(FOX 13) - Puppies - paid for and promised - but never arrive at your home. Con-artists are using dogs as a lure to steal your money.
It's easy to fall in love with a puppy, and that makes it easy to fall for a puppy scam.
“There are people out there who are unscrupulous. They will do anything to steal your money - some break into your house - some break into your bank account - but a cute loveable puppy is bait!” says Dr. Walter Woolf of Air Animal pet movers in Tampa.
His business gets several phone calls a week from people asking when their puppies will arrive. They've been coordinating flights for people's pets all around the world since the seventies, but have never shipped puppies from breeders. He explains how scammers are stealing his business’s identity and good reputation.
“I mean, we are www.Airanimal.Com so what they'll do is insert air animal into their domain name so they'll get picked up on a Google search,” Woolf explained.
The scammers charge victims for a pet, and the cost to ship the pet, but the pet doesn’t actually exist.
“They suck ‘em in, suck ‘em in, suck ‘em in,” Dr. Woolf says.
Con-artists pilfer images online, often from real breeders’ websites, and then build their own.
Velvet Brinson fell in love with one of those pictures - a puppy named Lexus. She wired $500 to get Lexus on the now-inactive site alphamaltese.com.
“Right after I paid, I noticed, I was seeing some of the pictures. It seems like I've seen this on other websites,” Brinson says about how her suspicions were raised.
Scammers will also "borrow" wording from legitimate sites. That was actually a red flag for Erica Smith, keeping her from buying 11-week old Sylvia on parkerhavenese.com.
“I noticed a several paragraph progression - that the way it was written changed,” she explains.
When you cut and paste the text from parkerhavenese.com into a search engine - it takes you to other websites that have the exact same language.
And like parkerhavenese.com, there are strange grammatical errors - as if the site is computer translated to English. Then Smith says she noticed something about the emails sent from the site.
“I noticed the email was coming from a server from a French language site,” Smith says.
Air Animal has linked several of the scams targeting them to the former French colony of Cameroon.
Dr. Woolf says, “To buy a puppy from an internet ad is a risky, risky business.”
In the past year, there were more than 30 puppy scams reported to the Better Business Bureau in Florida – and more than 400 across the U.S.
Parkerhavenese.com has been flagged as fake by the BBB’s scam tracker, but it's still up and running. Sylvia the puppy is still up for sale, and months later she's still just 11 weeks old.
“These aren't sellers of puppies. These are brokers who are selling imaginary puppies,” emphasizes Dr. Woolf.
Brinson realized she bought an imaginary puppy when Alpha Maltese demanded an additional $1,800 for insurance and shipment.
“I was like, ‘I just got scammed. I can't believe it,’” Brinson says, adding a warning. “Don't fall in love with a picture. Don't fall in love with a picture because chances are that's all it is.”
Even though Erica Smith didn’t send any money, she says she wanted to speak out to warn others.
Both women have new puppies now that they bought in person.
Dr. Woolf has a whole segment of his business’ website dedicated to warning consumers.
"These cyber criminals steal the identities of reputable pet shippers to appeal to your soft side and steal your money. They want you to use Western Union, Money Gram or send gift cards to pay for this fictional pet. After the money is sent, you can't get it back. To buy a pet, talk with the actual breeder. Get to know them. Visit with the local breeder. Ask questions. Ask for a minimum of three satisfied customer phone numbers and call them. A cyber pet seller will never share the name of the breeder or a telephone contact number."
The American Kennel Club hosts an online source for reputable AKC-registered breeders at marketplace.akc.org.
Remember, if you are a victim of an Internet imposter, report it.