Monday, February 23, 2009

Finding Fridaydog....Beware the Scam Artists

To many a pet is a full-fledged member of the family. And losing that pet is devastating. But, despite our most careful attention, at times our beloved pets do get lost. So what do you do?

Let me tell you a story...

Many years ago I was the proud "parent" of a lovable, goofy, wandering black Labrador Retriever named Friday and affectionately called Fridaydog and Furface (occasionally we referred to him as The Farter - but that's another story). One night, Fridaydog roamed off when I wasn't looking. We called his name, searched the neighborhood and drove around in vain trying to find him. That night a storm broke out so we assumed he had taken shelter and would surely return home in the morning. We were wrong. He didn't.

We did all the things that one should do when trying to find a lost pet:

  1. Made flyers with his picture and posted them around the neighborhood.
  2. Offered a Reward for return of our dog.
  3. Placed ads in the local papers.
  4. Called every humane society, SPCA and rescue shelter (repeatedly).
  5. Wrote to every veterinarian, pet shop, groomer and kennel in the area and included a copy of the flyer.
  6. Pounded the streets putting flyers on cars and handing them to local business owners.
  7. Talked to the local police force and crossing guards.
  8. Made friends with neighbors who had similar looking dogs asking (begging) for their help.
Today, we could have used the internet to post lost pet ads such as:
The outpouring of help and genuine concern was incredible. Everyone we met was very supportive... except for two people. Enter the scam artists. These people prey on your emotional attachment to your pet to get money out of you.

The first scammer was a seemingly kind elderly gentlemen who claimed to have seen Friday with a few local boys. He said the boys had the dog on a rope and he just knew the dog wasn't theirs. (Interestingly, a trusted neighbor with a dog similar to Friday had just told us that she'd seen some local boys with a black Lab on a rope. She called to them to see their dog and they took off running). I asked the man where the boys lived, but he wouldn't tell me. Instead, he said that the boys wouldn't trust me or that they would want more of a reward from me than they'd expect from him. He convinced me to meet him at a local gas station to give him the meager reward ($25.00) and he promised to take the money to the boys and return with Fridaydog. I didn't trust him, but I felt that I had no choice. I wanted my dog back. I was a college student on a very limited budget, and back then $25 was a small fortune. My boyfriend and I met the elderly man and a friend of ours parked in the next parking lot. When the man drove off our friend followed him. Eventually the man stopped at a house, got out of the car, and went up to the door. No one was home. He got back in the car, turned it around in the driveway, and drove to the end of the driveway. Then the man got out of the car and dug through the trash. (Our friend who had pulled into the neighbor's driveway watched the whole thing). The man waited until a bus came along and then suddenly pulled out in front of it and took off. Our friend lost him. The man never came back.

Our second villain pretend to be a truck driver who had gone through our town a few weeks ago (around the time we had first lost Friday). The truck driver claimed that he had bought a dog from some kids who'd had him on a rope. (Again, the rope connection). He had planned on giving the dog to his fiance, but she didn't want him. He realized the dog was well trained and probably hadn't belonged to those boys. So, as a good Samaritan, he was searching for the owners of the dog. He'd seen our ad in the paper and wondered if the dog he had could be our beloved Fridaydog. He asked me to identify the dog. We went back and forth on whether the dog was mine. Several times he would hang up to check the identifying characteristics (he said he was at a pay phone and the dog was in the truck). At one point, I said that my dog had a few white hairs on his back left paw (he didn't). The man called back and said, "Yes, ma'am, a few white hairs." Even though I knew Friday didn't have any white hairs, I still wanted the dog with that man to be my dog. It had been weeks since I'd seen him and this was the best lead I'd had to date. The man refused to put someone else on the phone to verify that he even had a dog with him. Despite my nagging doubt, I convinced myself that in the weeks that Friday had been missing he must have gotten slightly injured and the hairs grew back in white. I was desperate to have my dog home.

Well, eventually we were discussing ways to get the dog back to me. (The truck driver was a few hours away from me). I suggested that he drop the dog off at the local shelter until I was able to get there. He hung up and called me back after talking with the shelter. "No, ma'am, that won't work. They won't let the dog stay for just a few hours." Next, I suggested that I drive out to him, but he said he couldn't wait that long, that he had to get back on the road. Someone, and I don't remember whom, suggested that he airmail the dog to me. The man called the airline and sure enough there was a flight going out soon and the dog could go. I offered to send him the money for the flight as soon as the dog arrived. But, he wouldn't have any of that. He didn't trust me.

We seemed to be at an impasse until I suggested (or maybe he did) that I Western Union the money to him. The flight was $349 plus a carrier at $50. I agreed. I asked him which Western Union he was nearest (hoping I could contact the local police and have them show up to nab him if he was a scammer). He told me it didn't matter, because he could go to any one and get the money. He just needed confirmation that I'd sent the money and he'd take the dog to the airport. I asked him his name and he gave it to me, but then told me that I should use a code name in order for him to pick up the money because he'd lost his license. I was to tell the Western Union people that the code was "Brother's Name" and the answer was "Bill."

I got all the way to the Western Union, with all of my rent money for the month and then some. It cost an additional $25 to send the money, but I didn't have it. My roommate offered to lend it to me. I stood there in front of the Western Union, crying, doubting and not knowing what to do, I just wanted my dog and I felt that if I didn't send the money I would never know. Ultimately, with a heavy heart, I walked away.

A few weeks later, a lead that we'd been following led us to Friday. He'd been picked up the night he went missing. Friday had been hanging out with the local flower seller, sharing a hoagie, when a patron (the man in the red van) came by to purchase flowers for his wife. The patron asked if the dog belonged to the flower guy. When he was told no, the patron offered to take the dog home and split a reward if anyone was looking for the dog. Instead, he took the dog home and presented him to his family of six children as their shining angel from heaven who'd come to look over them in their move to the new town. They named him Gabriel and never intended to return him. The flower guy had told us that the man in the red van had come by every Saturday to buy flowers until the night he took Friday. Then, he came no more. It wasn't until New Year's Eve, nearly three months later, that the man in the red van returned to buy flowers. The flower guy demanded that he return my dog to me. (He'd kept my number in his wallet, beside the quarter that I'd given him to use the pay phone in the event the man in the red van returned.) The blessed flower guy left his stand that New Year's Eve and walked the two blocks to my house to tell me that Friday would be coming home that night.

The man with the red van did bring Friday home to us that night, along with each of his six kids, with Friday drapped in ribbons and bows. It was a bittersweet homecoming. I was overjoyed to have my dog back, and Fridaydog whined and barked with happiness at seeing me; but the six young children were devastated that they had to give up their "Gabriel." The man with the red van did that to his children by giving them something that was never theirs; but nevertheless, I felt sad because I understood their pain.

Two months later a man posing as a truck driver called us and said he might have found our dog. He'd bought it from some boys who'd had the dog on a rope...

I called ever single person who had a lost dog ad in the paper and warned them of the scammer. One person had actually sent him the money. Dogs are man's best friend. Beware of those who will try to benefit from your grief over losing your pet.

One last word...Get your pet microchipped. If he does end up at the veterinarian or shelter, he can be easily recognized. Always have a collar on your dog, with identity tags. I didn't have either. I was extremely lucky to get Friday back.

Audrey Buglione is an attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. She practices family law, education law and animal law. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Contact Audrey Buglione for a no-obligation confidential consultation.

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