Carrie Goss was thinking with her heart when she placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a purebred Doberman puppy for her truck driver husband. "I wanted to surprise him for Father's Day," she says. "He just got a promotion to be a classroom instructor for other drivers, so now he's home and able to have a dog."
A response came almost immediately, with photos, offering a weeks-old female for only $125 — a fraction of the thousands often charged by breeders. The pictures tugged at Goss' heart and so did the sender's own story.
Goss' newfound friend said she was with the United Nations, working in Kenya to fight a malaria outbreak, and had to get the puppy out of that country within two weeks. "She seemed so caring, so sincere," Goss recalls, "asking me all kinds of questions to ensure we would provide a good home for the puppy."
But after paying that $125 by wire transfer, there came a string of requests for additional money — for insurance, for permits, for shipping and boarding costs. She dutifully sent the money, nearly $1,600, before realizing that there was no puppy for sale. She'd been had.
Old Scam, New Tale
The old puppy scam lives on, but with a twist.
When this ruse first appeared in 2007, the main motivator for the victim was the chance to get a prize purebred at a fraction of the usual cost. Scammers pretending to be breeders stole photos of adorable pups from legitimate websites and offered the animals online for a fraction of their real value.
Now, the initial hook seems to be more emotional than financial — an appeal for help to do a good deed, à la the U.N. worker's puppy-in-need.
Or a scammer might say that "his grandmother or elderly aunt was suddenly hospitalized just after her beloved dog gave birth to a litter of purebred puppies," says Kathleen Summers of the Humane Society of the United States. The fictional pups may supposedly be a popular and expensive breed such as English bulldogs or Yorkies. Or sometimes the scammer will pose as a shelter or rescue organization that has just rescued a litter of puppies of an expensive breed and wants you to "adopt" one just for the price of shipping.
In reality, Summers says, reputable shelters never offer to ship puppies to people they haven't met, and will rarely solicit people by email with such offers. They will ask potential adopters to come to their facility to meet the pet.
If you follow up on the bogus offers, you'll get requests for fee after fee until, like Goss, you wise up. The scammers (who appear usually to be in Africa, particularly Cameroon) may even threaten you with physical harm unless more money is paid. Or they may sell your contact info to other con men for other schemes.
How to Protect Yourself
Anyone who has looked for a pet knows that it's easy for emotions to overwhelm practicality. Here are six red flags to watch out for:
- You'll want to gauge the pup's personality — as well as ensure it exists. So visit the local SPCA for pets needing homes or find breeders or breed-specific rescues by typing the breed name and your ZIP code into an online search engine.
- If you're placing an ad seeking a pet, ignore responses from anyone who won't provide a local phone number and verifiable address.
- Don't trust any seller who claims to be overseas on a noble mission, such as volunteering at an orphanage or serving as a missionary.
- Be suspicious of any email correspondence that comes via free services such as Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail. Goss wired money for shipping fees to a self-described manager at Kenya Airlines who had a Hotmail address.
- Beware of form-letter emails that don't include your name or other specific info. Clicking on links that offer photos of pets could infect your computer with a virus.
- Never, never wire money.
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Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.