By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot © November 30, 2006 - The online classified ad peddling pedigreed puppies seems innocuous enough. It has run this month amid blurbs for floating dock systems and the 40 Winks Mattress Store in the Southside Sentinel, a rural weekly that serves Virginia's Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck.
The ad and similar online listings around the world promise delivery of purebred English bulldogs or Yorkshire terriers for $400 to $450, substantially less than market price.
But there are no puppies, federal fraud investigators say. The notices are an international plot to separate pet lovers from their holiday-season cash.
Buyers who bite at the con game wire money to the "seller" but never receive the promised pet. And because of the anonymity of the Internet, the buyer is unable to recover the money.
The puppy ruse is a fairly new breed of the Nigerian scam that has been showing up in e-mail in boxes for years: Deposed or terminally ill potentates promise to pay big bucks in return for help in spiriting millions out of Nigeria or other developing countries.
No one knows how many people have fallen for the puppy fleece, but Internet chat rooms abound with victims. A California buyer who lost $450 recently posted this lament:
"My yorkie died 6 months ago, all I've wanted to do is get another puppy in my life, so sad that there is people out there that take advantage!!"
Robin Bell, a Yorkie breeder in Randolph, Va., southwest of Richmond, can sympathize with such victims. She said scam artists sometimes cut and paste photos and text from legitimate classified ads to entice buyers.
"Both buyers and sellers need to beware," Bell said.
An FBI spokesman said the scam artists take advantage of free and liberalized online classified advertising policies, bargain-seeking pet buyers, and the time of year.
Internet sales begin spiking in November during the Christmas buying blitz - and so do complaints about fraud in cyberspace. The FBI received nearly 30,000 complaints about online fraud last November, up from about 18,000 the month before.
The puppy ad ran twice in the online edition of the Sentinel but was pulled this week after newspaper employees discovered there was a "problem" with the credit card payment by the man who placed the ad via e-mail, a spokeswoman said. The seller identified himself as a minister in Louisville, Ky.
The canine hustle is a new one to local authorities. The Better Business Bureau said it was not familiar with it, nor was Jerry Scheuer, resident agent in charge of the Norfolk office of the Secret Service, the agency that monitors financial crimes on the Internet.
Scheuer said he gets about a call a week from local people who fall victim to Nigerian flim-flams.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Scheuer said.
The scam artists sometimes e-mail millions of copies of a bogus ad to publications such as the Sentinel, published in Urbanna, hoping to get a few nibbles, Scheuer said.
A Virginian-Pilot reporter recently received more than a dozen e-mails from puppy swindlers who apparently thought they had contacted the newspaper's classified advertising department. The ads contained poor grammar and mangled syntax that are characteristic of Nigerian scam artists. One read:
"She is very playful and built solid as a rock. Her body type is just perfectly squared up and cobby. She is a great eater."
Though the ad never ran in the paper, one e-mail to The Virginian-Pilot provided "payment" for the ad with a credit card number. At the request of the reporter, Scheuer determined the information had been obtained from a lost or stolen card.
Scheuer said the mass mailings can pay off: "If they hit on 1 percent of a million, they've had a good day."
Meanwhile, Clarissa Carroll hasn't had many good days lately. Her cell phone kept ringing in Pensacola, Fla., until she apparently had the number changed this week.
Carroll's number was listed in the ads that ran in the Urbanna paper and other publications as diverse as the bulletin of the Catholic Diocese of Atlanta, the New York Daily News, a newsletter that caters to quail enthusiasts, and the Cracker, which runs free classifieds in Sydney, Australia.
Carroll, a 19-year-old college student, said she has no idea why her number was provided in the ads, but said her phone rang more than a dozen times a day, every day, for three weeks. People called from all over the world, asking about puppies, she said.
"I keep telling them, 'I don't have any puppies! I don't know anything about any puppies!' "
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