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Dominican Republic citizens charged by U.S. in extortion scheme

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly two dozen Dominican Republican citizens were charged in an extortion scheme targeting U.S. residents who they believed had unlawfully purchased prescription medication via call centers in that Caribbean nation, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The defendants generated roughly $880,000 in profits by posing as agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency who imposed fines on the drug purchasers, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

"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," Leonhart said. 

Those charged with the extortion plan are accused of obtaining lists of people in the U.S. who had purchased medication through call centers and websites run out of the Dominican Republic.

Then, they are suspected of calling the purchasers, telling them they were under investigation for illegally buying medication and demanding a fee in exchange for avoiding jail time, the statement said.

It was not immediately clear how many people were targeted in the suspected scheme, launched in 2008 at the latest, but the DEA said it had received about 6,500 reports of extortion attempts, between June 2010 and January 2013, tied to the defendants and others running similar operations.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have arrested 17 of the 21 people accused in connection with scheme. Four of the defendants charged remain at-large.

Those arrested are awaiting extradition to the United States.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; editing by Gunna Dickson)