• What happened to me could very well happen to you

     

     

     

    VACAVILLE–All she wanted was a puppy, a special puppy.

    What she got was a hole in her heart and a hole in her bank account, as well as a developing disdain and distrust of the Internet and the financial institutions that prey upon or profit from unsuspecting victims.

     “It shouldn’t have happened,” said pet scam victim Lillian Paine Menezes of Vacaville, a retired physical education teacher who is jumping through hoops, chasing leads and kicking up dust to try to get her $2450 back — and to warn others that “what happened to me could very well happen to you.” 

    “All I wanted was another West Highland White Terrier,” Lil said. “A Westie, a Westie girl.”

    The Vacaville resident is one of more than 10,000 victims of pet scams reported to the Better Business Bureau over the last three years.

    Lil, who taught school for 33 years and is now settling into retirement, recalled that her world once revolved around two Westies: Paisley, who died in 2017 at age 11 of cancer; and Abby, a rescue dog who died in 2019 at age 14 of Cushing’s disease.

    Abby’s terminal illness devastated Lil and her friends who walk daily in a local park.  “What did the doctor say about Abby?” a friend asked her August 22 in a group text message. “Sure hope she is okay. She is a special little lady.”

    “The vet said when she starts vomiting or stops eating that will be the beginning of the end,” Lil texted back.

    Added another friend: “The best you can do is make her comfortable so she can enjoy her final days.”

    “She is exhausted and sound asleep,” Lil reported. “Thank you. My heart is aching.”

    Abby died in her arms on August 22 in a veterinary clinic. “I cannot believe how quickly her body shut down,” a tearful Lil told her friends. “But there is comfort knowing she is at peace and no longer suffering.”

    She misses the love, the warmth, and the quirky little “What’s-up?” look and “Let’s-go-to-the-park” stare. Her home, which once housed Lil and Abby, now houses only her and her cherished memories. 

    “We figured she’d get another rescue dog right away,” said Vacaville friend Ann Schmidt-Fogarty. “Lil is a dog whisperer. All the dogs at the park just gravitate toward her.”

    Lil tried word-of-mouth, the pound, shelters, pet adoption centers, and California breeders to get another rescue dog.   Zilch, nada, nothing.

    Her applications drew nothing but rejections. “I was told that my profile did not meet their criteria; they basically told me I am too old and geographically undesirable,” said Lil, who is a young 69.

    Feeling excluded from rescue adoptions, Lil then set out in earnest to find another “special little lady,” but this time a Westie puppy. “I had the time during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place to train her.”

     Finally, on March 8, she located a breeder in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a professional-looking website, febenwesties.com (now suspended), and applied for what appeared to be a fun-loving, short-eared puppy named Cailey. In her application, Lil assured them that she was not a breeder, that she would love and care for her — with plenty of walks in the park — and that Cailey would be in a “fur-ever” home. 

    “I was delighted when they approved my application. On March 10, I told them I would purchase Cailey.”

    The contact, responding only through email, requested payment through the Zelle app. “I never heard of Zelle so I went to Bank of America on March 10 and asked if they were legitimate,” Lil recalled. “The banker assured me, that, yes, they are legit. He downloaded the app on my cell phone, and guided me in transferring the funds.” 

    Lil later learned that Bank of America co-founded and co-owns Zelle, which allows electronic transactions between American bank accounts. 

    Was all well and good and the puppy named Cailey, “a special little lady,” on her way to her home in Vacaville? No.

     “When I returned home, the pet delivery service, pramalogistics.com requested additional money, $1299 for coronavirus shots for the pup and a special air-vented carrier — once again due to the coronavirus pandemic — to transport the puppy,” Lil said. “I then knew I was scammed.”

    Lil immediately telephoned the seller to request her money back. “No answer, so I emailed her,” she related. “She replied, tersely, that she would send. She didn’t, and then she quit responding to my emails.”  

    “What a scam!” Lil said. “I felt she was smirking and laughing at me. She was the predator; I was the prey. Now they are scamming others into buying their nonexistent puppies.” 

    When Lil returned to the Bank of America, another banker informed her that Zelle should be used only to send money to friends, family or others you trust. It should not be used to send money to people you do not know.

    “I later learned that Zelle has no fraud protection,” Lil said. “None. Who knew?”

    All banking-related websites and apps are vulnerable to scammers, but especially Zelle, which is embedded within banking apps and automatically connected to user accounts, according to an NBC News story of June 11, 2019.  

    Author Bob Sullivan, who tracks online bank scams, told NBC News: “When it (Zelle) launched, there were ads screaming on TV over and over saying, ‘You can trust Zelle. It’s backed by the banks. It’s safe.’ I mean they really traded on the safety of being associated with large banks.”

    “The instant funds transfer, and the lack of default two-factor authentication, and use of identification through easily co-opted phone numbers or e-mail addresses, leave users vulnerable to deceptive misdirection of funds, or money instantly lost in a fraudulent or erroneous transaction, with essentially no practical or legal recourse for the victim,” according to Wikipedia. “In some cases, bank customers have had their bank accounts wiped out without even knowing that there was a Zelle service associated with the account. While some Zelle fraud is compensated by the banks involved, some is not, depending upon the bank and its policies, and the specifics of the incident.” 

     “Neither Bank of America nor Zelle will refund my $2450,” Lil said, “because according to their words, I gave the scammers the money ‘willingly.’” 

    “No,” she told them. “This was not a donation.”

    Today, Lil’s research shows that the same scammers (same web design, same text, same stolen Internet photos and same phone number) continue to launch pet scam websites, tugging on people’s emotions. “They are probably a multi-million dollar Asian overseas ring,” Lil said. “No one is willing to stop their operation. There is no enforcement by our laws, no FBI, no BBB, no FTC, no police and no help from the banks or Zelle.”

    Lil later learned that the culprits are not only selling Westies they don’t have, but other dogs they don’t have: Newfoundlanders, German Short-Haired Pointers, Doberman Pinschers, bull terriers, dachshunds, and pugs, as well as kittens — Russian Blues, Siamese and Persian Sphinx. 

    “Most likely there are more,” the retired teacher said. To date, she has found 17 fraudulent pet scam websites connected to febenwesties.com. Many are now suspended. “I’m shutting them down.”

    “The scammers,” she said, “use untraceable phones, fake identifications of dead people or the elderly for their email accounts. Their domains are protected by HostGator, Endurance International Group, and Privacy Protect LLC. They change their websites every couple of months.”

    Today, Lil continues her search for a Westie, but not on Internet sites. Meanwhile, she enjoys painting rocks — depicting such subjects as Westies and butterflies — to hide in local parks. A butterfly enthusiast, the retired teacher enjoyed working in the butterfly habitat at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo, and teaching rock-painting as a volunteer at a Bohart Museum of Entomology open house at UC Davis. 

    One of her rocks shows a Westie chasing a butterfly.

    The butterfly is just out of reach, just as Lil Menezes’ stolen $2450 is out of reach.  

    Resources: 

    The American Kennel Club offers tips on how to spot a puppy scam on its site at https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/spot-puppy-scam, as does the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA), at https://www.ipata.org/current-pet-scams.

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    Photo taken by Donna Blair



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