In a first, Google goes to puppy fraud in court

In a first for the tech giant, Google has 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 the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, claims that Nche Noel Ntse, a Cameroonian man, defrauded puppy buyers with a variety of Google services, including Gmail accounts, Google Voice numbers and ads. .

Mr. Ntse lured his victims with “fun” and “happy” photos of purebred puppies, along with “compelling testimonies from supposedly satisfied customers” who exploited the high demand for puppies in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, according to court documents.

Google says it has spent more than $ 75,000 on “investigating and rehabilitating” Mr. Ntse his activities, and has sued him for financial damages, referring to damages to the company’s relationship with its users and damages to its reputation.

“It seems like a particularly serious misuse of our products,” Michael Trinh, a lawyer for Google, said by telephone on Monday.

The company says it prevents 100 million malicious emails from reaching users daily, but Mr. Trinh said he hoped the pack would go ahead, and made an example of Mr. Ntse. Google decided not to prosecute prosecutors in the case because it believed civil proceedings would be a quicker remedy, said Mr. Trinh added. “It’s an ongoing battle.”

The case is Google’s first consumer protection lawsuit, said José Castañeda, a business case for the company. He added that based on the extensive network of sites run by Mr. Ntse, Google estimates that the victims lost a total of more than $ 1 million.

Google’s legal action comes after the pandemic caused an increase in demand for pets, as well as an increase in regulations that capitalize on this desire.

Last year, consumers reported losing more than $ 5.8 billion to fraud, an increase of more than 70 percent by 2020, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission. Fraud for online shopping has been particularly skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group estimates that by 2021 pet-related fraud will account for 35 percent of such reports.

Google first became aware of Mr. NTSE’s activities around September 2021 following receipt of a report of abuse by AARP, an advisory group for older Americans.

According to the report, a person living in South Carolina looking for a dog has contacted Mr. Ntse by email after visiting a website he operated, now fired. After correspondence with Mr. Ntse through email and text, the person later sent him $ 700 in electronic gift cards, the report said, adding, “Victim 1 never received the puppy.”

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Ntse is based in Douala, a port city of more than two million people in Cameroon. He ran other websites, including one that allegedly sold marijuana and opiate cough syrup on prescription, the lawsuit says.

“When you buy a puppy, you do not expect a criminal to be on the other side,” said Paul Brady, who manages, which tracks and reports websites that falsely claim that they sell animals.

Scammers, often located outside the United States, post photos and videos of puppies at low prices and ask for online payments in advance and sometimes extra inventory costs, such as animal warranty or delivery costs.

Such schemes have “exploded” in the past two years, Mr. Brady said while scammers capitalize on the loneliness of people and take advantage of lockdowns that limit their ability to travel far from home to collect a puppy.

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

For Rael Raskovich, 28, the experience of cheating through an online pet scheme was devastating.

About a year ago, 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 researched her options, and eventually completed an online form in, now released, that contained detailed questions about her plans to care for the animal, she said, leading her to believe the process was legitimate.

She betrayed a $ 700 bond to the seller, who sent her a video of what she thought was her soon-to-be 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. Raskovitch said she was told to expect a call from Delta Air Lines, which claimed the seller would transport the animal – but when she called to confirm, the airline told her they were not shipping any animals.

“Then I was like, ‘OK, this is absolutely not legitimate,'” she said, adding that she turned off the communication. The identity of the seller was never established.

“You are getting ready for this new addition in your life,” Ms. Raskovich said. “It’s shooting.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed to reporting.

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