GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) -- Vietnam War veteran Larry Palmer is 70. He lives alone in Kentwood and "just wanted a little companion to take care of and be with while I'm going through what rest of life I got."
Palmer talked to dog breeders but found prices were too high. Then he went online and found a website selling pugs. He fell in love with the picture of a pup named Molly.
"(I) actually printed it out and made a little 5-by-7 of it," he told Target 8.
He sent the seller $480. He bought food, toys and a dog bed and was ready to pick up his pup at the airport.
Then he got a call from someone claiming they were the company that was shipping Molly. The caller told Palmer he had to come up with another $977 to pay for flight insurance and a certificate of ownership. He didn't have that kind of money and realized he'd been scammed.
"I never did get the dog," he said. "Never was able to have the dog in my lap."
Palmer was the victim of one of the hottest web scams going around, raking in victims' money and spreading heartbreak in return.
SECOND VICTIM: "IT WAS LIKE RANSOM"
In Angela Kuklewski's case, it was a little fluffball of a teacup Pomeranian that caught her eye.
"She was the smallest one I'd ever seen and she was just so adorable," Kuklewski, of Allendale, said. "And I thought, 'Wow, if I could get one that looked like that.'"
She paid $500 for the little dog, named Vowell. Then, just like in Palmer's case, someone claiming to be the shipper said she needed to send another $1,500 to get the dog out of some sort of quarantine.
"'If you don't pay this amount, we're going to keep her in quarantine for so long and then you won't be able to get her,'" Kuklewski said she was told. "'But if you pay this amount, then we'll be able to get her to you right away.'"
She paid -- but the scammers weren't finished. They wanted two or three thousand bucks more for something else. By the time she realized it was a con, she was out $2,500. She never got the puppy whose picture she fell in love with.
"They keep pushing the limit," she told Target 8. "'We want more money, we want more money.' And it was like a ransom-type thing."
"I just felt like such an idiot when it all fell through," she added.
VICTIMS TRIED TO CHECK WEBSITES
Kuklewski and Palmer are talking publicly about their experiences because they want people to know how easy it is to fall for a puppy scam.
"I just wanted that dog so bad," she said, "I wanted to believe that it was OK."
She said the scammers prey on people's emotions. Palmer agreed.
"My emotions got so attached. That's what did me in," he said.
It's not like they didn't try to protect themselves. Kuklewski asked for more pictures of Vowell, trying to "see if they really have this dog or are these just photographs from something else," she said. When the scammers sent more pictures, she figured the deal was legitimate.
Palmer searched Google for reviews of the website through which he was trying to buy the pug. He didn't find anything bad.
PIRATED PICTURES AND PLAGIARIZED STATEMENTS
According to the Better Business Bureau and other consumer advocates, the puppy scammers don't have any real dogs for sale. They pirate puppy photos from other online locations, then weave the poached pictures with heartwarming stories to draw people in. If they start getting heat, they readily change identities.
Target 8 investigators tracked the website that conned Kuklewski a year ago with the photo of Vowell. It vanished for a while, but recently reappeared. It uses the same photo Kuklewski fell in love with, but now the dog is named Mac. When you click to reveal the photo information, it still lists the name Vowell.
The website Palmer responded to appears to have pirated parts, too. The "about us" details can be found on two other websites supposedly selling other breeds and it appears to have been plucked nearly word-for-word from the website of an actual kennel in Maine.
There are things people can do to avoid being taken in. In both Palmer and Kuklewski's cases, the crooks demanded the victims pay with Western Union money cards.
"I should have known when they wanted me to Western Union the money to them," Kuklewski said. "That was a red flag, a huge red flag."
The BBB said you shouldn’t pay that way. The crooks want victims to buy prepaid cards and then give them the numbers so they can collect the cash pretty much anywhere without being traced. It's like handing cash to a stranger.
Consumer advocates say the best way to avoid being scammed is to go see the pup for sale before you hand over your money.
TARGET 8 TRACKS "MOLLY" TO VACANT LOT
Target 8 called the website that conned Palmer and asked about Molly, the pug he wanted to buy. The man on the phone said Molly was still available for $500. When asked, he said we could come by and see her. He gave the address as 16 Line Drive in Crisfield, Maryland, a small fishing village on the Chesapeake Bay.
Target 8 mapped that location and checked with neighbors and the local police. The address is a vacant lot.
A Crisfield police detective told Target 8 that his department has received complaints from all over the country about the puppy scam that claims to be located in the small town. The detective doubts the scammers are actually there.
They could be running the con from anywhere. Target 8 tracked the website as far as a company in Panama that people can use to hide their real locations.
In another call to the website that ripped off Palmer, Target 8 investigator Henry Erb left a message identifying himself and seeking comment, but never got a response.
Checking in person actually worked for Kuklewski. She started the search for another dog online, but had her mother-in-law actually visit the kennel in Tennessee to get the dog on her way back home from a trip to Florida.
She did get another dog in an online deal, but only after conducting an in-depth check on the seller. Still, she says her experience a year ago was scary.
"You just can't believe anyone anymore it seems like," she said.
"It angers me that people do these kind of things to normal, hard-working people," Palmer said.
"These people are ruthless," Kuklewski said. "They don't care."
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