The pandemic has caused Americans’ demand for pets to skyrocket as more and more people search for a canine companion. Now Google is suing an alleged fraudster for running a fake puppy scam that exploited people’s desire for “personal gain”.
In the new trial, filed Mondaythe company accused the Cameroon-based defendant of using a network of fake websites, Google Voice phone numbers and Gmail accounts to claim to sell purebred puppies, including Bassets and Maltipoos, which did not exist not.
Google claims the alleged fraudster is responsible for “perpetrating a puppy fraud scheme to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic for personal gain, while taking advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable victims.”
In one case, a victim paid Christmas $700 in “e-gift cards” to buy a puppy. After sending the gift card information through Google Voice accounts, the victim was asked for an additional $1.5 trillion to deliver the puppy. According to the complaint, the puppy never arrived.
The trial, it seems the first of its kind, says the scam used “seductive photos” of the puppies as well as “testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers” to trick unsuspecting buyers. Lawyers argued that the scam caused both “emotional harm and financial loss” to the victims, as well as “financial harm to Google, including by interfering with Google’s relationship with its users (and potential users )” and “damaging Google’s reputation”.
AARP, an interest group that focuses on issues affecting people over 50, was the first to report the complaints to Google. The company uncovered a web of linked email addresses, voice numbers and websites that all promised puppies – with no delivery. In a blog post about the lawsuit, Google says the scam disproportionately targeted older Americans, who may be more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Federal authorities estimate that seniors are being cheated out of $650 million a year.
The scam highlights two intersecting threads of pandemic culture: increased demand for puppies and more fraud. The Better Business Bureau recently announced that pet scams now account for 35% of all online shopping scams reported to them. According to the lawsuit, puppy scams have increased by 165% in the United States from 2019 to 2021.
Meanwhile, according to Google Search Trends, searches for “adopt a dog” spiked early in the pandemic as people spent more time at home. At the end of 2020, 70% of Americans declared own a pet. Americans have about 108 million dogs (one dog for every three people in this country) – a number that has increased by 9 million during the pandemic. And among pets adopted during Covid, the ASPCA reports that 90% of dogs and 85% of cats are still in their new homes.
Google says it investigates and refers cases to law enforcement, including the Justice Department. Another pet scam business end of 2021 ended when a Cameroonian citizen pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for his role in a scheme to induce US consumers to pay fees for pets that were never delivered, and for using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to extract higher fees from victims.
One victim lost $9,100 trying to buy a dog for his 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.
Experts warn never to buy an animal online: instead meet the animal in person (or on a video call) before paying, and do your research on how much an animal should cost and who the seller is . Or contact your local shelter or rescue groups and bring home a real dog in need of a human companion.