KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- If you’ve been searching online for a puppy, FOX4 Problem Solvers have two words of advice: Be careful.
The Better Business Bureau estimated that as much as 80 percent of the advertising is fake. KCK mom Bobby Richardson learned that the hard way.
“My daughter was so ecstatic,” said Richardson, referring to the tea cup French bulldog she found online.
According to the ad on Facebook, it was a rescue pup in need of a good home.
Patti Starvaggi, of Pennsylvania, found a Corgi on the same site that she knew would be perfect for her friend.
“He lost his wife 22 months ago to breast cancer and lost his dog,” Starvaggi said.
The seller said the pups were micro-chipped and had papers and shots -- all for the low price of $700, less than half of what a pet store would charge.
“If it's legit we want it,” said Richardson, who was eager to give her 3-year-old daughter a dog.
The seller said he would send the dog to her by plane, but Richardson said she’d rather pick the pup up in person. So where did he live? Communicating primarily through text messages, he sent her an address in Lincoln, Nebraska -- just a 3-hour drive away.
The seller insisted Richardson pay him the full price before picking up the dog. But she said no.
“I don't feel comfortable doing that,” she texted him.
He responded: “I need $100 then to secure it.”
She texted "no" again and told him she was already in the car and on her way to Nebraska.
“Well how about $50?” he texted back.
She kept refusing and kept driving, finally arriving at the Lincoln address -- a modest, well-kept home in an older neighborhood. But the homeowner who answered the door had bad news: Richardson had been scammed. In fact, she was the third person that week.
Homeowner Ben Carter said he and his wife no longer even answer their front door because they’ve had so many people show up demanding the pets they’d ordered online. Two people wanted dogs. One person asked for a parrot.
“It's frustrating because we just bought this house,” Carter said, never realizing that the address was being used in an international scam.
The scam starts on Facebook with multiple sites like “Adams Teacup Yorkies Puppies Owner” or “Johnson’s French Bulldog Village.” Photos of puppies and other animals fill the pages.
To see how the scam works, FOX4 Problem Solvers posed as an interested buyer. The site initially linked us to a legitimate looking, secure page asking for our credit card information, a potentially good sign because if we never received the puppy, we could dispute the charge. But the page wasn’t working.
We were then told via Facebook Messenger that the only form of payment accepted was by MoneyGram or a Walmart card, both red flags for a scam.
As we kept digging into the scam, we found several Facebook pages with the same administrator as the one our page had. His name was Ty Le Formulateur. He appeared to be from the African country of Cameroon.
Although Ty Le Formulateur may be a fake name, international puppy scams are real. They are so prevalent that there is an entire site devoted to exposing them: Petscams.com.
Luckily neither of the women we interviewed paid any money to the scammers. But they did waste a lot of time and gas driving to Nebraska. For Starvaggi, it was a 13-hour trip from her home in Pennsylvania. She was furious when she discovered she’d been scammed.
“I said, 'I am not leaving this town after I drove all the way here for puppies until I go to the police department,'” Starvaggi said.
She was one of the multiple people who contacted Lincoln police. The homeowners also filed a report.
Officer Angela Sands said this was the first time police there had seen a puppy scam with multiple victims from throughout the country. Sands said there was little a local police department could do about an overseas scam, except report it to the attorney general’s office.
However, a Lincoln police officer did call the scammer, using a phone number one of the victims had been given. It had a Nebraska area code, but was
actually a Google Voice app, which allows people to call someone and have a fake number pop up on the screen.
Sands said the man who answered the phone “had a really thick accent and when he was asked for more information by the officer, he hung up on them.”
That might have been enough to discourage the puppy scammers from using a house in Lincoln as their address. The real homeowners have not had anyone
else looking for pets show up since.
But rest assured, the puppy scam lives on.
To avoid falling victim to the puppy scam:
- Avoid companies claiming to sell pets for suspiciously low prices.
- Ask any seller claiming to be a breeder for their breeder number and look it up online.
- Refuse to do business with anyone who only wants to talk via email or text message. Insist on a phone call and ask lots of questions.