FAIRFIELD, Calif. (KGO) -- There's a warning tonight about a growing scam targeting pet lovers across the nation. Tens of thousands of Americans hope to adopt a special puppy only to have their money stolen and hearts broken.
The Ebel family in Fairfield was still mourning the loss of their beloved dog Chopper when they decided they were ready to bring a new puppy into their home.
"Chopper was every bit a part of the family,'' recalls Joanne Ebel, mother of four. "The kids loved him and kissed and hugged him, and, when he was gone, it left a huge hole."
Joanne Ebel says she's always wanted a pug, the same breed she had as a child. So her husband Bobby went online and found a website offering "adorable pug puppies: for sale."
As they scrolled through the photos of pugs, one of them immediately captured their hearts.
"Yeah, Bosco,'' Joanne Ebel recalls. I mean, that dog was adorable."
They contacted the seller: Was the dog still available?
The guy emailed back and said he was available, and asked a lot of questions about our household would it be a good place for the dog. would we promise to give him good care and love."
The seller emailed them more photos and a video of "Bosco" happily tugging on a toy. That sealed the deal.
"I was already in my head imagining taking him for walks and sitting in my lap while I watched TV with the kids, and having a new puppy for the kids to play with,'' Joanne Ebel recalls. "I even started thinking of names for him."
They thought it was a little strange when the seller required payment by Western Union, but they say they were determined to get this puppy. So they wired $550, and the seller promised delivery from Washington, D.C. to their doorstep the next day.
"All day, I was telling everyone I'm getting a new puppy and I'm so excited and I was showing them pictures,'' Joanne Ebel said.
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However, when she got home, there was no dog. Only a demand for more money.
"Because of the dog's size, they needed insurance,'' Bobby Ebel recalled.
The demand came in an email saying Bosco needed insurance because he was "below 6 months old." They needed to wire another $1,100 right away.
Now Bobby said that raised a red flag he couldn't ignore. He went online to research the site.
"That's when I realized it was a scam,'' Bobby Ebel said.
"No puppy,'' Joanne Ebel said. "It was crushing. It was disappointing. They get you by pulling your heartstrings till you lose judgment."
"You wouldn't think someone would scam you about a puppy,'' Bobby Ebel said. "I guess they do."
A few miles away, Vallejo resident Cora Taguiran went online looking for a puppy too, and fell in love with a teacup poodle named Stacy.
"So cute,'' she said, looking at a photo of Stacy's photo, still posted online. "Look at those eyes, those big eyes, right?"
She contacted the seller, who sent her a video of Stacy rolling around on the floor, and fitting easily into someone's hands. Cora decided to buy Stacy, and her sister wanted one of the puppies, too.
"She went on the website and fell in love with (one named) Lola,'' Taguiran said.
The seller told them they could have both puppies right away but only if they paid by Western Union.
"We thought that was odd,'' Taguiran said. "But we were so excited. My children, grandchildren... oh, we can't wait to hold them."
They wired $1,300 to the seller, waited for the dogs, but instead received an email notifying them of a holdup.
"They're too small,'' Taguiran recalls. "They require special crating."
The email demanded $1,200 more for crating and insurance, promising to ship the dogs directly to Cora's home. So, they paid.
"So, 6 o'clock, my sister and I are waiting for the dogs and, no dogs.'' Taguiran said.
Instead, a demand for more money.
"They said the Utah Department of Health was not going to let them out of the airport unless we paid a fee,'' Taguiran said. "My sister and I both looked at each other. We started saying, "Oh my God, something's wrong."
She emailed the seller.
"I said I want proof that you have the dogs and you are sending me the dogs if they are real,'' she said.
The email came back: "What proof do you want? Don't abandon your puppies."
Taguiran knew she'd been had. "I refused to send any more money."
"Tens of thousands of consumers, at least in the United States, have lost money to these online pet scams,'' said Rebecca Harpster of the Better Business Bureau.
A BBB report says the scams are on the rise, and the FTC counted 37,000 reports of bogus onine pet sellers over five years. The FTC estimates only about 10 percent of victims reported the crime -- and surmises the numbers of victims are therefore in the hundreds of thousands.
"They really continue to string along their victims,'' Harpster said. "So, first you pay for the dog, then they say the dog needs a special shipping crate, next the dog needs insurance."
The BBB recommends never buying a dog based on pictures or videos. Scammers use stock photos and videos, or obtain pictures of their own, post them on the phony websites, claiming the dogs are for sale. The con artists don't actually have any real dogs.
One way to spot a fraudulent website is to "right click" on a photo of the dog. Often you will see where else that photo was posted online, indicating the dog isn't really for sale.
BBB also says to always ask a seller to meet the pet in person, even if you don't really intend to go meet the pet. A scammer would not allow an in-person meeting since there really is no pet. You can judge by the reaction of the seller whether it's fake.
Most importantly, never wire money to a purported seller. Once you send it, that money is gone, untraceable.
The Ebels and Taguiran told their stories to ABC7, hoping to stop others from falling prey. 7 On Your Side went online and found those three puppies - Bosco, Stacy and Lola, still eight weeks old, and still supposedly for sale on the bogus sites.
The Ebels can't help wondering about the real Bosco.
"I hope that dog is being taken care of and loved the way we were going to do,'' Bobby said.
"I was already planning what I was going to do with the dog, what I might name him.'' Joanne said.
"It was heartbreaking,'' Taguiran said. "Almost like you lost your child, because you already fell in love."
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Written and produced by Renee Koury
Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.