Patricia Mills, 39, of Western North Carolina was just hoping to get two English bulldog puppies for her daughters, but she was duped in an airport scam that unsuspecting gift-giving families are being drawn into during the holidays.
Mills said she saved up for a year to buy a dog for each of her two daughters, 15 and 9. She found an ad in late November, and communicated with the seller directly on email. The seller had a local listing in Craigslist but said she had to move to New York for a work assignment and wanted to leave them with "a loving and caring home."
Mills said the "official-looking emails" vetted her with questions to screen whether she would be an ideal pet owner.
"They had logos and I got a chip number and a veterinarian check," she said, from a veterinarian saying that the dog would be able to fly.
She wired $200 at first for the two puppies. Then the seller told Mills that each puppy required $200 each for liability insurance, which would have been refundable the next day, when the puppies were to be delivered.
"If you're a normal rational human being, it sounds decent," Mills said. "It's a live animal."
She had to ask a friend for the money and then tried to wire it. But the seller then asked her to request a refund and wire it to a second location.
"It started getting hokey then," she said.
Mills said the seller, who was previously cordial in emails, "became extremely hostile."
"She said, 'You need to send us $400'," Mills told ABC News.
Then they said that the animals were at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport but required another $1,800 for paperwork under a city ordinance.
"I'm thinking to myself, whoa, no," Mills said.
Before going to Atlanta, she called a number of authorities, including the U.S. Customs office in Washington, D.C., the Port of Savannah, and Georgia Port Authority. None were familiar with an $1,800 paperwork fee, nor a facility for animals at the airport.
She eventually was directed to Warren Jones, cargo manager at the airport, who told her the airport does not have its own facility for animals, as the airlines are responsible for transferring pets.
She filed a fraud report with her local police station, who said there was not much that could be done to retrieve the wired money. Including wire transfer fees, Mills said she lost under $800.
Maj. Bryan Anderson with the Mooresville Police Department, who said there is an ongoing investigation, said many times the scam can be traced out of the country. The police said they will ask Money Gram for a paper trail. If it is traced out of the country, the case will be referred to the Secret Service.
"All it is is a scam to get you to send more money," Anderson said.
Jones said this scam has been taking place for years at his airport and others across the country.
"It always picks up during the holidays," he said. "People want to buy dogs during Christmas."
So brazen are the scammers that they used Jones' name and image on a website for a fictitious dog kennel. The scammers had taken a picture from an airport press release from six years ago.
"When people see the Atlanta airport logo, they think it's for real," he said. "Unfortunately the scammers out there have become very astute and try to make it as real and believable as possible."
The airport's own internal fraud department has been able to shut down some of these fake websites through legal means, which sometimes have IP addresses abroad.
"You shut one down, and one pops up," he said.
He urges buyers to beware and to avoid wiring money for any purchase. A credit card charge can be disputed with most credit card companies when fraud is involved.
"All we do is ask the public to please be careful when buying off the internet. When buying from a breeder, verify that they are a legit breeder," he said.