Imagine you're a pharmacist, diligently filling prescriptions, when suddenly your phone rings. The caller claims to be from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, dropping a bombshell – your pharmacist license is linked to a narcotics investigation, and there's a warrant for your arrest. Panic sets in; your career and reputation hang in the balance.

The pharmacist's cell phone rang as she was preparing prescriptions. The Caller ID said the call was coming from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy. For a pharmacist, getting a call from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy “is like the police calling you,” she said. The caller said that her pharmacist license had been linked to a narcotics investigation in Texas and there was a warrant out for her arrest.

Over the next three months, you're terrorized by demands to post a $500,000 bond or face arrest. Convinced by elaborate documents and threats, you unwittingly transfer your life savings – $500,000 – to scammers who prey on your fear and urgency.

The scammers convinced the pharmacist to move her savings and retirement savings –$500,000 – into a “protected account” and to take out two loans totaling $250,000. In reality, the funds were not being protected, but were being transferred directly to her scammers.

This nightmare became a reality for Sally (not her real name), whose identity, home address, and license number were weaponized against her. Despite her logical nature, fear paralyzed her into compliance as the scammers coerced her into secrecy, isolating her from help.

The pharmacist targeted by scammers has requested anonymity due to ongoing fear. Her identity has been verified, along with her complaint filed with the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, and some of the elaborately doctored documents and phone recordings she provided chronicling the scam have been reviewed. She will be referred to as "Sally" to protect her identity. Additionally, contact was made with the FBI, but the agency's policy is not to confirm or comment on investigations.

For Sally, the ordeal began with a phone call in the fall. The caller had her name, home address, employer, and pharmacy license number – all publicly available information - then combined those details with a threat that she was implicated in criminal activity.

“I was in complete terror mode,” Sally said of the phone call she received in the fall. “My only infraction in my life was a speeding ticket in 2002. I have never had issues professionally.”

Sally, 65, was planning on retiring the following month.

“I am usually a calm, measured, logical person no matter what the situation, but I was completely undone by all this all at once,” she said.

For the next three months, Sally was intimidated to not tell anyone – including anyone else at the Ohio Board of Pharmacy or relatives – that anything was wrong. She was sent documents that looked like they were coming from the FBI and other authorities. She saw a dark SUV several times either driving by her house or following her, she thought because the FBI was protecting her. She now thinks it was probably a call to a driving service to drive by and keep up the ruse.

As Anand said often happens with victims, Sally was coached on the phone on what to tell people at the bank, and there were several times the scammers told her to keep them on the phone while she opened accounts and transferred crypto currency.

There would be glimmers of hope; an “agent” would tell her some people were taken into custody related to her identity theft. She felt she was making progress.

After three months, Sally’s breaking point was when the scammers – who already had taken her for $750,000 – said they’d need another $350,000 for a bond in all 50 states.

Sally told them she had no more money; they had it all.

“I was feeling suicidal,” she said. That evening at a family dinner, she confided in a family member. She began to formulate an exit plan.

“I had been so gripped in fear that none of my logic was firing. It was horrifying to realize the financial peril I was in and not sure of the level of physical safety I had,” Sally wrote in detailed notes she later put together for the real authorities.

Sally said her demeanor changed the next time she spoke to the scammers. She didn’t let on that she knew they had been scamming her; but said she had no more access to money. The scammers began to change their story and said they were working to reduce the bond and additional money that would be needed.

Sally told the callers that she wasn’t feeling well and had to go to the emergency room. She stopped responding to calls and texts and turned her phone off. She reported the incidents to her local sheriff’s office. She went to stay at her late mother’s house, which she co-owns with a sister.

She closed her bank accounts and froze her credit reports.

After about a month of not returning calls or texts, Sally said the scammers stopped, probably figuring that she was no longer going to participate.

Apart from informing local authorities, Sally also notified the relevant state pharmacy board. She has completed some paperwork for the FBI but has not received any updates. A statement from the Cleveland FBI stated that they do not confirm or deny specific investigations or provide updates on investigative steps, interviews conducted, or information learned. However, they review allegations of criminal conduct for their merit, although this does not always lead to a full investigation.

Ohio Board of Pharmacy alerts pharmacists to scams

When Sally contacted the real Ohio Board of Pharmacy through its website, she verified the identity of staffers who contacted her before reporting the crime.

The board has been sending out alerts warning its statewide network of pharmacists about scams since 2019, said McNamee. The latest was sent in February.

The board started noticing more reports of extortion scams where scammers were impersonating federal agencies and agencies such as the pharmacy board or state medical board, said McNamee.

“We were getting calls from people saying ‘Is this you?’ and we said ‘We would never act in that way,’ ” he said. “We were concerned, particularly with older pharmacists, or people who could be vulnerable, like a lot of older adults.”

Since 2021, the board has had 30 reports of people who have questioned whether a call they have gotten is a scam. They believe only two to three have actually been victimized. Sally’s case is the worst the board has seen in their state, McNamee said.

Aftermath of the scam

The scammers have financially ruined Sally, she said. “I was exhausted to begin with,” she said. “Financially, it’s a complete disaster.” “I’m not going to be retired for a while. I may have to go into bankruptcy. It’s a big mess,” she said. “I take it a day at a time. Some days are easier.”

The divorced mother of two grown children said she’s not sure if she’ll have anything for her children to inherit. She also is unsure where she’ll live.

The torment didn't end with the scam. Sally's finances are in ruins. Despite her prudent nature, she finds herself facing bankruptcy. Her retirement dreams shattered, she grapples with the uncertainty of her future. With only $38,000 left in savings, she's burdened by $250,000 in loans and looming mortgage payments. The tax implications of her early retirement savings withdrawal compound her woes.

Sally's heart-wrenching story serves as a stark warning. Scammers prey on vulnerability and fear, sparing no one. Her ordeal underscores the need for vigilance and awareness, especially among older adults who may be more susceptible.

Sally's resilience shines through as she strives to rebuild her life. She shares her story not for sympathy but to empower others. Awareness is the first line of defense against scammers.

How can you protect yourself from falling victim to such scams? Here are some tips:

Verify Calls: Phone numbers can be spoofed. If you receive a suspicious call, hang up and call the number you know to be genuine.

Stay Informed: Having an online presence allows you to stay informed about potential scams and fake profiles. Even if you're not tech-savvy, some internet presence is beneficial.

Be Wary of Urgency: Scammers often exploit fear and urgency. If you're pressured to act quickly, take a step back and assess the situation.

Avoid Money Transfers: Never transfer money or buy gift cards to "protect" funds. Legitimate authorities won't make such demands.

Beware of Follow-Up Scams: Once targeted, you may be vulnerable to follow-up scams offering recovery services. Be cautious of any unsolicited offers.

Question Official-Looking Documents: Don't be deceived by authentic-looking documents. Verify their authenticity through official channels before taking any action.

Report Scams: If you suspect a scam, report it immediately to the relevant authorities. Don't engage further with the scammer.

Through sustained vigilance and awareness, both individuals and communities can defend against the threat of scams. Together, we can work collaboratively to confront fraud and protect our neighborhoods.