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Another doggone scam

Groups say to be wary of any ad or site that, for free or for a bargain, promises adorable puppies -- the new face of the old Nigerian money scheme.

May 29, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

And now for the latest scam from Nigeria -- puppies.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. and the American Kennel Club today plan to issue a warning about fraudulent websites, MySpace postings and print ads asking people to help save puppies who are in desperate straits.

The sites and ads usually show adorable puppies that somehow have become stuck in Nigeria or other countries, and are offered free to new owners. A variation is to offer the puppies, such as purebred English bulldogs -- a particularly expensive breed -- at vastly discounted prices.

But free or not, people who had responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover such costs as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more than $1,500.

"It's like the Nigerian advance-fee scams we've been seeing for years, except with the face of a puppy," said Steve Cox, a council vice president.

No matter how much was paid, no puppies arrived. Even the pictures -- showing sad-eyed puppies with folds of skin so loose it looked as if they were wearing bunched-up sweaters -- probably were fraudulent, mostly lifted from legitimate websites of unwitting owners.

Which leads to the only good news about the situation. "When people hear about these scams involving pups they get so upset for the poor dogs," said Alison Preszler, a council spokeswoman. "But at least I can say to them, 'There are no real puppies involved. It's all a fake.' "

The problem is real and growing, however. In the last couple of months, local bureaus across the country increasingly have been getting complaints, Cox said.

In April, a New York woman was charged with grand larceny, accused of collecting payments for English bulldog puppies she was advertising for sale online and then failing to deliver. The woman allegedly told local investigators that she shared the proceeds with a Nigerian accomplice.

There are several variations of the scheme.

The fraudulent ad that had caught the attention of Tracy Braswell of Pittsburgh was in the "free" section of a local, online classifieds site. The ad told of a puppy that would bring "much love and joy" to a home, and featured four pictures.

She wrote to the contact e-mail address and received a long reply. The puppy was in excellent health, playful, wonderful with children and a registered pure breed, the e-mail said.

The contact claimed that she recently had moved from the United States to Cameroon, which is adjacent to Nigeria, and that the dog was suffering because of the climate. "I love her so much," the woman wrote, that she was willing to give her away -- for a $160 shipping fee.

Daisy Okas, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, which registers purebred dogs, said the ad and e-mail raised several red flags. "It's very unusual that someone would be giving away a purebred puppy," Okas said. "Maybe an older dog. But puppies are coveted."

English bulldog puppies commonly sell for $1,200 to $3,000.

Another problem was shipping over a long distance. "These dogs are not built like athletes," Okas said. "They were bred to be companions for the most part."

The shipping fee probably would have been only the starting point. The way this scam works is that once a fee is paid, another is quickly requested. And because the person vying for the dog already has money invested, it's often paid.

Braswell, 34, didn't get that far. She had become suspicious after asking for details about the puppy's health. The woman wrote back that the dog came with a "one-year shipping guarantee" that would provide a refund if there were health problems. Or Braswell could choose a puppy "from the next litter."

That's when Braswell cut off communication. "What was she doing breeding puppies if the climate was not good for this one?" she asked.

Elizabeth Burch of Marysville, Wash., did send money. She had been looking for an English bulldog puppy as a surprise gift for Father's Day. The one she spotted online was in a straightforward ad, but the price was a bargain -- $800.

After several e-mails, which included health certifications and copies of registration papers, she wired the money as instructed to Cameroon.

But her mother was suspicious. "She called a breeder in a nearby city and told her the story," Burch said. "The breeder told her, 'There is no dog. Call the AKC right away.' "

Burch, 26, rushed home on her lunch hour and called to cancel the wired money. She was in luck -- the funds had not been picked up in Cameroon and she got a full refund.

The seller sent her an angry e-mail, saying she had caused him great shame. "I wrote back, saying he should be ashamed of himself for using such a beautiful animal to scam people."

Kim McDonald of Gallipolis, Ohio, was not so fortunate. Her son wanted an English bulldog and together they looked over online ads, finally narrowing their choices to three.

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