SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — You’ve no doubt heard about online puppy scams. They’ve been going on for years, but the pandemic has brought on a big jump in cases, with losses estimated at more than $3 million dollars.
Now a new case out of Arkansas, with victims all across the country, including right here in South Dakota, is giving us incredible insight into how these scammers operate. KELOLAND Investigates reveals how images of cute puppies online target unsuspecting victims trapping them in “a doggone scam.”
Some of the most popular dogs people search for online are French Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers. Arkansas officials say a couple of con-artists had phony websites offering those breeds and at least six others for sale.
“When I found these gorgeous puppies on this advertising, I thought here we go… This will be great! Jeannie Hudson said.
Jeannie Hudson, of Spearfish, fell in love with the photo of a French Bulldog puppy named Hope. She and her husband Adam inquired about purchasing the puppy via email.
The seller wrote back that the puppies were nine weeks old and cost $600 flat. And in bold letters: “BUT WHY CHEAP???? We’re giving a 50% discount because we’re expecting our new litter on the 28th of next month, so we want to sell them in order to reduce our workload since we both have other jobs.”
None of this worried the Hudsons because they had previously bred and sold Beagles online themselves.
“I think it made us more confident that the deal would go through because it always had for us. There was never any trouble at all,” Adam Hudson said.
The seller told them to pay via Zelle Pay or Western Union. Scammers like Zelle Pay and other similar apps because fund transfers only take minutes, making them virtually impossible to detect and stop. The Hudsons chose to wire $600 from a grocery store.
“That’s how I collected my money when we sold the beagles and never had any problem. And then nothing happened,” Jeannie said.
While a previous email told the Hudsons that shipping would be free, suddenly they were asked to pay $980 to have the dog shipped to them, but that they would be reimbursed all but $30.
It didn’t seem right, so the Hudsons called to ask about it.
“And they did cover themselves pretty well because I did hear all these dogs yipping in the background. And it got louder and I assume they were trying to make buyers think the dogs were coming to go on the plane.”
According to the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, the fraudsters created a fake website called “Pet Carriers USA,” which mimicked the real site of Pet Carriers International. Arkansas is now suing two men accused of pocketing $160,000 from victims all over the country in this puppy scam.
“They were posting pictures online, they were selling sweet puppies when in fact they didn’t have any dogs,” Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge said.
When buyers got suspicious they reassured them in numerous ways. One text to a victim used as evidence in the deceptive trade lawsuit reads:
“And being able to have fake pictures online… people being able to text fake pictures and fake videos, saying this is your dog. It’s not–it’s all a facade. It is not real,” Rutledge said.
According to evidence in court papers, the scam was carried out by these two Arkansas men, Helda Berinyuy and Thierry Ekwelle. Photos taken off of surveillance video show them repeatedly at dozens of Walmarts picking up cash payments from Western Union. According to the transaction receipts they used various fake names and IDs.
Ekwelle picked up a prescription under his own name at one of the Walmart pharmacies and then used a different name and ID at the Western Union counter.
“It was in fact a frontline grocery store worker who noticed that these two men had come in and received large wires of money over and over and over and flagged those wire transfers, noting that they were coming in for these large amounts. That allowed the local police to be involved and that raised awareness to my office, the attorney general’s office, so now we can hold them accountable in a civil lawsuit.”Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge
That was in 2018, when the grocery store manager reported then to police. Berinyuy was charged with forgery and theft and sentenced to three years’ probation. Even so, when the pandemic hit, authorities say he ramped up the fraud even more.
Kennecke: Why file a lawsuit, rather than criminal charges.
Rutledge: Under the Arkansas deceptive trade practices act, we are investigating and going to hold accountable Helda and Thierry for scamming Arkansans and Americans out of tens of thousands of dollars.
Rutledge says her office is also working with local prosecutors on criminal charges against both men.
Remarkably, the Hudsons were able to get the nearly $1,000 they wired for shipping the fake puppy returned to them.
“We did get that money back because we sent it in the name he gave us and apparently he didn’t have ID for that name — he had his own ID so they would not cash it for them,” Adam said.
Then Western Union refunded them the $600 they paid up front for the dog. The Hudsons turned around and purchased a French Bulldog over Craigslist.
But they made this deal face-to-face.
“We got the dog, they got the money. We crossed hands to do that. And it wasn’t going to happen any other way as far as I was concerned after this other ordeal,” Adam said.
They named her Hope.
“That was actually the name of the one we didn’t get, that had the pearl necklace on,” Jeannie said.
“She’s going to be a very nice puppy. We really love her,” Adam said.
And there’s one thing anyone can do to avoid getting trapped in a scam when dog shopping.
“Get your hands and love on that puppy dog. When it comes to groceries and dogs, buy local,” Rutledge said.
While the Hudson’s story has a happy ending, there are still are hundreds of people all across the country out money.
The two men face up to $300,000 in fines under the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. KELOLAND Investigates is watching the case and will let you know if additional criminal charges are filed.