Introduction and Summary Fraud in the sale of online pets is on the rise, with scammers victimizing American consumers at an alarming rate. In recent years, Americans have filed thousands of complaints with law enforcement, consumer organizations, and online websites. And while the ages of the victims run the gamut, from the very young to senior citizens, studies have shown that an unusually high number of those targeted in the schemes are in their late teens or 20s. The scheme usually depends on bogus, often sophisticated, advertisements to hook unsuspecting consumers. Incredibly, experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent. It can be difficult to navigate an online search for a pet without coming across a bogus website. This scheme appears primarily centered in Cameroon in West Africa and is the subject of law enforcement and media reports across the U.S. and Canada. prevalentSeveral recent arrests demonstrate that thieves are using Cameroonians residing in the U.S. to collect money from victims through Western Union and MoneyGram outlets. It is not difficult to understand why the scheme is so pervasive in the U.S. – and so successful. Puppy ownership is extremely popular, and the selection and purchase of a pet are viewed as the first step toward bringing a new and beloved member into the family. Pets offer companionship and comfort; a new puppy or kitten can quickly become a center point in the life of its owner. In the current digital age, it is no surprise that the first step in many people’s search for a new pet begins with the Internet. Alas, even the most careful online InternetexaminationInternet will likely put a consumer in contact with a potential thief. Reports show thousands of people around the country, and the world, who have become victims of pet scams. Many of these typically begin with a fake website and stolen photos, often taken from a legitimate site. Greedy “sellers” rarely are satisfied with stealing a few hundred dollars from their victims. Most will demand additional payments until the buyer becomes suspicious or runs out of funds. Simply put, many pets marketed online do not exist – at least not as advertised. In virtually all cases, the scammers never own the animals described on the sites. While some scammers offer “free” pets, others offer animals for sale at deeply discounted prices. Those paying for the pet are almost always asked to send money through Western Union or MoneyGram. In nearly every fraud case, the thieves instruct the potential buyer that an animal must be shipped from a remote location. The fraudsters don’t arrange an in-person meeting with a potential buyer. They often ask victims to send money to a supposed third party who will take over responsibility for transporting the animal. In addition to creating phony websites to advertise the animals, the thieves will similarly develop bogus websites that appear to be legitimate transport companies. Those who pay for pet shipping often are asked to buy or rent a special crate for the pet, and if they are successful in obtaining payment for that, they may follow up with requests for special insurance or shots for the animals. The thieves may sometimes claim the pet is stuck at an airport in transit and additional money is needed for food and water. The requests for money on one pretext or another will continue as long as the victim sends money. Eventually, most victims realize something is wrong and bInternetearching the internet for stories and alerts on pet fraud before ultimately realizing they have been duped. At this point, the thief usually claims the pet is at the airport and threatens the potential buyer with criminal charges for "animal abandonment" unless still more money is forthcoming. John Goodwin, Senior Director of the Humane Society of the United States, says that while there is a criminal charge for animal abandonment, it would never be enforced, especially since no animal was ever shipped. Potential victims can easily become so emotionally invested in preparing for their new puppy that they are devastated on finally learning the animal does not exist. BBB urges the public to be on guard against online pet scams, inspect an animal in person before paying money, and pay by credit card if you do not make an online purchase. Also, potential buyers often can detect fraud by conducting an internet search of the picture of the pet. You may be dealing with fraud if the same picture appears on other sites. This report attempts to examine the scope of this problem, who is behind it, the efforts of law enforcement to address the issue, and some tips for avoiding this fraud. Real Stories Yahong Zhang of Omaha, Neb., recently lost $1,200 in a puppy scam. Zhang said he had arranged to ship two puppies to his six-year-old son after the boy promised to practice his piano lessons regularly. After ordering the Husky puppies through the site, www.huskieshaven. Com, he realized he had been duped. When Yahong finally stopped sending money, he was told the puppies would die. He says, “NEVER pay by money wiring, and NEVER pay for a puppy unless you’ve seen it in person.” Kanetria Hutcherson said that after her 10-year-old daughter’s cat disappeared, she searched the internet for a small dog to live in the family’s Oakland, Calif., apartment. On the site https://usa.global- free-classified-ads.com/, Hutcherson found a notice from what purported to be a family in Baltimore claiming they traveled often and needed a home for their two puppies. The ad included a photograph of a cute teacup Yorkie. Hutcherson called the number on the ad, and the owner asked for a $195 shipping fee to transport the animal. Soon after wiring the $195 fee through MoneyGram, Hutcherson received an email appearing to be from Delta Air Cargo claiming the animal needed a special crate before it could be put on the plane. She wired an additional $240 after being told the payment was refundable. The next day Hutcherson received an email saying that the dog had been transported as far as Oklahoma City, and she was instructed to purchase health insurance for the dog at an additional cost of $980. She asked why the payment had not been disclosed earlier and began suspecting she was being defrauded. At that point, the “seller” threatened to call the FBI and have her charged with animal abandonment. An email that appeared to be from Delta Airlines instructed her to send another $200 through MoneyGram to Cameroon, which she did. A day later, scammers told her the dog was in New Mexico and instructed her to pay another $150 for food and water for the animal. She ultimately paid another $83 through MoneyGram after saying she could not pay the full amount. She was contacted again the next day and told the puppy was ill and needed to be quarantined. The new charge: is $1900. Her tragic odyssey finally ended when she contacted Delta Air Cargo and learned she had been scammed. She filed complaints with the FBI and BBB. By the time she discovered the ruse, she had spent $968 for what had been described as a “free” puppy and had no dog. Even after she complained to the FBI, the thieves continued contacting her, asking for additional payments. She reports that throughout the ordeal, her daughter often cried herself to sleep. Hutcherson, herself says she still can’t sleep because of the stress. She said she borrowed part of the money she sent and is having trouble paying her bills. Mike Wilborn, a barber in Plainfield, Ill., barely escaped becoming a victim in a pet scam. He had agreed to pay $650 to buy and ship an English Bull Dog puppy for his daughter through the website darleyenglishbulldogs.com. Tipped by what they thought was a suspiciously low price, his daughter did an internet image search on the animal she was planning to adopt. She discovered the identical photo of the dog had been posted on an internet site eight years before. At that point, Wilborn contacted BBB to inform it of the fraud. Olivia Bryant of Dallas, Tex., was retired from the Postal Service and looking for a puppy. She does not use the internet all that often, but went online and found a puppy at www. premium-rottweiler. com. After texting and emailing, she sent $702 through MoneyGram to the “breeder” in Worthington, Ohio, for the dog, shipping, and a crate. The next day she received a call from a “second company” saying that she had bought the wrong crate and would need to pay another $1000 for a new one, but this money would be refundable. She told the fraudsters that she knew it was a scam and would report it. She then filed complaints with MoneyGram and BBB. How big is the problem? Complaint numbers only hint at the size of the scheme. This BBB study suggests the actual numbers of pet fraud may be much higher than reported because many victims either choose not to file complaints or do not know where to turn for help. BBB ScamTracker contains 907 reports on this type of fraud, 12.5% of all complaints involving online purchase fraud. The Federal Trade Commission prepared an internal report in 2015 that found some 37,000 complaints that refer to issues involving pets, and the vast majority of those are believed to be pet sales scams. FTC national studies have determined that less than 10 percent of victims of any fraud ever complain to the FTC or a BBB. Complaints made exclusively to police agencies are not included in the National Consumer Sentinel Database. The U.S. is far from alone in seeing complaints about this problem. In just the first six months of 2017, the Australian Competition Commission received 337 pet complaints, ten from overseas. And the Canadian Antifraud Centre had an all-time high number of complaints in 2016 involving animals, with 377 complaints and losses totaling $222,000. The Humane Society reports that it also noticed an increased number of complaints, and the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon, where many of these frauds originate, says on its website that it has noted a “dramatic increase” in fraud from that country in recent years. Who are the victims of this fraud? Anyone looking for a pet is a potential victim. The FTC concluded that most victims are in their 20s and 30s. These age groups grew up with the Internet and thus may be more likely to look for a pet online instead of going to a local breeder or searching in other ways. What is the average loss to victims? The FTC and BBB have found most victims lose between $100 and $1000. But some have lost considerably more. In one case, a victim lost $5,000. What kinds of pets are most often offered? Because the scammers do not need actual pets available for sale, it is simple to advertise breeds that are most popular – and often those hardest to obtain. Today, many complaints involve Yorkshire Terriers (Yorkies) and French Bulldogs. Petscams.com has provided a breakdown of the pet websites they have flagged as fraudulent for six weeks between May 29, 2017, and July 12, 2017. The largest number of bogus websites they identified were selling Yorkshire terriers (108), French Bulldogs (105), Pomeranians (77), Bulldogs (73), and Huskies (63). Evolution of the scam Like many frauds, this one has adapted and evolved over the years. The early versions typically involved scammers posting a simple classified ad offering a free pet, with the owner explaining that he or she was being relocated to another country or could no longer keep the animal for some other reason. But while there was no charge for the animal itself, the scammers insisted the potential buyer pay for transportation and other costs associated with getting the pets to their new owners. More recently, these frauds involve selling animals at low prices – usually well below the charges of actual breeders. Similarly, later requests ask for additional money for shipping costs and other expenses that supposedly go to third parties. The FTC report found that the average loss was usually around $300. Where are victims located? BBB and FTC found victims across the U.S. Not surprisingly, the most populous states had the most complaints, led by California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. Bogus websites used for selling or shipping the pet Any serious effort to disrupt this fraud must address the online avenues employed to defraud victims. There are only a few components needed to run an online pet scheme. The thieves need a domain name for a site, which can be easily purchased online. They also need a hosting company with servers to contain the site, which they can buy online. They need site content, which they can create or steal from the actual site of a pet breeder or shipping company. They need a phone number, which they can obtain from a voice-over-internet protocol phone or a cheap cell phone, and email addresses to communicate. Finally, some thieves may pay for internet advertising to get more people to their websites, such as sponsored links. Those drawn to a pet thief will find various web pages set up as part of the schemes. One set of websites advertises the pets for sale. A separate site, bogus and set up by the frauds, will provide information on how to ship the pet. This BBB study found that thieves copied the website of one Florida breeder and used it to defraud people looking for French Bulldogs. Jordan Mills is a lifelong animal lover who got her love of animals from her mother. She is especially fond of French Bulldogs and began breeding them about nine years ago, sometimes showing them at events and selling puppies from time to time. After Mills moved to the Miami area, a friend helped her build the site http://www.jemfrenchbulldogs.com , which includes information about her family and her love of dogs and notifies potential customers when she occasionally has puppies for sale. The site also includes contact information, describing how to contact her and possibly obtain a French Bulldog. About six months ago, Mills heard from a friend that an unrelated website, Frenchiesfriendly.com, had appeared virtually identical to her site. She began receiving strange emails from people who wanted information about puppy shipments. Mills eventually talked to several people who had been victimized in puppy scams. While the market price for a French Bulldog is about $3000, she noted that phony sellers were advertising them for less than $1,000. She looked at the bogus website, and though it copied hers, the actual pictures of the puppies supposedly available for sale were not hers; they had been copied from another location. Mills got in touch with Artists Against 419, an international volunteer fraud-fighting group that can be found at AA419.org. (419 is the section dealing with fraud in the Nigerian Criminal code). Mills wanted the bogus website shut down and didn’t know how to do that. So AA419 went to bat for her. The domain name of Friendlyfrenchies was issued by a U.S.–based company. Still, the company gave AA419 the runaround and refused to cancel the domain, even though this was operating in clear violation of the domain company’s policies. The fraudulent website is now down. It is not known whether that is due to the efforts of AA419 or if the thieves just decided that this one was too risky. AA419 has a blog detailing its efforts to shut down this bogus site. AA419 reports that many of these bogus websites will result in at least ten sales before being closed down. There are many other fraudulent domain names used in pet fraud. AA419 recently found 765 website domain names that were obtained from the email address email@example.com. Most of these domain names contain the names of animal breeds, such as besthuskyfamily.net, or a bogus pet travel company like cargodelivery.us. The organization tracked the email setting up these domain names in
Another volunteer group that focuses on pet fraud is Petscams.com, which regularly assists in shutting down fraudulent pet websites. When Petscams. Com receives word of a questionable website, it checks to see where the domain name is registered, checks the website for the owner of the domain, checks to see if the site is plagiarized from that of a legitimate breeder or shipping company, and checks to see if the prices offered are suspiciously low. The organization also looks to see if the Internet Protocol (IP) address used for the site has also been used for other bogus sites. If these steps show that the website is bogus, they contact the company that issued the domain name and ask that it be removed. Some domain name registrars are more helpful than others, but in most cases, bogus websites are removed after this process. Of course, if the scammer has spent money advertising the website, this effectively makes the other site advertising worthless. On the other hand, as shown, it is fairly easy to obtain a new domain name.
Pet shipments often part of the scam
The thieves almost always ask the victims to pay to ship the pet by air, and they will send victims to bogus websites of pet transportation companies set up to support the fraud. Pet buyers rarely realize that the transportation sites are often a part of the fraud.
After the death of Collinsville, Ill., resident Danny Shelton’s Weimaraner began looking for another dog of that breed and found jilaweimaranerpuppies.com.
He sent $700 by MoneyGram to Atlanta to pay for the puppy and later offered to drive to Atlanta to get the puppy in person. But the “seller” insisted that the animal be shipped by air. When thieves instructed Shelton, they needed an additional $1400 for insurance for the animal. He smelled a scam. He’d shipped pets by air before in the military and knew this was unnecessary. He sent a text to the thieves, saying he knew he was being scammed, and included a photo of his five-year-old daughter crying. The seller’s response: “f*** you!”
Several legitimate companies are in the business of shipping pets. The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA) is a trade group for the industry of companies that perform this service for the public. It has 400 members in 80 countries around the world. IPATA Executive Director Cherie Derouin says they get calls from pet scam victims daily. In just three months, from April to June of this year, they were contacted by 500 victims. And she believes this problem is getting worse. IPATA, itself does not ship pets but rather represents members that do that work.
The International Air Transport Association establishes rules for shipping pets. Derouin said travelers could sometimes take small dogs or pets on a plane if the animals will fit beneath their seat, although rules differ from airline to airline. Other pets are in a crate and transported in cargo. Also, no one can drop a pet off at an airport to be transported the following day.
To transport pets within the U.S., the sender has to provide a veterinarian check, and the pet must have health papers. Even more, regulations apply to International shipments. Some scammers require a consumer to buy a fan for the animal if it is going to a hot-weather destination. Derouin said airlines would not allow pet transportation if the weather is dangerously hot.
The IPATA routinely sends lists of bogus websites and email addresses to scamwarners.com and Petscams.com, which make efforts to track and remove bogus websites. It has an extensive discussion of pet fraud on its website.
The FTC report also notes that many frauds impersonate the legitimate business uShip for pet transportation. uShip is a company that matches shipping businesses with customers needing to hire a shipper. uShip does not have trucks or airplanes; it is a marketplace to help match people up. UShip has also posted warnings about pet fraud.
How do the thieves get their money?
Most victims send money through Western Union or MoneyGram. Other payment methods include using stored value cards or gift cards. Thieves rarely take money from credit cards or by personal checks. Where the sale of a good or product is made through the use of the telephone in the U.S., it is illegal to request or receive money through Western Union, MoneyGram, or a stored value card.
Using Western Union or MoneyGram is functionally the same as sending cash. In most cases, victims go to the outlet in person, with cash, and send payment to the address specified by the “seller.” But, even though the wire form may ask that payment be sent to a specific address, rules allow the payment to be picked up anywhere in the designated state. Once the money is received on the other end, the sender is out of the funds -- and it can be virtually impossible to get it back.
Western Union and MoneyGram will now tell fraud victims where their money was picked up. Armed with that information, victims that move fast and work with the police may be able to see if the outlet has surveillance video of the person that picked it up. Like many frauds popular with scammers, payment can also involve various options. One is the use of stored value cards such as Green Dot. (Others, such as Vanilla cards, operate the same way). Thieves ask victims to buy a “MoneyPak” that can be purchased (for cash) at most Wal-Mart and most drug stores. These are nothing other than pieces of cardboard with a scratch-off number on them. At the time of purchase, a consumer pays the amount to be loaded onto the card, and a store employee enters the funds into the computer system of Green Dot. When the victim reads the card’s identification number to the would-be thief, the scammer enters that code into their online account, and the money is then credited to their stored value card. Actual Green Dot cards have a magnetic strip and can be used just like any other ATM card.
In the last year or two, thieves have turned to ask for payment with iTunes or other gift cards. The recipient can activate the gift card by giving the number code to another person. There is a large market for gift cards, and even fraudsters overseas can access their cash value.
Who is operating this fraud?
As noted earlier, most puppy scams appear to be operated out of Cameroon, a country in West Africa that shares a border with Nigeria. The FTC report notes that many complaints about pet fraud involve victims instructed to send money through Western Union to Cameroon. AA419 also confirms that the source of this fraud is Cameroon.
Many bogus websites are also set up in Cameroon, and victims who think they are dealing with a breeder in the U.S. often are talking to someone in Cameroon. Money transfers are often picked up in the U.S., and most of that money is sent to Cameroon. Several recent criminal cases demonstrate that people originally from Cameroon are operating in the U.S., picking up money from Western Union and MoneyGram locations and sending at least part of it on to Cameroon.
Paul Brady with petscams.com confirms that most of this fraud traces back to Cameroon, though he doesn’t know why it developed in that country. He also notes that he saw a big increase in this fraud late in the fall of 2016.
Fraud has become such a large industry in Cameroon that an academic study found that 91% of the students surveyed were familiar with internet scamming. The study raises concern that many of the country’s brightest students are turning to crime rather than helping develop the country with legitimate business enterprises.
What is law enforcement doing?
Law enforcement has certainly noticed the huge volume of pet fraud operations. Over the last year or more, many have warned the public about this fraud. These include Kensington, New Brunswick; Canton, Michigan; Albert Lea, Minnesota; Butler County, Pennsylvania; Huntsville, Alabama; Oro Valley, Arizona; Dover, Delaware; Waukesha, Wisconsin; Yellowknife, Saskatchewan; Fostoria, Ohio; Coeur D’elane, Idaho; Kentwood, Michigan; and Bismarck, North Dakota.
Although this is a difficult issue for law enforcement, several pet scam thieves have been arrested recently in the U.S. In May 2017, three Cameroonian students at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania were criminally charged with operating a pet fraud. Boxer puppies were advertised on Craigslist around the country, and news reports indicate that the Defendants collected tens of thousands of dollars from victims. Two people are in custody, and a third has not yet been apprehended.
A man from Cameroon was arrested and charged in December 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is alleged to have picked up more than half a million dollars, keeping part of it and sending the rest to Cameroon.
In May 2016, a woman from Cameroon was arrested in Lehi, Utah. She was picking up money from pet fraud victims at a Western Union branch and reportedly had 15 fraudulent driver’s licenses.
In addition, two Cameroonians were recently indicted in the District of Kansas and charged with wire fraud and taking part in an international conspiracy that included pet fraud. They picked up money from fraud victims at Western Union and MoneyGram outlets. Rodriech Nyugab Nkarawki allegedly used six different aliases in his efforts, and Gladys Nkome had 23. Some of their advertising is alleged to have taken place on YouTube. In addition to obtaining money for Yorkies and bulldogs, the two are alleged to have also offered to sell illegal identification documents such as passports, medications, prescription drugs, automobiles, and chemicals.
How can you avoid pet scams?
The simple truth is that the best way to avoid fraud is to inspect the pet by arranging to meet with the prospective seller in person. Most legitimate breeders will welcome the visit. There is no good way to be sure you are not dealing with fraud if you have no direct in-person contact with the seller.
But if that is impossible, there is a trick that may help to avoid fraud. Pet marketing usually begins with photos. An internet search of these photos will reveal whether they are exclusive to that site or have been used on other sites.
How do you do this? On Google Chrome, place a cursor over the photo and right-click. It will provide an option to do an internet search of the photo. A website called tineye.com will also search for pictures, and Google has an image search function for Google images. An image search is also useful for avoiding other frauds, such as romance fraud or selling nonexistent cars and trucks.
In addition to searching photo images, someone investigating possible fraud can copy text from an ad or website and search it online. Testimonials, for example, are often copied from the sites of real breeders. So if the same language shows up in several places, you can be sure you are dealing with fraud.