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CONSUMER WATCH

Nigerian puppy scam has victims howling

June 03, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Put together Nigerian money scams and adorable puppies in the same newspaper column and what do you get?

Lots of e-mails.

Some were angry that the scam is going on, others had their own stories to tell.

And some were just sad.

"I think this scam is happening to me," Hanriet Pari of Glendale wrote.

The scam, as outlined in The Times on Tuesday, lures victims with online ads featuring pictures of achingly cute, English bulldog puppies that somehow got stuck in West Africa and are in need of good homes.

The puppies are free, but anyone who responds soon finds out there are shipping fees. And if those are paid, money is needed for customs. Then shots. Then whatever else occurs to the scammer, who usually is based in what has become the international online-scam capital: Nigeria.

"I have sent $250 for the dog to be shipped to me," Pari wrote, "and then $525 for insurance and other things, and now they want $140 for a health thing.

"Please help me."

The only help that could be offered was to advise her to not send any more money. There are no puppies coming. Ever.

Even the pictures are part of the scam -- they are usually lifted from legitimate websites.

One question Pari posed could be answered emphatically:

"Is there any way of getting my money back?"

No.

Dan Landis, a cargo agent for Delta Air Lines in Seattle, has seen the end result of the scam.

"I have had to deal with this several times recently," he wrote.

People arrive at the airport to pick up their new dog and instead go from "cargo warehouse to cargo warehouse trying to find out if their puppy is there."

In the end, there is only "a lot of tears."

Lacie Thompson in Ventura was lured by an ad for a puppy available for a $150 "adoption fee" plus $80 shipping. It was being offered by a woman named Ashley who said she had traveled from Fresno to Cameroon and now had to find the puppy a home.

"Is she not your dream baby???" Ashley wrote to Thompson.

It was a common thread. The scammers, whose messages are so similar they all seem to be working from the same script, invariably refer to a puppy as "baby."

And besides the major cute factor, there is the matter of getting a bargain. Highly prized English bulldog puppies, with pure-breed certification papers (and, of course, all the advertised puppies have them) can go for more than $3,000 apiece from a legitimate breeder.

"I wanted to believe it was true," Thompson wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

But the column reinforced her queasy feeling about the "baby" and she cut off communication.

Carmen Molina of La Puente answered an ad and received a response from "Rev. Vicky Duron" who thanked the "living Lord," that a home had been found for her two "babies" suffering in the climate of West Africa.

Shipping was only $600.

"I can't believe they use God's name to make this kind of dirty business," Molina wrote. "Now I know that it's better to pay more but I'll get the real thing."

Paying more is almost un-American in this era of scouring the Internet to search out the lowest price possible. One reader blamed U.S. agencies for not offering more protections.

"The government is worthless," he declared. Another suggested the U.S. "suspend any kind of trade with Nigeria."

Yeah, except we need the oil.

One reader was not just complaining. He was taking action.

"It is my mission to check each day for such ads," wrote Darlene Dean of Athens, Ga.

When she finds a suspicious puppy ad on Craigslist or other classified advertising website, she reports them and asks that they be removed.

But the retired teacher also had a message for anyone wanting a canine companion.

"With all the dogs in shelters," she wrote, "why anyone would wire money to another country and request a pet sight unseen is beyond me."

david.colker@latimes.com

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