ST. LOUIS — This year's No. 1 reported scam relies on man's best friend to win your heart and eventually empty your wallet.
“I don't have kids, so it's always been on my mind to have two to three dogs,” said Matt Robeck.
He said he thought getting another puppy would take the edge off a tense year.
Elizabeth Brooks had a similar thought. She started looking for a puppy as a birthday present for her husband.
“My husband loves Dachshunds so we were going to get him another Dachshund,” said Brooks of Pacific.
But finding a puppy in 2020 is easier said than done as many shelters have reported record adoption numbers.
Both Robeck and Brooks turned to the internet in their search for a puppy.
Robeck found an adorable puppy on Instagram and soon connected with what he thought was a legitimate breeder in Florida on the now-defunct website: http://starhomeminidachshund.com.
Brooks, too, found a Dachshund breeder at www.candysdachshundhome.com, which claimed to be located in Oklahoma.
Both breeders said they would gladly ship their puppies. What sealed the deal, was the price.
“It was listed at, I believe between $1,200 and $1,400. But they told me it was half off because of the pandemic,” said Brooks, who ultimately paid $700 for the puppy she chose. It was a male named Abby.
“I was like 'Wow, that's so cheap!'” said Robeck, who initially paid $600, also for a Dachshund puppy.
By the time the saga was over, Robeck would be out more than $3,000. And he still has no puppy.
Like most things too good to be true, both websites turned out to be fake.
Robeck and Brooks said the breeders suddenly began to demand more money on the day the pups were supposed to arrive. The new costs included pet insurance, a crate, as well as payment to a veterinarian who was standing by. Some of the costs, the scammers claimed, would be refunded.
“We were freaking out because we thought the puppy already taken to the airport and was sitting there waiting for this crate. I didn't have $1,400 to give them for it,” said Brooks. “All of a sudden, I’m like 'Oh no, this isn't right. I think we got scammed.’”
Fake puppies: big business
“This was a problem anyway. It's really a problem now,” said Steve Baker, Investigator with the St. Louis Better Business Bureau.
According to the Better Business Bureau, puppy scams are projected to steal more than $3 million dollars in 2020. That’s more than six times what was reported just three years ago in 2017 when roughly $400,000 were lost to puppy scams.
The scam is now so widespread, you can’t avoid it.
“I don't think it is possible to do any sort of search for a puppy or kitten online without coming across the scam site, it's just incredibly common,” said Baker. “They even use paid advertising, so that the search results come up with the top of the page to the scammers.”
Be careful how you pay
Robeck and Brooks lost close to $4,000 altogether. It was money they sent through their bank.
“I sent the money through Zelle, which is through the bank. And when you think of any kind of transaction with your bank, you think it's secure. They’ll help you if there’s any fraud,” said Brooks. “Well, the Zelle bank app doesn't work that way. Once you send the money, it's gone.”
Robeck too says his fraud claim with Zelle was denied.
Their money was gone just like the scammers.
“It is sophisticated. This all traces back to Cameroon, a country in Africa that shares a border with Nigeria. These are very organized criminal enterprises,” said Baker. “Unfortunately, since we did our last study on this almost three years ago, I've only seen one prosecution in the United States.”
A rare prosecution
The I-Team learned a Cameroon man was recently charged for his part in a puppy fraud scheme. According to the US Department of Justice, Desmond Fodje Bobga is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, forging a seal of the U.S. Supreme Court, and aggravated identity theft.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic has created the perfect condition for unscrupulous pet sellers to thrive,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman.
“This suspect exploited this website to sell puppies and capitalized on people looking for companion animals online during this difficult time. The FBI has a long arm and an even longer reach and no matter where these scammers are, we will stop at nothing to make sure they don't get away with victimizing American citizens.”
A website that was used in the online puppy fraud scheme, www.lovelyhappypuppy.com, is already deleted. Fodje Bobga was allegedly scamming Americans by attempting to sell Dachshund and Chihuahua puppies.
According to the unsealed affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, from around June 2018 to the present, Bobga knowingly conspired with others to offer puppies and other animals for sale on websites, including lovelyhappypuppy.com.
He and others communicated by text message and email with potential victims to induce pet purchases. Following each purchase, Bobga and the co-conspirators claimed that a transportation company would deliver the puppy or other animal and provided a false tracking number for the pet. Bobga and his co-conspirators, acting as the transportation company, then claimed the pet transport was delayed and that the victim needed to pay additional money for delivery of the pet.
A surprise ending
After being scammed, Robeck and Brooks found local breeders. This time, they did things differently.
“I definitely FaceTimed [the breeder] and called her before I made the decision to get a puppy,” said Robeck.
Brooks said she was able to see her puppy before putting any money down. She also advises you to ask a breeder for a photo with the puppy and a random object- like a can of soup or book- so you know the image you’re getting is original and taken just for you.
“It was an expensive lesson to learn. But fortunately, we saved enough and we'll be getting our new puppy next month,” said Brooks.
The bottom line
If you're looking for a pet online, keep in mind what the BBB says. Most pet websites you come across on social media, google or anywhere online right now, are fake.
If you do find a pet for sale- make sure you can facetime or see it in person because it may not exist. Scammers are known for stealing cute animal pictures and using those as bait.
Lastly, if you do get scammed, there's a better chance you'll get your money back if you use a credit card instead of a payment app or wire transfer.
If you're thinking about getting a puppy for the holidays, check out www.Petscams.com. They have a database of more than 8,000 fraudulent pet websites to avoid.