TODAY | December 07, 2011
MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back at 7:39. This morning on TODAY INVESTIGATES , online puppy sales, a new lawsuit claims one of the nation's top puppy companies on the Web is actually deceiving customers, charging them thousands for what too often turn out to be sick dogs. NBC 's senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers is here with details on this. Lisa , good morning.
LISA MYERS reporting: Good morning, Matt. The company is called Purebred Breeders and that's exactly what its websites promise, healthy puppies from the country's top breeders . It all looks like a dog lover's dream. But our investigation found that the truth about some of these dogs has been more of a nightmare. Her name is Lola , a scrappy Goldendoodle puppy who at eight months old has already caused her family a lifetime of heartache. What was supposed to be this fabulously happy event turned out to be a traumatic event.
Ms. JEN PAPA: Absolutely.
MYERS: It all started online. New Jersey mom, Jen Papa , whose husband is a NBC Olympics commentator, was looking for a mini Goldendoodle for her boys, when she found this adorable ad for Lola . The website, New Jersey Goldendoodle Breeders , looked local and promised happy, healthy puppies from award winning breeders . Jen called right away.
Ms. PAPA: I'm told that the dog is from a great breeder, that they're very reputable, there's a lifetime guarantee and you're going to get a top-notch dog for the money.
MYERS: Turns out the company behind the offer, Purebred Breeders , operates nearly 800 websites, making it one of the largest puppy sellers on the Web , advertising triple health check dogs at pedigree prices. How much did you pay for the dog?
Ms. PAPA: Two thousand dollars.
MYERS: And how much additionally have you ended up spending on the dog?
Ms. PAPA: About $4,000 worth of vet bills.
MYERS: Jen says instead of getting a healthy dog from a local breeder, Lola was flown in from a kennel in Florida and arrived so sick, two vets labeled her unfit for purchase. What's more, she's no mini. Just look at her size.
Ms. PAPA: I feel it was completely fraudulent.
MYERS: Now the Papas and 10 other customers are suing Purebred Breeders and its owner, Jason Halberg , accusing them of unlawful and deceptive practices by selling sick puppies from substandard breeders to consumers nationwide.
Ms. KAREN LELAND: It's disgusting.
MYERS: Plaintiff Karen Leland paid Purebred Breeders nearly $ 1500 for this precious beagle, Zoe . But she says Zoe arrived anemic and weak and died days later in Karen 's arms. The company says Leland didn't follow their proper medical procedures, which she strongly denies.
Ms. LELAND: It breaks my heart. They're not taking into consideration how many people they're hurting.
Mr. WAYNE PACELLE: Lisa , it's a fraud.
MYERS: Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle says it starts with how the company lures you in. Google any breed of dog in any state...
Mr. PACELLE: Boxer puppy , Virginia .
MYERS: ...and chances are, one of the first sites you'll get is run by Purebred Breeders , designed, he says, to look like a loving local breeder.
Mr. PACELLE: It's a marketing deception. These folks at the company never even see the dogs.
MYERS: In fact we found Purebred Breeders aren't breeders at all but puppy brokers, selling dogs sight unseen from this unmarked call center in South Florida . And this is where some of the dogs come from. When the Humane Society sent investigators to six company breeders , they found large scale operations, with dog after dog stacked in wire cages, often in dirty conditions. Classic signs, they say, of puppy mills .
Unidentified Woman #1: It's horrible.
MYERS: Now for the first time , company insiders and one of its breeders are speaking out exclusively to NBC News . Did the company train you to mislead customers?
Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.
MYERS: This former sales agent who asked that we conceal her identity and voice said she was trained to fabricate heartwarming tales about where the puppies came from.
Woman #2: Home-raised, family-raised, we said that the breeders had children even if they didn't, and that the puppies were socialized.
MYERS: What were you supposed to do if someone wanted to come visit the puppy ?
Woman #2: We were to tell them that, 'Oh, the puppies are very fragile, the breeders don't like people coming to their homes because it's not good for the puppies .'
MYERS: She said she was fired for poor performance after protesting having to lie. Still the company promotes a squeaky clean image, claiming all its breeders follow a meticulous code of ethics and are thoroughly researched. Did anyone come visit your kennel?
Woman #1: No.
MYERS: This breeder, who says she wants to help clean up the industry, says she has sold dozens of dogs through the company and no one ever researched her. Did they ask you for any proof at all that you're a good breeder?
Woman #1: They just asked me if I had a website, and to send them my website.
MYERS: That's it?
Woman #1: That's it.
MYERS: So how could the company be sure that you weren't a puppy mill ?
Woman #1: They couldn't. There's no way they could.
MYERS: As for those triple health checks, she says the company only requires her dogs to see a vet once.
Woman #1: I do know some people that have had problems with their puppies . They tell them to send them anyway.
MYERS: The company has told other breeders to go ahead and send sick puppies ?
Woman #1: Yes.
MYERS: Last year Purebred Breeders reportedly earned $20 million. CEO Jason Halberg lives in this sprawling compound in Florida , complete with a guest house, tennis courts, riding trails and a nine-car garage. We wanted to speak to Purebred Breeders so we came here, to the company 's unmarked headquarters in South Florida . After multiple requests, company officials agreed to go on camera. But then, at the last minute, pulled out, they say, because of the pending lawsuit. In a statement to NBC News , the company told us it has a "comprehensive breeder screening process." The vast majority are "responsible," and 90 percent have seven or fewer puppies . Those exposed by the Humane Society were "terminated" and it's doing a full review of all its breeders . The company also says it scores high in surveys, has an excellent reputation and thousands of happy customers. It says a few unhappy customers do not paint a proper picture of a business. As for these dogs, it says vets found no health issues before they were shipped. Ultimately these families got refunds for their dogs through their credit card companies. Purebred Breeders says the Papas also were fully reimbursed for their vet bills, which they dispute. They wonder how many more families will pay thousands for sick dogs before something is done.
Ms. PAPA: I want this company to be held accountable for what they're doing. I think they should be shut down.
MYERS: Experts say before buying any dog, you should check out where it comes from. Go visit the breeder yourself, and if the breeder doesn't want you to come, that's a huge red flag. Go find yourself another puppy . Matt :
LAUER: Where do you get more information about this? If you're thinking of buying a puppy , where can consumers go?
MYERS: Go to the websites of either the Better Business Bureau or the Humane Society . Both have excellent information on where to find a good breeder.