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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock - Photo by Katie Davis

At least two dozen people who tried to purchase puppies online learned it was a scam only after they were directed to contact the pet department at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field to arrange to rent ventilated crates to transport their new pets.

The state's largest airport doesn't have a pet department nor is it involved with the transportation of any pets, although airlines can and do transport pets independent of the airport.

The Better Business Bureau says such scams have been around for some time. But it has seen a threefold increase in complaints about pet scams since the covid-19 pandemic enveloped the nation in March and people stuck at home turned to the internet to adopt pets for companionship, according to a database of complaints about scams the organization maintains.

The database contains 875 complaints lodged between March 1 and Friday related to pet scams. At the same time in 2019, the database contained 282 complaints.

One victim whose report came in Tuesday reported being out $2,500 after he came across a website called Angelic Golden Retrievers, looking to replace a golden retriever his family lost "a few months back."

"The puppy was $750.00 plus $50.00 for shipping so a total of $800.00," he said. "Everything seemed so legit from the website to the contract they sent me via email."

The complainant was then asked to pay a refundable $950 to insure the puppy and then pay another refundable $950 fee to rent a "conditioned" container to transport the puppy.

"At this point [I probably] should've realized this was 'fishy' but again I so badly wanted the puppy to get here," according to the complaint. "At that point I didn't have $950 so they asked what's the most I could do at that moment I said $750.00. They said ok."

He then got another email saying the dog needed a document to get through customs, at which point he knew in "my gut it was a total scam," the man wrote.

The scam starts with the websites. The bureau estimates 80% of the websites advertising puppies for sale are fake.

Airports are also often included in the scam. Pittsburgh International Airport, among others, reported a spike in June of such scams.

The scam only recently has taken off at Clinton National as well, with most of the complaints coming within the past two weeks and perhaps a bit earlier, according to Shane Carter, the airport spokesman.

He has spoken to people from Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi, Ohio and California "and a lot of states in between" who have been victimized.

They include Laury Perez Smith of Houston. Smith and her husband and two children were looking to replace a pet who had died in December.

"We were ready," she said. "We decided it was time."

They wanted a purebred boxer but were leery of the high prices the breed fetched. Then they came across a website that advertised a boxer for $600, or half price. A photograph depicted an adorable puppy called Jenna.

"That's when we fell for it," Smith recalled. "You get so excited. I'm not kidding."

They made the arrangements through emails, including signing a contract, and paid through a digital payment network called Zelle, which is similar to PayPal.

Not long after the transaction was completed, they received an official-looking email purportedly from "Adams Field, Little Rock Municipal Airport pets department" requesting $980 to rent a special container to transport the dog. All but $30 would be returned once the dog arrived.

The email triggered alarm bells for Smith.

"OK, I've just been taken," she recalled.

Smith eventually reached an airport dispatcher, who confirmed Clinton National doesn't have a pets department and she had been scammed.

The effort to wring more money out of the victims can go on to include payments for covid-19 testing and even fees, in some cases, to go through customs.

"After they scam you on the front end for a puppy that doesn't exist, they're trying to scam you on the back end and they're trying to bring credibility to this by tying it to the airport," Carter said.

When airport officials realized the scope of the problem, they began getting more information from the victims, coordinated with authorities and posted a warning about the scam on the airport website.

But by the time the airport is involved in the scam, it is too late for the victims.

"When someone gets to questioning about the airport, they've already been scammed on the first part," Carter said.

The attorney general's office also is alerting the public to scams involving pets and what steps to take to ensure they are working with a legitimate pet seller. It has lodged 28 complaints since March after receiving none in January and February, according to spokesman Amanda Priest.

Among the tips: "Pay for the puppy with a check or credit card. If a breeder pressures for a wire transfer or prepaid debit card payment, it is probably a scam."

Carter agreed. "In my mind that's one of the most important. With all of the victims I have spoken to, that's how they've sent money and it's like throwing out cash. There's not a way to get it back."

Even Western Union, the worldwide financial services company, said in a fraud alert about "Internet puppy purchase scams" that its online money transfers, "while a great way to send money to family and friends, ... should not be used for sending money to an individual for any type of online purchase. Additionally, never send a money transfer to someone you have not met in-person."

As for Smith, she holds out little hope of getting her money back, but remains intent on getting a dog for her family.

This time, though, "we're going to the shelter."

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