In a first, Google takes on puppy fraud in court

In a first for the tech giant, Google has filed a consumer protection lawsuit to protect vulnerable and unsuspecting people from what it called a “nefarious” scheme: the sale of adorable but imaginary.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in US District Court in San Jose, California, alleges Nche Noel Ntse, a Cameroonian, defrauded potential puppy buyers using a range of Google services, including Gmail accounts, Google numbers Voice and advertisements.

Mr Ntse lured his victims with ‘adorable’ and ‘seductive’ photographs of pedigree puppies, as well as ‘compelling testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers’ who tapped into the high demand for puppies in the US during the pandemic coronavirus, according to court documents.

Google says it spent more than $75,000 to “investigate and remedy” Mr. Ntse’s activities, and is suing him for financial damages, citing damage to the company’s relationship with its users and damage to his reputation.

“This looks like a particularly egregious abuse of our products,” Google attorney Michael Trinh said by phone Monday.

The company says it blocks 100 million harmful emails from reaching users daily, but Mr Trinh said he hopes the lawsuit goes further, citing Mr Ntse as an example. Google decided not to pursue criminal charges in the case because it believed a civil lawsuit would be a quicker remedy, Trinh added. “It’s a permanent fight.”

The case is Google’s first consumer protection lawsuit, said company spokesman José Castañeda. He added that based on the vast network of sites run by Mr. Ntse, Google estimated that the victims had lost more than $1 million in total.

Google’s lawsuit comes after the pandemic caused a surge in demand for pets, as well as an increase in programs capitalizing on that desire.

Last year, consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion to fraud, an increase of more than 70% from 2020, according to Federal Trade Commission data. Online shopping scams in particular have exploded during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group estimates that in 2021, pet-related fraud accounted for 35% of these reports.

Google first became aware of Mr. Ntse’s activities around September 2021 after receiving an abuse report from AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.

According to the report, a person living in South Carolina looking for a dog contacted Mr Ntse via email after visiting a now-defunct website he operated. After corresponding with Mr Ntse via email and text, the person then sent him $700 in e-gift cards, according to the report, adding: “Victim 1 never received the puppy.”

According to the subpoena, Mr Ntse is based in Douala, a port city of over two million people in Cameroon. He ran other websites, including one that claimed to sell prescription opiate marijuana and cough syrup, according to the lawsuit.

“When you go to buy a puppy, you don’t expect a criminal to be on the other end,” said Paul Brady, who runs PetScams.com, which tracks and flags websites that falsely claim to be selling. animals.

The scammers, often located outside the United States, post cheap puppy photos and videos and demand upfront online payments and sometimes made-up additional charges, such as animal quarantine or delivery charges.

Such schemes have “exploded” over the past two years, Mr Brady said, as scammers capitalized on people’s loneliness and took advantage of lockdowns that limited their ability to travel far from home to pick up a puppy.

“People are sitting alone and they want animal company,” he added, recalling a particularly shocking incident in which a woman spent $25,000 trying to buy a Pomeranian puppy.

For 28-year-old Rael Raskovich, the experience of being tricked by an online pet scam was devastating.

About a year ago, Ms. Raskovich, who works in the mortgage industry, had just moved to South Carolina and was hoping to buy her first puppy: a Golden Retriever.

She explored her options, eventually filling out a now-defunct online form that included detailed questions about her plans to care for the animal, she said, leading her to believe that the process was legitimate.

She wired a $700 deposit to the seller, who sent her a video of what she thought was her future puppy. She bought toys and a dog bed.

Then, she said, the seller claimed to need an additional $1,300 for a coronavirus vaccination for the dog and an air-conditioned shipping crate. Ms Raskovich said she was told to expect a call from Delta Air Lines, which the seller said would be transporting the animal – but when she called to confirm, the airline told her they weren’t shipping animals.

“Then I was like, ‘OK, this is definitely not legit,'” she said, adding that she had cut off communication. The identity of the seller has never been determined.

“You are preparing for this new addition to your life,” Ms. Raskovich said. “It sucks.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed reporting.

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