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‘Puppy scams’ exploit COVID pandemic and ‘the joy of pet adoption’

Google is taking aim at a purported swindler engaging in “particularly nefarious” frauds similar to online romance scams but using photos of adorable purebred puppies to “prey on vulnerable victims during an unprecedented pandemic.”

The Mountain View technology giant this week sued a person they believe to be Cameroonian, accusing them of running “multiple international non-delivery scams with the attempt to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting high demand for puppies in the US” Victims responding to online ads are allegedly duped into sending hundreds of dollars in exchange for puppies that never arrive.

The lawsuit filed in US District Court in San Jose contains embedded examples of online ads showing photos of floppy-eared basset hound pups with big soulful eyes. One young dog is said to be named Boris and another is said to be named Hatie, each selling for $700.

Of the 20 sites, the newest was registered in late March, indicating that the fraudster “will continue to perpetrate fraud and abuse Google’s services unless stopped,” the suit said.

A review Tuesday by this news organization of the websites listed in the lawsuit as fraudulent showed six of the 20 were still active.

Pet adoptions spiked during the pandemic as people sought animal companionship amid the isolation imposed by the virus and public health orders. And online scams increased dramatically during the COVID pandemic as consumers avoided in-person shopping. Last year, “pet scams” ​​made up 35% of all online-shopping frauds, the lawsuit said, citing the Better Business Bureau. A study showed that puppy scams increased by 165% in the US from January to October 2021 compared to the same period in 2019 before the outbreak, according to the suit.

The AARP, which represents older Americans, first reported to Google in August that a scammer was using its services to perpetrate a puppy fraud, according to the suit. A person had responded to a website ad, expressing interest in a specific basset hound puppy, and was instructed to send $700 in electronic gift cards, according to the suit. The victim then received a text message claiming delivery company “Sunshine Express” needed an extra $1,500 to deliver the dog, the suit alleged, but no puppy was delivered.

Google claimed in the suit that the scammer used several of its services, including Gmail and dozens of fraudulent Google accounts, in violation of the company’s terms of service. The firm said it has shut down accounts and services linked to the scam, but that web-hosting companies continue to allow “new scam websites (to) crop up.”

A screenshot showing a web page from a website alleged in a lawsuit filed by Google in San Jose, Calif. federal court on April 11, 2022 to be one of 20 used in an online ‘puppy scam’ fraud similar to romance scams.

The sham “follows a similar script to many other online scams where malicious actors pretend to be someone they are not to convince victims to part with money for something they will never receive,” the suit claimed. “Examples of other such scams include illicit prescription drug scams, romance scams targeting widows and widowers, loan scams targeting veterans, and investment scams targeting the elderly.” The puppy scam “exploits the joy of pet adoption, resulting in both emotional harm and financial loss,” the suit alleged.

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