A scammer is accused of exploiting pandemic loneliness with a puppy scam that stole money from people without delivering any pets.
Google announced the lawsuit this week. The company alleges Nche Noel of Cameroon used numerous Google services to offer purebred basset hound puppies for sale online. The scam, the company said, was a violation of its terms of service.
Noel used Google Voice, Gmail, Google Search and Google Ads to pull off the scheme, the company said in its criminal complaint.
AARP brought the scam to Google’s attention in September 2021. The group said a South Carolina resident looking for a puppy online came across Noel’s website. After corresponding via email and text messages, the seller instructed the buyer to send $700 in gift cards as payment.
The victim complied. Shortly after that, the victim received a text claiming the delivery company needed an additional $1,500 for delivery. The puppy never arrived.
Google’s investigation linked specific Google Voice and Gmail accounts to multiple services related to the scam and “other similar non-delivery schemes.” The accounts were linked by subscriber email addresses or recovery email addresses, phone numbers and login IPs, the company said.
Noel ran other websites that operated under similar methods, according to the complaint. The defendant utilized Google Ads campaigns to promote the websites and fraudulent sales.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the alleged scheme was the way in which Noel, posing as a seller, offered companionship to lonely senior citizens without coming through on the promise of a new puppy. That it happened in the middle of the pandemic, when depression and loneliness ran rife throughout society, made the scam particularly objectionable in Google’s eyes.
“Defendant’s online puppy scam is particularly nefarious because it not only relies on one-on-one communications, but also exploits the joy of pet adoption, resulting in both emotional harm and financial loss,” the company said in the complaint. “Defendant’s exploitative and malicious sham pet adoption scheme abuses Google products to prey on vulnerable victims during an unprecedented pandemic.”
According to the Better Business Bureau, pet scams make up 35% of online shopping scams reported to the group. The rise in pet adoptions spurred by pandemic isolation led to a surge in online searches about pet adoption, according to Google Search Trends.
The FTC and FBI said those scams disproportionately target older Americans, who lose an estimated $650 million per year.
Google is seeking damages, including compensatory and punitive damages, and asking the court to ban Noel and any conspirators from using its services.