I-Team investigates international pet scam

December 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The crooks are out in full force this holiday season and you're about to hear them in action. The ABC7 I-Team has identified a new angle the scammers are working on the Internet -- people searching for a puppy.

These guys don't care what time of year it is, who you are, how tight your finances are, they just Want your money.

It's been a tough year for Debbie Nails. After 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service, she slipped coming off a truck and broke her ankle and heel. Six months later, she broke them again. Then, fell down stairs and broke her other ankle. Recovering from the surgeries has been difficult. Debbie rarely leaves her apartment.

"Within a matter of seconds, your whole life can be turned upside down," said Nails.

With the holidays approaching, Nails thought a puppy might lift her spirits, something small, easy to take care of -- a teacup Yorkie.

"Yeah, it was going to motivate me to get up and start doing a lot more than I can do at this point," said Nails.

She went online and found a woman, Celine Foster, who supposedly lives in Pennsylvania with two Yorkies she wanted to give away to a good home. She even sent pictures of the puppies.

"This one in particular that I was trying to obtain was 2.5 pounds, and adorable ? Elie. I thought Elie and I was going to be a pair for some years down the road," said Nails.

Noyes: What was the deal?
Nails: The deal was that all I had to do was pay the airfare of $200.

She ignored some early warning signs such as Celine couldn't take a phone call because she was so busy, and she wanted the $200 wired to her through a friend in East Palo Alto.

Nails went to the local Walmart to send a MoneyGram, even though she had no clue, she walked past a sign showing where her money was really headed -- to Africa.

"For one, I thought I was much sharper than I was to not fall for something such as I did, but my emotions kind of ran with me," said Nails.

It seemed legit. After paying the money, Nails got her puppy's flight itinerary from Airborne Pets Movers Worldwide. Then, the problems began. Storms in the Midwest meant her puppy supposedly needed a special crate that cost $250. A connecting flight in Nashville got delayed, and the puppy ran out of food.

Nails: With that, they requested $130 for dog food.
Noyes: That's a lot of dog food for a little dog.
Nails: Yes, that was my question to them, too. That's quite a bit of money to ask for dog food, how many dogs are being fed?

Her tab was now more than $600, including the cost of the money transfers. Finally, she received an email saying the puppy had been poisoned by some bad food and "may not make it." Elie needed $1,500 worth of vaccines before she could fly.

"The red flag totally went up then, that I knew that was it, I was being scammed and there was going to be no dog," said Nails.

Nails reached the scammers on the phone.

Scammer on the phone: Your puppies are in Nashville airport. You need to pay $1,500.
Nails: What's your name?
Scammer: I am Alexander Bell.

On another call, the same man had a different name.

Scammer: My name is Joe Jackson.
Nails: Joe Jackson? Joe Jackson, you from over from Africa somewhere. How you going to have a name like that?

Nails was on to something. In the request for the $1,500, the scammers asked her to wire the money to the city of Douala, in the Littoral region of Cameroon, West Africa -- the source of many internet scams.

"I think any time you're being asked to wire money, you should realize that that's an opportunity for fraud to occur," said FBI Special Agent Jennifer Shearer.

I spoke with an FBI agent in Washington, D.C. who works with IC3, the Internet Crime Complaint Center. She says many nations around the world do not have laws that protect consumers against Internet fraud, and prosecuting scammers outside the U.S. is very challenging.

"Working a cyber-fraud case is pretty complicated in part is this concept of attribution which will make sense to you because you're a reporter. It's 'Who said what? Whose hands are on that keyboard? Are they in the neighborhood, in the state, are they in the country? If they're outside the United States, where are they?'" said Shearer.

I ran one of the photos the scammers sent Nails through a Google image search. The same picture appears in more than 100 ads around the country, overseas, in Germany, and Malaysia. It's the same picture, very similar wording, but different supposed sellers.

For Nails, it's not just about the money, she was so excited to get that puppy to help her through a difficult time.

Noyes: What do you think about what they did?
Nails: I think It was a horrible thing. It was like somebody actually just sucker punched me in the stomach. I'm reaching out now so no one will experience what I'm experiencing.

From what MoneyGram tells me, the scammers in Nails' case apparently had an accomplice since those three wire transfers were picked up in Palo Alto. But, you don't have to show an ID if it's under $899. So, the person and the cash are long gone.


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