For the first time, the technology giant Google has filed a consumer lawsuit to protect the vulnerable and unsuspecting from what it called a “wicked” scheme: selling adorable but imaginary puppies.
A lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, alleges that Nche Noel Nze, a Cameroonian man, deceived potential puppy buyers using a number of Google services, including Gmail accounts, Google Voice numbers and ads. .
Mr Nze lured his victims with “charming” and “enticing” pictures of purebred puppies, along with “compelling recommendations from supposedly satisfied customers” who took advantage of 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 removing” Mr Nze’s activities and is suing him for financial damages, citing damage to the company’s relationship with its customers and damage to its reputation.
“It seems like a particularly gross misuse of our products,” Michael Trin, a Google lawyer, said by telephone on Monday.
The company says it prevents 100 million harmful emails from reaching consumers every day, but Mr Trin said he hoped the case would go further, setting an example with Mr Nze. Google has decided not to prosecute, as it believes a civil lawsuit will be a quicker remedy, Mr Trin added. “It’s an ongoing battle.”
The case is Google’s first consumer lawsuit, said Jose Castaneda, a spokesman for the company. He added that based on an extensive network of sites run by Mr Nze, Google estimated that the victims had lost a total of more than $ 1 million.
Google’s lawsuit comes after the pandemic sparked a demand for pets, as well as an increase in schemes that take advantage of this desire.
Last year, consumers reported losing more than $ 5.8 billion from fraud, an increase of more than 70 percent compared to 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In particular, online shopping scams increased during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group estimates that in 2021, pet fraud accounted for 35% of these reports.
Google first learned of Mr. Nze’s activities around September 2021 after receiving a report of abuse from AARP, an adult advocacy group.
According to the report, a South Carolina resident looking for a dog contacted Mr Ntze by email after visiting a website he runs, now non-existent. After correspondence with Mr Nze by email and text, the person later sent him $ 700 in electronic gift cards, the report said, adding: “Victim 1 never got the puppy.”
According to the subpoena, Mr Nze 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 prescription opiate cough syrup, the case said.
“When you go to buy a puppy, you don’t expect a criminal to be on the other side,” said Paul Brady, who runs PetScams.com, which tracks and reports websites that falsely claim to be selling animals.
Fraudsters, often located outside the United States, publish photos and videos of puppies at low prices and require advance online payments and sometimes additional fictitious costs, such as animal quarantine or shipping fees.
Such schemes have “exploded” in the last two years, Mr Brady said, as fraudsters took advantage of people’s loneliness and took advantage of the blockade, which limited their ability to travel far from home to pick up a puppy.
“People are sitting 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 Raskovic, 28, the attempt to be fooled by an online pet scheme was devastating.
About a year ago, Ms. Raskovic, 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 an online form that no longer exists, which includes detailed questions about her plans to care for the animal, she said, which led her to believe the process was legitimate.
She sent a $ 700 deposit to the seller, who sent her a video of what she thought was her recent puppy. She bought toys and a dog bed.
Then, she said, the seller said he needed an additional $ 1,300 for a coronavirus vaccination for the dog and an air-conditioned delivery crate. Ms. Raskovic said she was told to expect a a call from Delta Air Lines, which the seller said would transport the animal – but when she called to confirm, the airline told her she was not transporting animals.
“Then I said to myself, ‘Okay, this is definitely not legal,'” she said, adding that she had cut off communication. The identity of the seller has not been established.
“Prepare for this new addition to your life,” Ms. Raskovic said. “It sucks.”
Kirsten Neuss contributed to the report.