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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/18/2007 10:10:18 PM ET 2007-06-19T02:10:18

How much is that doggie on the Web site? If it is a purebred puppy and the price is unbelievably low, watch out!

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Con artists are now targeting animal lovers. They use bogus ads with cute puppy faces to hook their victims.

“It’s a scam that plays on people’s emotions,” says Alison Preszler with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “And unfortunately, it’s working.”

Preszler says hundreds of people across the country have already fallen for this scam, paying anywhere from $250 to $1,600 for a puppy that never arrives.

The just suck you in
It happened to Kim McDonald of Gallipolis, Ohio. She went online to look for an English bulldog for her son. McDonald was willing to pay $500 (much lower than market rate) and was surprised to find three purebred puppies available for that price on PuppyFind.com.

She contacted the sellers via e-mail. All three wrote back that they were at a conference in Nigeria.

“Dummy me, I believed it,” McDonald told me. “I just thought, OK, maybe there is a conference in Nigeria.”

There wasn’t. Nigeria is where many of the scammers live.

McDonald made it clear she did not want a dog that was coming from overseas. The seller assured her the puppy was at a kennel in Tennessee. All she needed to do was wire $350 to the shipping agency in Nigeria and the puppy would be on its way.

A few days after wiring the money, McDonald received an e-mail asking her to send another $200 dollars right away. Her dog was being held in customs, the message said, and needed shots.

Since McDonald’s dog was supposedly coming from Tennessee, she realized she had been scammed and refused to send any more money.

She found a local breeder and got her son a puppy. But she had to pay the market rate of $1,600.

The folks who run PuppyFind.com know all about these bogus ads. “We’re sorry for the people who have been hurt by it,” says Mike Peters, who founded the site.

“We’ve been trying everything we can to keep the scammers off the site and catch them the minute they come on,” Peters told me. But he says this is an ongoing problem that will never be completely eliminated.

A scam with many variations
In some cases, the scammers pose as breeders. They build a complete Web site using pictures they have lifted from legitimate breeder sites. The more common way to snag victims is to place ads in newspapers or online.

In many cases, the con artist claims to be a missionary in Africa. They say they have a wonderful purebred puppy that they cannot care for anymore. They are willing to give the puppy away free if they can find a good home for it in the United States. All they want you to pay is the shipping.

“It starts little by little,” explains Anne Donoghue with the American Kennel Club. “They don’t start with a high number.”

Once you wire the money to cover the shipping – usually $100 to $350 – they start asking for more. They claim these extra payments are needed for vaccinations, crates and customs declarations.

James Randles is a private stationed at Fort Gordon, Texas. He wanted an English bulldog puppy. Last month, an online ad for a 14-week old purebred pup named Betty caught his eye.

The seller told Randles via e-mail that Betty was healthy and current on all her shots. “She is so loving,” he wrote, “and will make a wonderful member to your family.”

“The weather in Cameroon, Africa, was too harsh for Betty,” he explained. “That’s why I intend to give her out to any pet loving home in the USA that is willing to pay just for her shipping charges of $100.”

Three days after he wired the $100 to Cameroon, Randles got an e-mail asking for another $400 to cover a customs certificate. Since he was already growing attached to Betty, looking at the pictures the con artist sent, he wired the money. But still no dog arrived.

The next e-mail said the plane transporting Betty crashed and she needed emergency medical attention. Randles agreed to pay for the vet bills.

Then an e-mail made to look like it was from Air France arrived. It asked for $650 to be sent to the U.S. Customs office in Cameroon.

That’s when Randles pulled the plug. In all, he got taken for $650.

“That was over half a month’s pay that I lost,” he told me. “It’s wrong for them to be scamming people out of that kind of money.”

Spotting the scam
How could people fall for something like this? It’s so bizarre. In hindsight the warning signs are clear. But at the time, things are happening so quickly, victims don’t realize they’re being played by a con artist.

“When you see that cute little puppy face you tend to throw caution out the window,” says Alison Preszler of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

All of the victims I spoke to told me they could never talked to the breeder or seller on the phone. All communication was via e-mail. That should make you nervous.

If you get burned or spot a scam, let the Web site or newspaper know. Contact the Better Business Bureau. They won’t be able to get your money back, but they can use this information to warn others.

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