In a first for the tech giant, Google filed a consumer protection lawsuit to protect the vulnerable and unsuspecting from what it called a “nefarious” scheme: the sale of adorable but imaginary puppies.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, alleges Nche Noel Ntse, a Cameroonian man, defrauded potential puppy buyers using a range of Google services, including Gmail accounts, Google Voice numbers and advertisements.
Mr Ntse lured his victims with “enchanting” and “seductive” photos of purebred puppies, along with “compelling testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers” who, according to court documents, were taking advantage of high demand for puppies in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.
Google says it spent more than $75,000 to “investigate and remedy” Mr. Ntse’s activities and is suing him for damages for damaging the company’s relationship with its users and its reputation.
“It appears to be a particularly egregious misuse of our products,” Michael Trinh, a Google attorney, said by phone Monday.
The company says it prevents 100 million malicious emails from reaching users every day, but Mr Trinh said he hoped the lawsuit would go further, making an example of Mr Ntse. Google decided not to pursue criminal charges in the case, believing that civil litigation would provide a quicker remedy, Mr Trinh added. “It’s an ongoing struggle.”
The case is Google’s first consumer protection lawsuit, said José Castañeda, a spokesman for the company. He added that based on the extensive network of websites run by Mr. Ntse, Google estimates that victims lost more than $1 million in total.
Google’s legal action comes after the pandemic caused a surge in demand for pets, as well as a proliferation of programs capitalizing on that desire.
According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, consumers said they lost more than $5.8 billion to fraud last year, a more than 70 percent increase from 2020. Online shopping scams in particular have skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group estimates that in 2021, pet-related fraud accounted for 35 percent of those reports.
Google first became aware of Mr Ntse’s activities in September 2021 after receiving an abuse report from AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.
According to the report, a South Carolina resident who was looking for a dog contacted Mr Ntse via email after visiting a website he ran, which is now defunct. After corresponding with Mr Ntse via email and text messages, the person later sent him $700 in electronic gift cards, the report said, adding: “Victim 1 never received the puppy.”
According to the subpoena, Mr Ntse lives in Douala, a port city of more than two million people in Cameroon. He operated other websites, including one that allegedly sold marijuana and prescription opiate cough syrup, the lawsuit says.
“When you buy a puppy, don’t expect a criminal to be on the other end,” said Paul Brady, who runs PetScams.com, which tracks and reports websites that falsely claim to sell animals.
Scammers, often based outside of the United States, post photos and videos of puppies at low prices, demanding online upfront payments and sometimes additional fabricated costs, such as pet quarantine or delivery fees.
Such schemes have “exploded” in the last two years, Brady said, as scammers capitalize on people’s loneliness and take advantage of lockdowns that limited their ability to travel far from home to pick up a puppy.
“People sit alone and want the company of an animal,” he added, recalling a particularly shocking incident in which a woman spent $25,000 trying to buy a Pomeranian puppy.
For Rael Raskovich, 28, the experience of being scammed by an online pet program was devastating.
About a year ago, Ms. Raskovich, who works in the mortgage industry, had just moved to South Carolina hoping to buy her first puppy: a golden retriever.
She explored her options and eventually filled out an online form, now defunct, that asked detailed questions about her plans to care for the animal, she said, leading her to believe the process was legitimate.
She wired a $700 deposit to the seller, who sent her a video of what she thought her future pup would be. She bought toys and a dog bed.
Then, she said, the seller would 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 count on a Called from Delta Air Lines which the seller claimed would transport the animal – but when she called to confirm, the airline told her it wasn’t shipping animals.
“Then I was like, ‘OK, that’s definitely not legit,'” she said, adding that she’d cut off communication. The identity of the seller was never determined.
“Get ready for this new addition to your life,” Ms. Raskovich said. “It sucks.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed reporting.