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 US District Court in San Jose, California, alleges that Nche Noel Ntse, a man from Cameroon, defrauded potential puppy buyers using a variety of Google services, including Google accounts. Gmail, Google Voice numbers and announcements.
Ntse lured his victims with “cute” and “attractive” photos of purebred puppies, along with “compelling testimonials from allegedly satisfied customers” that exploited the high demand for puppies in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, 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 its reputation.
“It seems like a particularly egregious abuse of our products,” Michael Trinh, a lawyer for Google, said by phone Monday.
The company says it prevents 100 million harmful emails from reaching users daily, but Trinh said he expected demand to go further, citing Ntse as an example. Google decided not to file criminal charges in the case because it believed civil litigation would be a quicker remedy, Trinh added. “It’s a continuous fight.”
The case is Google’s first consumer protection lawsuit, said José Castañeda, a company spokesman. He added that, based on the extensive network of sites run by Mr. Ntse, Google estimated that the 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 rise in schemes that capitalize on that desire.
Last year, consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion to fraud, an increase of more than 70 percent from 2020, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission. 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 such reports.
Google first became aware of Mr. Ntse’s activities around September 2021 after receiving a report of abuse from AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.
According to the report, a person living in South Carolina looking for a dog contacted Ntse via email after visiting a now-defunct website he operated. After contacting Mr. Ntse via email and text, the person sent him $700 in electronic gift cards, the report said, adding, “Victim 1 never received the puppy.”
According to the citation in the case, Mr. Ntse is based in Douala, a port city of more than two million people in Cameroon. He ran other websites, including one that purported to sell marijuana and prescription opioid cough syrup, the lawsuit says.
“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 sell animals.
The scammers, often located outside the United States, post photos and videos of puppies at low prices and ask for up-front online payments and sometimes additional trumped-up costs, such as animal quarantine or delivery fees.
Such schemes have “exploded” in the past two years, 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 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 duped by an online pet scheme was devastating.
About a year ago, Ms. Raskovich, who works in the mortgage industry, had just moved to South Carolina and was hoping to purchase her first puppy: a Golden Retriever.
She explored her options and eventually filled out a now-dormant online form that included detailed questions about her plans to care for the animal, she said, leading her to believe the process was legitimate.
He wired a $700 deposit to the seller, who sent him a video of what he thought his future puppy would be. He bought toys and a dog bed.
Then, he said, the seller claimed he needed an additional $1,300 for a coronavirus vaccine for the dog and an air-conditioned shipping box. Mrs. Raskovich said that she was told to wait a called from Delta Air Lines, which the seller said would be transporting the animal, but when he called to confirm, the airline told him that they were not transporting animals.
“So I was like, ‘OK, this is definitely not legit,’” he said, adding that he hung up. The identity of the seller was never determined.
“Get ready for this new addition to your life,” said Ms. Raskovich. “Stinks”.
Kirsten Noyes contributed to this report.