For the first time for the tech giant, Google has filed a consumer protection lawsuit to protect the vulnerable and unsuspecting from what it has described as an “outrageous” scheme: selling adorable but imaginative dogs.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in US District Court in San Jose, California, alleges that Nche Noel Ntse, a man from Cameroon, defrauded potential buyers of the puppy using a range of Google services, including Gmail accounts, Google Voice numbers and ads.
Mr. Netsi lured his victims with “cool” and “alluring” pictures of purebred dogs, along with “compelling testimonies from supposedly satisfied clients” that capitalized on the growing demand for puppies in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, according to court documents.
Google says it has spent more than $75,000 to “investigate and compensate” Mr. Ntsi’s activities, and to sue him for monetary damages, citing damage to the company’s relationship with its users and damage to its reputation.
“It looks like an egregious abuse of our products,” Michael Trinh, a Google attorney, said by phone on Monday.
The company says it blocks 100 million malicious emails from reaching users every day, but Mr Train said he hopes the lawsuit will go further, setting Mr Ntsi as an example. Mr Trinh added that Google decided not to pursue the criminal charges in the case because it believed that civil litigation would be a faster remedy. “It’s an ongoing battle.”
Jose Castañeda, a spokesperson for the company, said the case is Google’s first consumer protection lawsuit. He added that based on the sprawling network of sites run by Mr. Netsi, Google estimated that victims lost more than $1 million in total.
Google’s legal action comes after the pandemic has fueled demand for pets, as well as increased 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 risen during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group estimates that in 2021, pet-related fraud accounted for 35 percent of these reports.
Google first learned of Mr. Ntse’s activities around September 2021 after receiving a report of abuse from the AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.
According to the report, a person living in South Carolina looking for a dog contacted Mr. Netsi by email after visiting a website he runs, and it is now down. After emailing and texting Mr. Netsi, the person later sent him $700 in electronic gift cards, the report said, adding: “Victim 1 never received the pup.”
According to the case summons, Mr. Ntse is based in Douala, a port city of more than two million people in Cameroon. The lawsuit says he ran other websites, including one that purports to sell marijuana and prescription opioid cough syrup.
“When you go to buy a puppy, you don’t expect a criminal on the other end,” said Paul Brady, who runs PetScams.com, which tracks and reports websites that falsely claim to sell animals.
Scammers, often located outside the United States, post pictures and videos of puppies at low prices, order online advance payments and sometimes invented additional costs, such as animal quarantines or delivery fees.
Brady said such schemes have “exploded” in the past two years, with fraudsters taking advantage of people’s isolation and taking advantage of lockdowns that have limited their ability to travel far from home to collect a puppy.
“People just sit alone and they want animal company,” he added, referring to a particularly shocking incident in which a woman spent $25,000 trying to buy a Pomeranian puppy.
For Rael Raskovitch, 28, the experience of being cheated on by an online pet scheme was devastating.
About a year ago, Ms. Raskovich, who works in the mortgage industry, moved to South Carolina and was hoping to buy her first puppy: the Golden Retriever.
She explored her options, eventually filling out an online form, now no longer available, that included detailed questions about her animal welfare plans, she said, leading 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 soon-to-be puppy. She bought toys and a dog bed.
After that, she said, the seller claimed he needed an extra $1,300 for a dog’s coronavirus vaccination and an air conditioned shipping box. Mrs. Raskovitch said she was told to expect a A call from Delta Airlines, which the seller claimed would be transporting the animal – but when she called to confirm, the airline told her they were not shipping the animals.
“Then I said, ‘Okay, that’s definitely not legit,'” she said, adding that she had cut the call. The seller has not been identified.
“Get ready for this new addition to your life,” said Mrs. Raskovitch. “This is bad.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed to the report.