At about 8AM on Wednesday morning, a squad of heavily-armed tactical police with bulletproof vests stormed a house in Western Sydney and arrested a 27-year-old man. Investigators searched the property and seized a number of items, including computers and documentation, before the handcuffed suspect was thrown into the back of a car and escorted to the local police station.
The man has been accused of running a major puppy scam that has rorted at least eight different people from around Australia out of thousands of dollars.
Police started investigating the scam in July, following reports of a number of fake ads for purebred puppies that had popped up online. It’s alleged that the man advertised the sale of blue Staffordshire bull terrier puppies on both Gumtree and an animal rescue website, coaxing several people across Australia—including residents in Queensland, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales—to deposit sums of up to $2,000 AUD into various bank accounts.
“We believe through our inquiries that the dogs never existed—they were simply photos taken from various websites that he used as bait to get people interested,” Detective Superintendent Jason Pietruszka told the ABC.
Once the prospective buyers had paid their deposit, the suspect would tell them the delivery was on its way and ask for the remaining balance. When the buyers insisted on paying the rest of the money after the puppy arrived at their home, the man went silent.
“Once he realised further money was not forthcoming, he would then cut off all contact and then the victims couldn’t get in touch with him,” said Detective Superintendent Pietruszka.
Authorities are now warning of a nationwide puppy scam that could be targeting lonely people during the coronavirus pandemic.
The number of reported puppy scams in April were almost five times the average, according to Scamwatch, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) revealed in May that Australians had already lost more than $300,000 to pet scams in 2020.
“A lot of people are stuck at home and going online to buy a pet to help them get through the loneliness of social isolation,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard. “Unfortunately the rush to get a new pet and the unusual circumstances of COVID-19 makes it harder to work out what’s real or a scam.”
Detective Superintendent Pietruszka echoes this statement.
“The prices of dogs have skyrocketed recently … people are not only seeing what is a cute dog, they are also seeing a price that is too good to be true and ultimately it is,” he said. “People are struggling, they are looking for that companionship and, unfortunately, we have a person who is willing to take advantage for his own financial gain.”
The most common breeds reported in puppy scams are Cavoodles and French Bulldogs, according to Scamwatch, with most people contacting the fraudulent sellers via an email address they found online.
Rickard suggested that prospective buyers should only fork out money to buy or adopt a pet if they can meet the animal first. If that isn’t possible, they should consider putting the search on hold.
“Research the seller by running an internet search using the exact wording in the ad and do a reverse image search for pictures of the specific puppy, as you’re likely to be dealing with a scammer if you find matching images or text on multiple websites,” she added. “If you think you have been scammed, contact your bank or financial institution as soon as possible.”
Vice News found hundreds of ads allegedly selling cheap puppies around Australia on trading sites like Gumtree—with some litters advertised for as little as $200 per dog. Puppies in the price range of $200 to $250 were found listed for sale in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
“Scam websites can look quite convincing, so try not to fall for the adorable puppy pictures they post,” said Rickard, “and remember: if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
The Western Sydney man was charged with eight counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception and eight counts of using false documents to obtain financial advantage.
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