How scammers are targeting families of missing dogs

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It didn’t take long for the volunteers running DogLost – the UK’s largest service for owners of stolen or missing dogs – to realise something was wrong, as more and more reports came.

“Someone called and said they have my dog,” many said. “He told me he’ll kill my dog if I don’t pay.”

Scammers calling the owners of lost dogs to cash in on their desperation is, sadly, nothing new. The very nature of searching for your dog entails making your phone number public in order to receive any information as quickly as possible, and there is no shortage of dog owners willing to pay to have their best friend safely back home.

“People would get a call within hours, or even minutes, of their missing dog’s profile going live or being posted on social media”

People have parted with large sums of money in the hope of seeing their pet again and, nearly always, the person who called never had the dog in the first place: they take the money and disappear, leaving their victim with an empty wallet as well as a broken heart.

This time, however, something was different. Karen Harding, one of the volunteers who volunteers with DogLost, told Dogs Today that it was the amount of reports, as well as the timing of the blackmailing calls, that made them realise many calls were by the same few individuals.

“People would get a call within hours, or even minutes, of their missing dog’s profile going live on DogLost, other websites or being posted on social media,” she recalls. “We know this because on some occasions, if the owner is for example elderly and does not have a mobile phone, us volunteers use  our own numbers – so we could see that almost as soon as a dog was profiled as missing on the page, there would be a call.”

scammers are targeting the families of missing dogs

“I had my own number on the profile of some dogs and this man rang me within minutes. It was easy to imagine him at his computer, scrolling down the pages. I pretended to be the owner, said I would pay, and took him all the way through his act – yes, I said, I’ll pay, give me all the details. He gave me bank details – they have a few different names and bank accounts , as well as different mobile numbers to call from, but we figured the police could connect them to the people responsible.”

DogLost got in touch with the police and Action Fraud, but it wasn’t precisely a great start for a partnership.

“At first, the police said that all the owners have to do to avoid such calls is… not to make their phone number public. That was their solution,” Karen recalls. “It was a bit surreal, to be honest – the entire point is that you’re looking for your missing dog and of course you want to be immediately reachable by anybody who might have found or spotted them. Yes, scammers may pick up your number, but what else can you do? Anyone with a missing dog would make their contact details public – I know I would! At one point, Action Fraud and the police actually suggested closing down the DogLost website, since it was one of the places where  the scammers were picking their victims.”

The advice for anybody receiving a call from someone claiming to have their dogs, and threatening to hurt them is to  not pay them, is to ask for proof. 

It’s hard to overstate how absolutely counterproductive that would have been: as the biggest website to report missing, stolen, and found dogs, DogLost is an invaluable resource for dog owners across the UK. As a temporary solution DogLost decided, in October, to keep phone numbers out of the public profile of missing dogs.

“We took this decision  last year, seeing how many people were paying out as well as out of concern we may be forced to close,” Karen says. “Owners’ phone numbers are no longer publicly visible on the missing dogs’ pages. Now, if anyone has information, they can leave a message, and a volunteer will then share the information with the owners.

“Some owners still share their number on different fields on the page. When that happens, we get in touch to alert  them to the possibility of scams – we also have scam alert messages, visible as the owners enter their details and their dog’s, to let them know of this risk and they are also sent an email warning as soon as registered. Of course, nothing stops the owners from sharing their contact details elsewhere on social media – such as missing dog Facebook pages, for example. It’s what anyone would do while looking for their dog.”

The advice for anybody receiving a call from someone claiming to have their dogs, and threatening to hurt them is to  not pay them, is to ask for proof.

dog theft

“Ask for a photo with something showing today’s date,” Karen says. “If they have the dog, surely they can send a photo as proof. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they do not have the dog and will be unable to send any photos. One time someone was sent a photo, it was simply a picture taken from the dog’s very DogLost page – not very convincing!

“In some cases, scammers may sound believable because they can name a specific road where they supposedly found your dog, a short distance away from the spot where the dog went missing. But that is a trick – as people will share the postcode of the last location their dog was before going missing, they simply use Google Maps to look it up, and pick a street nearby as the place where they will claim to have picked up the missing dog.

“Do not part with any money without proof; if you feel you’re up for it, however, do let them talk through their act – and do write down any bank details you’re given for the payment, as well as the phone number that called you, as it may help the police investigation.”

“If your dog is missing and you’re targeted by this kind of scam, you should report to your local police by calling 101, then email us at stolen@doglost.co.uk with as much info as they can”

Despite the rocky start, there is indeed an active police investigation on the matter.

“Both Crimestoppers and Action Fraud are involved, as well as the Cumbrian Police Force – because now we know that is where this particular group of scammers is based,” Karen says. Cumbria Police are investigating and comparing with previous intelligence held on people who have been arrested for this crime before.

“As a matter of fact, there already was a big casefile – but it then needed to be allocated to a new investigating officer, which didn’t happen for many months. We know that now there is a new officer looking into this, and he has been put in touch with Action Fraud.”

It is not uncommon, Karen adds, for people who report a similar scam to their local police to feel that they’re not being taken seriously; tracking missing dogs rarely ranks high among the priorities of any police force.

Karen says, “The main problem is that local police forces don’t have a clear picture of how serious the problem is on a national level. All they get are a few reports, every once in a while, in their area. At DogLost, we see the size of the problem across the UK; this is organised crime, bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds. The main issue is we never had a central place for people to go and share their experience – until now.

“If your dog is missing and you’re targeted by this kind of scam, you should report to your local police by calling 101, then email us at stolen@doglost.co.uk with as much info as they can. Both reporting to the police and the email are vital. We collate details and send them to the Cumbria Police officer investigating.

“These criminals are taking advantage of desperate people,” Karen adds. “We know one of the people responsible for this spate of scams bragged about the amount of money he made out of it – and we know they are not the only ones operating this kind of scam. We hope that by collating all the info, we can show the full scale of the problem, and make sure it is taken seriously going forward.”

“Thank you to all of the authorities and supporters, knowing you were all there whilst we were being threatened with closure was heart warming”

Jayne Hayes, Founder DogLost, said, “The last few months have been a challenge for our volunteers and co-ordinators having taken the phone numbers of owners off our website, but we have managed to figure out ways to get all of the relevant information out quickly. Luckily public, wardens and rescue contacts have mainly understood and worked with us.

“Thank you to all of the authorities and supporters, knowing you were all there whilst we were being threatened with closure was heart warming – we will continue to run a free nationwide lost and found service for many years to come. It is so disheartening to hear how much money these scammers are making for terrorising our owners, whilst we struggle to raise enough money to still offer this free service and build our new website!”

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