They were pandemic puppies: furry, four-legged friends purchased to calm nerves and stave off isolation once the global health crisis erupted.
Their names — and photos — were precious: a teacup Chihuahua called Snow White, a larger Chihuahua named Bentley, a miniature dachshund dubbed Pansy. The pint-size furballs were advertised for sale online.
The puppies, supposedly being shipped domestically to their new owners, never arrived.
The animals never existed, federal authorities say. One victim lost $9,100 trying to buy a dog for her mother in March 2020. Others, including two victims in their 50s, lost smaller sums. Six victims, from Pennsylvania, Texas and Iowa, were defrauded, according to the criminal complaint, and there are additional victims not identified in that document, said Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, where the charges were filed.
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This scheme “for years involved the purported sale of pets to the American public,” FBI Special Agent Joseph Ondercin said in an affidavit filed in court. He is in the FBI’s computer intrusion squad in Pittsburgh.
Stung by puppy love
The imaginary puppies, in fact, were pawns in an international fraud scheme that authorities say has left multiple victims empty-handed. That’s despite paying for the dogs as well as for subsequent fake costs fraudsters asserted had been incurred, including for a supposed need to quarantine animals because of coronavirus exposure.
(According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a small number of pet dogs in the U.S. have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus, but there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus to people.)
Other fake issues triggering requests for more money from the victims included a supposed need to buy insurance or to obtain a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit.
5,000-mile journey to justice
A 29-year-old African student who was living in Romania was extradited some 5,000 miles to Pittsburgh to face charges in the case.
Desmond Fodje Bobga, a citizen of Cameroon, was arrested Dec. 3, 2020, in Cluj, Romania, at the request of U.S. officials. He was extradited in April 2021 and sentenced a year later to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Federal prosecutors say Bobga’s scam spree ran from mid-2018 through mid-2020, so some of the puppy sales he and unnamed coconspirators conducted predated the pandemic. When COVID-19 emerged, they incorporated it into their scheme, claiming coronavirus exposure was delaying deliveries and upping costs. Among the fake documents in the case were a puppy’s “Crate and Vaccine Guarantee” document, supposedly issued by the Supreme Court.
“Mr. Bobga was a scam artist, plain and simple,” Mike Nordwall, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, said in an April 28 statement. “He exploited those who were looking for comfort during the COVID pandemic and cashed in at their expense.”
4 red flags of online pet sales
As puppy buying rises, so do scams, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), which says red flags can help spot bad actors online. Its guidance, which also applies to purchasing a cat or another kind of pet online, urges consumers to be dogged about due diligence and to know the four red flags.
Scammers post fake litters online or pretend to be someone they’re not, usually an existing breeder, AKC officials say. If you aren’t careful, you could send a “breeder” money and never receive a puppy or follow-up communication. Fake listings appear on bogus websites as well as on legitimate sites like Craigslist. Some scammers pose as reputable breeders by stealing their personal information.
Here are four red flags of puppy scams:
1. No phone calls. Fraudulent sellers, often in foreign countries, prefer to communicate by email, not by phone. (In the highlighted case, the defendant and a victim trying to buy a miniature dachshund exchanged more than 100 text messages in a week during March 2020. The dog never arrived, and the victim lost $1,840. That month, another victim traded 900 texts with him over nine days.)
A reputable breeder will communicate by phone, video chat or in person.
2. Copycat or stock photos. Photos of the dog or the text of the ad may be found on multiple websites. Search for the text in an ad listing to see if the seller copied and pasted it from another site. Or do a “reverse” image search of a photo on a site such as images.google.com.
3. A sketchy payment method. Avoid wiring money or paying with gift cards or a payment app such as Venmo. (An FBI agent in the accompanying case said criminals prefer that customers “pay through means that can obscure the recipient’s identity to avoid law enforcement detection.” The agent also cited cryptocurrency and money transfers such as Western Union or MoneyGram.)
4. A price too good to be true. If a purebred dog is being offered at a deeply discounted price, that’s typically a fraud. And if a seller says he or she register the dog, call the organization to confirm that.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.