Let's Go Back to That 'Free Puppies' Scam

By James Fallows
Thumbnail image for Bulldogs.jpg

Last month I mentioned a bogus but perplexing email I had received. It was from someone who purportedly wanted to place ads in the Atlantic, in order to give away free pedigreed puppies. So what was the angle?

The answers flooded in, as previously reported. Here is how things shape up. I'll save the actual answer for the bottom.

From a trusting soul:

Are you sure it's not legit? Well, legit in that the author is selling puppies, but dishonestly is looking for some free advertising. Lame as hell, I agree, but.... a great way to offer puppies to a lot of people.

Similarly:

Is it possible that the email is real, and the person sending it simply chose the wrong person to email? At my own job I occasionally get email meant for someone else. Most commonly, it is meant for someone whose email address is one letter away from my own and the sender has simply mistyped it.
 
As an alternate theory, I have seen people who have difficulty locating the correct person to contact in an organization decide to simply email someone--anyone--with contact information available. Perhaps your email address was simply the first to be spotted?

P.S. I am also a foreign monarch-in-exile who would be delighted to share my kingdom's bounty with you if you could assist me in reclaiming my throne.

Also on the bright side:

This is the Salvation! For years old-media has been looking for an Internet business model to substitute the dead-trees one. Finally it arrives - puppy listings! Of course, with hindsight now it was embarrassingly obvious: the killer-app of the Internet was funny cat videos, so it stands to reason that the real money would be in puppies. You can now stop adding the 'Subscribe Now' links..

A very popular but ultimately incorrect guess:

I think it's people selling dogs online (puppy mills). Please do not post these types of ads. The USDA is proposing to impose new regulations on websites that sell dogs. The conditions these dogs live in is appalling and cruel

Similarly:

There are a lot of scummy things going on around bulldog puppies. It's a popular breed despite the fact that they can neither breath normally or function normally and must have cesarean sections to have those puppies. It is my understanding that a fair number of these puppies are coming from Eastern Europe and Russia.

People should buy a purebred puppy only from responsible breeders. Never from pet shops and not off the internet from any breeder site that will happily take your money, no questions asked, and ship you a puppy, because they are almost certainly a puppy mill. Responsible breeders have applications, do home visits and don't sell their pups to anyone who just flashes a credit card. They also take responsibility for every single puppy their dogs produce...for life.

From a dog-breeder's perspective:

 My parents breed dogs, and its probably just an inventive twist on an old scam they have mentioned being contacted with several times. The scam goes like this:

Person opens email and sees two expensive desirable dog breeds(bulldogs and yorkies are both expensive, they don't breed well). They hopefully send off an email that says "hey, I'm not an ad site, but I am interested in those dogs. How much?". The scammer replies "well, normally $1000-2000. Today, though, I have a liquidity problem; I'm not in the states, and I can't cash a money order I have for $2500. If you cash the money order for me, I'll send you one for shipping costs alone, which are about $200. The person deposits the money order and wires the $2700, then the order bounces. The scammer gets $2,700 which is alot of change in his generic crappy country.

There are a couple other options that are even more straightforward. They could ask for money for the dogs at a discount rate of $500, and then just not send the dogs. If the person responds but doesn't want a dog, they could make the same deal as above with the money order, but the person keeps $300 dollars for their trouble, only sending $2,200 back. The important thing is making contact without directly mentioning money at first, and the dogs increase the likelihood of replies from people with disposable income.

Possibilities:

Two theories, one more nefarious than the other:

1. Just farming for email addresses to sell (unlikely); or
2. Convincing people to pay "adoption fees" etc. via credit card.

Maybe it's about logistics:

With regard to your puppy scam article, it seems like the con is that they ship the puppies with some obscure logistics company which charges you a large amount for the transport, and the puppies probably never arrive.

An experiment I will probably get around to:

There are lots of scams like this on Craig's List, where the initial contact is totally innocent.  The scam appears in subsequent correspondence.  I"m an inactive lawyer, but I still get contacts for representation that are phrased similarly to yours, and the follow up usually entails me advancing money, or me providing information so they can advance money, and the scam is in the info they request.

Try an innocent response from one of your junk email accounts and see what happens.

Yes, it looks fishy:

I saw an ad in my local paper for bulldog puppies for $400. I was considering getting a dog at the time and $400 for bulldogs is incredibly cheap. Most bulldogs cost upwards of $1,400. So I replied and got this long rambling email back sounding very much like the African bank scam emails, florid English, long, involved story from the pages of Dickens or Hardy. I never replied so don't know what the next step was but assume it was for me to send $400 to some PO box.

Fishy indeed:

That email does have the appearance of a scam. (As an occasional seller on Craigslist, I think I have encountered enough scam emails to have developed a pretty good eye for them.) However, if the basic principle behind these scams is to target a very large number of people with the expectation that those who are gullible enough to fall for the scam, though a tiny fraction of the recipients, will still comprise enough "paying customers" to generate a healthy profit, journalists are the last demographic they would want to waste their time with; they represent a small (and shrinking) population, and their job description includes having good bullshit detectors.

Voice of experience:

It's definitely a scam, a phishing attempt. I work part-time as advertising manager for a small rural newspaper and we received a similar inquiry recently, though not for puppies. They hope someone who responds to it will give the paper's bank information to that the "advertiser" can send in their "payment" electronically. If someone does, the newspaper's bank account is shortly emptied. Fortunately, the office assistant who wasn't certain about it asked my opinion.

Another veteran:

I work in the classifieds section of a small daily newspaper in the Pacific Nothwest and we get these nearly daily. Sometimes the scammer will say that the puppy is out of area and will need to be shipped to the victim, so please send $X00's via Western Union or the like. Sometimes it is trickier - the dog needs expensive vet care prior to delivery and the only other option for this super cute puppy that the scanner has sent pictures of is euthanasia as the scanner can't afford the care himself.

I know it's transparently a scam to you and I, but sadly there are enough people out there who fall for it to make it worthwhile for the scammers.

At our paper we reject these types of ads without a 2nd look....

And:

Because I'm listed as the Marketing V.P on our masthead, I get these odd, "I have a boat to sell" e-mails from time to time as well.  They are clearly  not legitimate and seem more criminal in intent than an act of ignorance.   It is not plausible that a person this unfamiliar with advertising would be contacting a magazine (newspaper yes but, not a magazine) The product/audience/media  match makes no sense,  our rates and terms are easily accessed on our site, etc.
 
Unlike the Nigerian bank presidents  who contact me from time to time for my account information in order to transfer millions to my savings account for safe keeping, I cannot figure out the angle here. 
 
I just don't answer them.

And:

I actually know this one.  I work at Craigslist and we see ads like this (and junk them!) thousands of times a day.  It's just a simple email phish.  You reply to cute puppy ad (or awesome car or sexy single, etc) and they collect your email to use or sell.  Getting lists of vaild, working emails is really powerful for the spammers.

I'd refrain from actually posting the email address of the person purportedly offering puppies for sale.  Readers of your blog might be tempted to email the spammer, and then be subjected to insane levels of spam.

From a spam-detection expert, James Munton:

I read with interest your blog post "A Scam I Can't Quite Figure Out." You're right to be suspicious; it is definitely part of a scam, although you are probably not the intended victim.

The Nigerian puppy scam has been in operation for years. Criminals put up ads offering to sell or give away puppies, using photos and information found on legitimate sites.  In many cases, the buyer is told that the seller is a missionary in Africa who needs to find a good home for the puppy.  The victim is asked to send money via Western Union.  Then there is often a glitch that requires a second shipment of money.  When the victim's good faith is exhausted, the perpetrator moves on, leaving the victim without a dog and several hundred dollars poorer.

It appears from the email you received that the con artist was hoping to place an ad in your publication (using a stolen credit card) and use it as a vehicle to attract potential victims.

I am the author of The Con: How Scams Work, Why You're Vulnerable, and How to Protect Yourself. For more information on scams, please visit my web site at www.scamfu.com.

After the jump, what I am convinced is "the" answer.

And finally:

About a year ago I responded to a similar ad (that email address was j.buttXXXX@yahoo.com). The response I got was to call a Nigerian phone number.

Here is the answer

And more of it here. Thanks to all.

Update: I also see this online discussion.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/lets-go-back-to-that-free-puppies-scam/258397/