under investigation for illegally purchasing prescription drugs, and that the only way to avoid arrest and jail would be to pay a “fine” or some other fee to the DEA.  In total, the defendants and others who participated in this scheme and copy-cat schemes demanded at least $3.5 million, and received at least $880,000, in extortionate payments from victims in the United States.

“These alleged criminals not only bilked thousands of dollars from unsuspecting Americans but they also called into question the integrity and honor of the DEA and all law enforcement,” Administrator Leonhart said.  "The DEA, with the assistance of our Dominican Republic counterparts, have worked diligently to identify, target and, ultimately, dismantle this group of alleged scam artists.  We urge anyone who receives a similar threatening phone call to hang up and contact local or federal law enforcement immediately.”

United States Attorney Bharara said: “These defendants generated untold millions of dollars in illicit profits by posing as DEA Agents or other U.S. law enforcement officers.  They carried out the internet or telephone equivalent of displaying phony badges to rip off their victims.  In the process, the defendants assaulted the good name of the DEA.  We commend the DEA for putting a stop to this criminal charade.”

According to the Indictment, which was unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:

From at least 2008, up to and including March 2013, JULIO SANTANA JOSEPH, FRANCISCO RUBIO MONTALVO, ANGEL PEREZ AVILES, a/k/a “Mike,” DEIVY BURGOS FELIX, CHENGY PADILLA GARO, GEURY GUZMAN ROSA, DANTE CAMINERO VASQUEZ, SAUL HERNANDEZ BATISTA, MOISES DE LA CRUZ DECENA, CELSO MIGUEL SARITA, EDWARD CUEVAS ESCANO, SANTIAGO GUZMAN GONZALEZ, JOSE ARISMENDY CUESTA ABREU, CARLOS PERDOMO ROSARIO, a/k/a “El Depo,” ELINSON REYES ALMONTE, YEURY AMARANTE ROSARIO, MARIO ANTONIO PLACIDO, YGNACIO ESTEVEZ MESSON, BORIS GIL GUERRERO, VICTOR VELASQUEZ ROCHTTIS, a/k/a “Vitico,” and RAFAELA MEDINA, a/k/a “Carolina,” the defendants, and others known and unknown, engaged in a scheme to extort money from individuals located in the United States by posing as DEA agents or other representatives of the United States Government (the “Impersonation and Extortion Scheme”).  Each of the defendants made extortionate calls and/or received money from victims who had been extorted.  The Impersonation and Extortion Scheme targeted individuals who the defendants believed had purchased prescription drugs unlawfully over the internet or through call centers.  The illicit websites and call centers at issue sold pills to customers that would typically require a doctor’s prescription to purchase.  The illicit websites and call centers did not require consumers to obtain the required prescriptions before purchase (hereinafter, the pills sold in this manner are referred to as the “Prescription Drugs”). 

The DEA Impersonation and Extortion Scheme typically operated as follows: First, certain of the defendants and other individuals not named as defendants who engaged in the Impersonation and Extortion Scheme (the “Extorters”) purchased, or otherwise obtained, lists of individuals who the Extorters believed had previously purchased Prescription Drugs over the internet on illicit websites or through illicit call centers located in the Dominican Republic (“Customer Lists”).  The Customer Lists generally contained the names, addresses, credit card numbers and other information for individuals located in the United States.

Second, an Extorter contacted a customer from the Customer Lists (the “victim”) and identified him- or herself as a DEA agent or representative of another United States agency. Often, the Extorter provided the name of an actual DEA supervisor from a DEA office located in the United States.  The Extorters attempted to extort money from victims throughout the United States, including victims in Manhattan and the Bronx, New York.            
                                    
During a call with a victim, an Extorter falsely informed the victim that authorities in the Dominican Republic or elsewhere were investigating or criminally charging the victim as a result of his or her illegal purchase of Prescription Drugs that were sent to the victim from the Dominican Republic.  In a single call or series of calls and emails, the Extorter detailed the purported criminal charges and potential penalties facing the victim, including imprisonment, and the likelihood that the victim would be arrested and extradited to a foreign country for prosecution. 
                        
During a call with the victim, an Extorter also generally informed the victim that he or she could dispose of, or avoid, the criminal charges by making a cash payment.  In order to do so, the Extorter had the victim transfer between several hundred and several thousand dollars either (i) through a money remitting service to a particular individual in the Dominican Republic, or (ii) via wire transfer to a particular bank account located in the Dominican Republic.   
            
Following receipt of a payment from a victim, an Extorter typically contacted the victim again.  During the follow-up conversations, the Extorter demanded additional payments and threatened to have criminal charges re-filed against the victim.  If the victim refused to make, or to continue to make, extortion payments to the Extorter, the Extorter threatened the victim with his or her imminent arrest, with searches of the victim’s home in the United States by federal law enforcement officers, or with public disclosure of the victim’s prior purchases of Prescription Drugs. 
                        
The Extorters typically made extortion calls from illicit call centers located in the Dominican Republic (the “Call Centers”).  In these Call Centers, the Extorters gathered together and used multiple computers equipped with Voice Over Internet Protocol (“VOIP”) technology to make extortion calls to victims listed on a Customer List.  VOIP is a means of transmitting digital voice communications over the internet via a high-speed internet connection.  The VOIP technology allowed the Extorters to contact their victims by using VOIP lines that made it appear as though the Extorters were calling from telephone numbers with area codes from within the United States.  For example, the Extorters used VOIP lines that made it appear as though the Extorters were calling from, among other places, Washington, D.C., and New York, New York, when, in truth, the Extorters were located in the Dominican Republic.  The Extorters often made hundreds of extortion calls a day from these Call Centers to victims in the United States.
                                   
Once a particular victim made an extortion payment to one of the Extorters, the Extorter who received that payment often shared that victim’s contact information with other Extorters, who then besieged the victim with additional, repeated extortion attempts via telephone.  While using these lines to further the Impersonation and Extortion Scheme, the Extorters often traded tips with other Extorters in the same Call Center on the best techniques to use to extort victims.

Beginning in June 2010, the DEA established a telephone hotline (the “Hotline”), to allow victims to report extortion attempts and other contacts with the defendants and other individuals who engaged in the Impersonation and Extortion Scheme and who posed as DEA and other federal agents.  Since the Hotline was established in June 2010, through January 2013, the DEA received approximately 6,500 reports from victims of extortion attempts, nearly all of which followed substantially the same pattern described above.  In sum, through the Hotline, the DEA has learned of the Extorters’ efforts to obtain over $3.5 million in extortion payments from victims, and of actual extortion payments from victims to the Extorters of over $880,000.  These attempted extortions and actual extortion payment amounts reflect only what was reported to the DEA through the Hotline, and thus represent only a portion of the extortion payments that the Extorters have attempted to obtain, or actually obtained, from their victims.   

Each of the defendants has been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, each of which carries a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.  Each of the defendants has also been charged with one count of conspiracy to impersonate a United States law enforcement officer, which carries a maximum potential penalty of 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.  The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencings of the defendants will be determined by the judge.

Those instrumental in this case include DEA’s Special Operations Division, DEA New York Field Division, DEA’s Dominican Republic Country Office, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Dominican National Directorate for Drug Control for their work in this investigation.

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