Before you pay an internet stranger for an adorable puppy in a tutu, make sure you're not being 'dogfished.'
You've probably heard of catfishing—a term made popular by the eponymous documentary and MTV show that describes luring someone into a relationship online by posing as someone else. 'Dogfishing' is similar but involves a different bait. I learned about it firsthand last spring when my boyfriend and I turned to the Internet on our quest to find a pug puppy.
The first thing we found when we Googled “New York City pug” was a website called Oodle Marketplace. There, I came across a black pug puppy named Kelsy and instantly fell in love. Only 10 weeks old, she had her vaccines, was microchipped, and was only $400. I scrolled through pictures: one of her splayed atop a red blanket with her little squishy paws shooting out in every direction, another of her looking meloncholy in a pink tutu.
The ad was placed by a guy named Harry Moore, who lived somewhere near New York. When I emailed him, the conversation started out normally enough. He said he had two pug puppies—a male and female— and that they were healthy and good with kids. It didn't phase me at first that his grammar was a bit wonky, referring to the dogs repeatedly as "this little babies." But then the email took a dark turn.
Harry said that he was selling the puppies because his wife had just died in a drunk driving accident in Texas. He said he had taken the puppies with him to Texas but that they made him sad because they had belonged to his wife. I told him I was sorry to hear about his wife, but that it meant we’d have to go a different route because I didn't want to traumatize a puppy by shipping it across the country.
Harry was determined to seal the deal, though, and told me to send a money order ASAP. That's when I smelled a scam and switched from puppy buyer into investigative reporter.
After doing a reverse image search, I discovered ‘Kelsy’ was available for purchase on almost 20 other websites claiming to be located in different parts of the country. The photos appeared to originate on a personal family blog that hadn’t been updated since the early 2000s. The cute little pug with which I fell in love is probably a great-granddog by now.
I emailed them all. Within minutes, I received four emails with dozens of unique pictures of other wide-eyed pug puppies. They had different names, and were based in different remote parts of the country like Redding, California; Butte, Montana; Grand Junction Colorado, but the owners all had the same story about a wife that had died five weeks earlier in a tragic drunk driving accident.
This consistent fantastical story about the wife’s tragic death was bizarre, as if they had all read the same "How to scam dog lovers" manual. Cormac Herley, a Microsoft researcher, who is an expert in Nigerian scamming, said the outrageous but repetitive stories like the ones in your typical Nigerian-prince-with-thousands-of-gold-coins email serve a real business purpose: weeding out the people who are too cynical to be scammed.
Cormac was the first to theorize that Nigerian scam emails are purposefully poorly written and over the top in order to lure the most gullible people. Sending out 100,000 emails is the easy part, Cormac says, but following up with people who initially respond is time-consuming. The crazy story helps thin out the pack to only the best targets.
And it works. On the website for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, I read man stories from people who had been fooled by scam artists selling puppies, pug and otherwise. These so-called 419 scams—named after the Nigerian penal code that makes this activity illegal—are very profitable. One government report estimated that Americans lost $198.4 million in 2006 in advance-fee scams like this one.
I emailed with all the faux breeders repeatedly trying to get them to talk to me over the phone. One young man with heavily-accented English agreed to chat. We talked briefly about the puppies before I asked about his accent. He said he was from Spain.
“De que parte de España?" I asked.
“OKAY, OKAY, OKAY, I actually don’t speak Spanish anymore,” he responded, explaining he was from Ecuador, as though that cleared everything up.
He rushed to change the subject telling me he would give the puppy to me for free on account of his misery over his dead wife. The delivery service was $250, he said, and I could send him the payment through Western Union. He then sent me more pictures of puppies held by a muscle-bound white man with tribal tattoos.
I asked if it was him in the picture.
“Yes," he responded, "Do you like my tattoos?”
I told him I did and then timidly approached my real question: “Are you a scam artist?”
He insisted he was an Ecuadorean man selling pug puppies from Redding, California, who had also forgotten Spanish, and then he hung up.
I sent him a text saying I was a journalist and that I suspected he was a scam artist based in West Africa. One in five internet scams like this originate in Nigeria, according to a New York Times analysis.
My phone rang almost instantly. We agreed that I wouldn’t use his name.
He told me he’s 18, living in Cameroon in his first year of University, using dog scams to pay his bills. He said that he’s just a “little boy” in the world of scammers and that he was just trying to get by in a country with rampant poverty and high unemployment.
“It’s not easy to make a living off of this,” he said. “There are times in a month you don’t make any money, not even sixty dollars, and there a times in a week you make much money.”
In a good week he makes $500 but typically it’s about $200 every couple of weeks, he said. He then asked me if I’d pay him $50 for the interview. When I told him I couldn’t, he hung up on me. I got one more text in all caps that just said, “WICKED AMERICANS.”
Watch out. There is an IRL version of dogfishing by the way. At least one innovative Argentinian started blowdrying ferrets and pumping them with steroids to try to pass them off as poodle puppies at markets.
While the story may not have ended well for my Cameroonian friend, my own story has a happier ending. We bought a beautiful pug daughter from a very real breeder in Annapolis Maryland. This is Harriet, on the first day I brought her home, a little over a year ago.
She is happy and healthy and blissfully unaware of how her image could be used to scam money from strangers halfway around the world.
A version of this piece was presented live on stage in New York on September 14, 2015 at our second Real Future Fair: The Real Future of Deception.
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.