WCAX Investigates: Phantom Pets

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DORSET, Vt. (WCAX) John Grush wanted to surprise his wife with another puppy. "I searched for a puppy locally," Grush said.

When breeders around here didn't have any ready, the Dorset man turned to the internet. There he found thousands of options. Lillian was picture perfect, or so he thought. "I guess what was most appealing is the price was lower than everyone else's," Grush said.

He exchanged a dozen emails with the Virginia seller, Thomson Mendy. Mendy asked Grush lots of questions about his home life, other pets, and even pushed him to feed Lillian certain brands of dog food. "Made me think it was more legitimate," he said.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: And made you jump through hoops. They weren't going to give this puppy to just anyone.
John Grush: Absolutely.

Mendy wanted John to wire the cash. It would cover the cost of the dog and all shipping fees. Grush first called Western Union to make sure his money was safe. "They said the person picking it up has to show an ID, a photo ID. We take a picture of that person. So I'm thinking ok, Western Union is covering it also. So I went ahead with the process," he said.

Once Grush wired the money he got another email. This one demanded he spend thousands on special puppy insurance or he'd never see his new dog. "Everything started getting more fishy as it went along," Grush said. He was fooled by an international ring of sophisticated crooks. "I lost a little over $900."

We discovered online puppy scams are sweeping the internet. We tracked down Steve Baker, the man who investigates this scheme for the Better Business Bureau.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: Any sense of how big this problem really is?
Steve Baker: There are tens of thousands of complaints about this fraud. It runs worldwide and has saturated the internet to the point where I don't think you can do an online search for a puppy without coming across a fraud.

Baker says that likely 80-percent of the sponsored online pet ads will lead you to bogus websites where scammers are stealing stock photos to sell puppies that don't exist. He's traced most of these scams to the West African country Cameroon. He says the thieves are using Cameroonians living in the U.S. to pick up your money. "And the frauds are good. I mean they are professionals. This is what they do for a living. They have a lot of experience. It sounds totally believable. They even copy the websites of real dog breeders," he said.

Eleven people have filed complaints with the Vermont Attorney General. Grush called the Virginia State Police. Troopers checked out the imposter pet seller's address -- nothing but an empty lot. Since less than $1,000 got stolen and the crime crossed state lines, the cops couldn't do anything about it. He says Western Union told him the transaction actually went to Maryland but refused to give up the name or photo of the person who picked up his money.

"You say, should I have been smarter and what did I do wrong? You feel guilty that you went through that process and fell for it," Grush said.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: So that was the website you went to, right?"
John Grush: Yup, it is.

You won't be able to find it. The scammers took it down, but we found the domain name flagged on a scam alert. Then we used a reverse image search to find Lillian's photo on another fraudulent website. "Yup, that's the picture we saw," Grush said. The same fake puppy he already paid for, now dangling like bait for new victims to buy.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: They didn't even bother to change the name on a completely different website.
John Grush: Right
Reporter Jennifer Costa: So this puppy doesn't exist.
John Grush: Right.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: This is a stock photo.
John Grush: Hopefully you can get the story out and people won't make that same mistake.

What struck us most about this scam is that the victims actually seek out the fraud by going to those fake websites. The crooks sit back and wait for someone to bite. That's the reverse of how scams usually work.

In he end Grush's wife eventually got her puppy, and they bought him online. The difference this time -- they spoke to breeders and verified their credentials. Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to go see that puppy in person before you part with any money.