The pandemic sent Americans’ demand for pets soaring as a growing number of people sought out a canine companion. Now, Google is going after an alleged fraudster for running a fake puppy scam that exploited people’s desire for “personal gain”.
In the new lawsuit, filed on Monday, the company accused the Cameroon-based defendant of using a network of fake websites, Google Voice phone numbers and Gmail accounts to pretend to sell purebred puppies, including basset hounds and maltipoos, that didn’t exist.
Google says 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 instance, a victim paid Noel $700 in “electronic gift cards” to buy a puppy. After sending the gift card information through Google Voice accounts, the victim was asked for an additional $1,500n to deliver the puppy. According to the complaint, the puppy never arrived.
The lawsuit, reportedly the first of its kind, says the scam used “alluring photos” of the puppies as well as “testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers” to trick unsuspecting buyers. Lawyers argued the scam caused both “emotional harm and financial loss” to victims, as well as “financial harms to Google, including by interfering with Google’s relationships with its users (and potential users)” and “harming Google’s reputation”.
AARP, an interest group focusing on issues affecting people over the age of 50, was the first to flag the complaints to Google. The company uncovered a network of linked email addresses, voice numbers and websites that all promised puppies – with no deliveries. In a blogpost about the lawsuit, Google says the scam disproportionately targeted older Americans, who can be more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Federal authorities estimate older people are scammed out of $650m a year.
The scam highlights two intersecting threads of pandemic culture: an increased demand for pups and more fraud. The Better Business Bureau recently announced that pet scams now make up 35% of all online shopping scams reported to them. According to the lawsuit, puppy scams increased by 165% in the US from 2019 to 2021.
Meanwhile, according to Google Search Trends, searches for “adopt a dog” spiked at the start of the pandemic as people spent more time at home. By the end of 2020, 70% of Americans reported owning a pet. Americans have about 108 million dogs (one dog for every three people in this country) – a number that rose by 9 million during the pandemic. And of the 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 agencies, including the Department of Justice. Another pet scam case from late 2021 ended when a Cameroonian citizen pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for his role in a scheme to trick American consumers into paying 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 her 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 pet in person (or on a video call) before paying any money, and do your research about what a pet should cost and who the seller is. Or contact your local shelter or rescue groups and bring home a real-life dog in need of a human companion.