The online puppy scam:
A social engineering case study

When Google announced in April 2022 that it is suing a Cameroonian national for running a “puppy fraud scheme to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic for personal gain, while taking advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable victims”.

It reeked of unscrupulous online social engineering. Upon investigating this kind of widespread online criminal scam, we were able to find a local victim of a similar puppy scam here in South Africa, who was willing to share her traumatic experience.

After a personal tragedy, Margaret* decided to buy a puppy as a new companion. It was just what she needed – that special kind of joy only a brand-new puppy can bring. It was an understandably emotional time for her when she started googling for cocker spaniel breeders. She decided to look for a six-week-old and her searching was quickly rewarded by just what she needed. When Margaret clicked on the link she found, she landed up on a legitimate-looking website of a spaniel breeder in the Northern Cape. The name of the breeder looked legit, the address and other details were seemingly those of a typical breeder, but it was the beautiful pictures that really prompted her to engage.

Baiting the hook
Her email enquiry was quickly and professionally answered, with lots of emotional, comforting prose and a request for further info, “just to make sure you are legit”. To make sure Margaret wasn’t pulling a fast one, in other words. She complied and after a further round or two of emails she received a picture of the most beautiful puppy imaginable.

*Names changed for privacy reasons

“When I saw this endearing picture of ‘my’ new puppy I should have become suspicious, but I immediately adored the little doggie and let the breeder know I wanted him, especially because the email said someone else was also interested.”

Margaret received a phone call or two as well, and chatted with the person who phoned checking her details and making sure the new puppy would live in a proper home and be cared for by loving new owners. After the decision was made to buy the puppy, she paid the purchase fee and everything was in place for the dog to be flown to OR Tambo from Kimberley.

Excited to share the happy news, Margaret posted her new companion’s picture on Facebook. Her friends all loved the picture and wished her well. The big question on everyone’s lips was, “when is he arriving at his forever home?”.

“Soon,” came the reply from the scammer. “We’ll arrange his flight and provide you with all the details”. Sure enough, a few days after the EFT was sent to a new-age digital bank account, the flight number and arrival details reached Margaret via email.

The cherry on top for the scammer

And then the real extortion started. The morning of the flight, with the clock ticking, Margaret received urgent communication that, due to a safety precaution, a special “protective crate” was required to ensure the puppy’s safety in the air. The amount required was significantly higher than what she paid for the puppy itself.

Margaret thought something didn’t seem quite right, but was also super concerned not to put her new puppy’s well-being at risk. She phoned the
breeder again and was almost assured, but still, even with all the details provided over the phone and while still believing her puppy was real, she
decided to do some digging. She just wanted to check on the crate itself and how it was going to protect the little dog, but what she found shocked her to the core.

It was all a scam. The puppy never existed, the picture provided could easily be found online (a series of Shutterstock images were used), and the whole crate story was just the cherry on top for the scammers to maximise their illegitimate income.

“I was devastated,” Margaret remembered.

“But I reported the scam immediately and was assured the applicable bank account was closed and the authorities alerted. Luckily for our family, after being scammed, I found an amazing real breeder nearby, met my lovely new companion in person and three years later Nala* is a fully
fledged and much-loved member of our family.”

If you suspect a puppy or other online scam, visit the Internet Service Providers’ website here for details on how to report suspected online crime.

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