Elena Nauman wanted a Dalmatian. She has owned the spotted dogs at various times in her life and was keen to adopt another.
Nauman, 59, and her husband tried going through various rescue organizations but with no luck. So when they saw an online listing for "beautiful Dalmatian pups" on Christmas Day, they decided to go for it.
The San Clemente couple now are $500 poorer and considerably wiser.
"I was so excited, I didn't question anything," Nauman told me. "I wonder how many other people have fallen for this scam."
More than a few, it seems.
"It's not uncommon for us to hear horror stories from people who try to buy dogs online," said Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society's efforts to crack down on so-called puppy mills. "It's very important that people do their homework."
The puppy scam that duped the Naumans is a variation of a relatively common racket involving money transfers or prepaid cards. The basic idea is that the scammer gets his hands on your cash and you get nothing.
The puppy scam can be especially effective because it preys on people's emotions and clouds their judgment with promises of furry bundles of love.
"I should have seen red flags from the beginning," Nauman said. "But I didn't."
The listing on Recycler.com said a breeder in Long Beach had a litter of 10-week-old Dalmatians available for $500 each. Each pup came with a bed, toys, food and a month's worth of insurance.
Someone identifying himself as James Clarkson responded to the Naumans' email with a rambling, ungrammatical message stating that the puppies "are very playful and loves much attention and to be pampered."
"Money is not the issue price can be negotiable," he wrote. "How much can you offer?"
Nauman wrote back to say how excited she was and asked whether she could visit Clarkson in Long Beach to see the puppies.
Clarkson's next email said he was in Mt. Shasta, not Long Beach, but offered no explanation for the discrepancy. He said Nauman would be required to make a down payment of $200 and pay the remainder once the puppy arrived at her home via a courier service.
Nauman was hooked. She said she'd take two puppies and agreed to a down payment of $500, followed by a second $500 payment after their arrival.
Clarkson instructed her to buy a $500 Reloadit prepaid card at a supermarket and email him the card's code number. With that number, Clarkson would be able to transfer the money online to his own account.
Not long after Nauman provided the number, she received a call from a David Hanson at Uship Petcargos. He said he had received the puppies from Clarkson but that the shipping case was too small.
"He said the dogs would die unless we sent another $500 for a larger case," Nauman recalled.
She finally suspected that she was being had. Nauman called the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over the Mt. Shasta address provided by Clarkson.
A spokeswoman for the department told me that no one named Clarkson lives at that address. She also said a cellphone number Clarkson had given Nauman was registered in Central California, not Mt. Shasta.
No one answered when I called the number. Clarkson didn't respond when I emailed him via his Gmail account. Hanson of Uship Petcargos didn't respond to an email sent to his Hotmail account.
I couldn't find a Uship Petcargos. But there is a Texas company called UShip, which really does ship pets. Dean Jutilla, a UShip spokesman, said this isn't the first time his company has been linked to an apparent scam.
"It's something we've seen for quite a while," he said. "Somebody's trading on our good name."
I don't know whether Clarkson and Hanson are the same person. But I'm pretty confident that no Dalmatians actually were for sale, no puppies were left to perish in a shipping case, and somebody, somewhere, is $500 richer thanks to Nauman being suckered.
"Responsible breeders do not sell their dogs online to people they haven't met," said Kahn at the Humane Society. "They'll insist on meeting them in person."
There are plenty of other tips available for making sure a dog breeder is on the up and up. The Humane Society has a good checklist on its website.
My advice is to skip the breeder and go with a rescue. There are lots of awesome dogs and cats out there looking for a home.
If you're set on a particular breed, try a search on Petfinder or the Shelter Pet Project. Both sites are plugged in to animal shelters nationwide and can show you whether a specific type of dog or cat is available in your area.
Better yet, just drop by your local shelter and see what's around.
"You never know what kind of dog you'll bond with," Kahn said. "We all think there's a dog we particularly want, but you never know until you actually meet them."
That was the case with our dog, Teddy, who joined our family about nine months ago from the South Los Angeles shelter. I always figured he was a big, goofy Labrador/pit bull mix. A recent DNA test showed that he's predominantly St. Bernard.
Nauman finally adopted her Dalmatian from a Westminster breeder found through a site called PuppyFind.com. It cost her $600.
She readily acknowledges that this ended up being one pricey pooch.