Bridget Monrad, owner of Tucson-based Happy Tails Travel, didn't know anything was amiss until six months ago.
That's when she got the first call from a woman asking when her new dog would be delivered.
Monrad's company assists animal owners with domestic and international travel and relocation, but does not facilitate pet adoptions.
As the calls continued, Monrad learned someone had duplicated her company website and sent out emails with sob stories of dogs in need of homes.
Business identity theft isn't new, but it is increasing, rapidly. Technology makes it easier than ever to commit cybercrime. Even those entities that alert consumers to scams are not immune. Recently the Better Business Bureau has had its identity co-opted.
"We do have an ongoing email scam that's affecting the entire Better Business Bureau system and that's been very difficult for us to handle," said Nick LaFleur, spokesman for the BBB of Southern Arizona.
The scam, referred to as phishing, uses deceptive spam emails that appear to come from legitimate, well-known sources such as the BBB, to trick consumers into divulging personal information or as a gateway for spyware and computer viruses. The bogus phishing emails sent under the guise of the BBB suggest a complaint has been filed against the business. The emails contain malicious links directing recipients to a phony website.
"We get a lot of calls from business owners and consumers asking whether the complaint they get in their email is a scam," LaFleur said. "Luckily we haven't heard from anybody who has given their computer a virus or damaged their computer from opening the links."
Tucson attorney Larry Hecker, an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, has experienced firsthand the effects of such a scam. He finds as many as 100 emails a day returned to his inbox as "undeliverable." The problem: Hecker never sent them. Someone is using his professional email address to send millions of spam emails.
"It's more of a nuisance than anything else, but who knows what's being sent? I've tried everything to get rid of it," he said.
Because those running the scams have such easy access to information via the Internet, they can hide behind layers of email addresses and can shut down one website and start up another with a few clicks of the mouse, "there's no real effective recourse," Hecker said.
In the case of Monrad, scammers have created a website almost identical to Happy Tails, down to the company logo and staff profiles. Victims of the scam receive emails about dogs available for adoption. When the recipients click on the link contained in the email, they are directed to the bogus website.
Scam victims are asked to send money to adopt the pet, Monrad said. Days later the animal lover will get another email saying the dog is impounded at an airport warehouse and it will cost more money to get the dog released.
So far at least 20 people have contacted Happy Tails about the scam.
Names the phony company has used include Flint Pet Shippers, Skilled Pet Shippers and Blink Pet Shippers, Monrad said.
"When we found out about it we did some investigation and did everything we could to stop it," she said.
Many of the people duped by such fictitious companies had initiated contact with the schemers by going online to look for an animal to adopt.
As fast as Monrad and her webmaster can contact Internet servers to shut down the phony websites, they pop up somewhere else. On one occasion, two of Monrad's employees called a telephone number posted on one of the counterfeit sites, but when they called asking the scammers to stop using the copyrighted content from their site, the men began shouting vulgarities.
Monrad's problem is compounded because the scammers are in another country.
"A lot of this stuff happens outside the country ... and it's very hard for United States law enforcement to track it down or do anything about it because it is outside of their jurisdiction. There's not really an easy answer how to solve it yet," the BBB's LaFleur said.
"As far as we're concerned with the emails being sent out in our name, that's fraud. They're using our trademark and they're deceiving all sorts of people ... into potentially infecting their computer with spyware," he said. "The problem is tracking them down and finding them and if you do find them, are they actually in a country where you can put a stop to what they're doing?
"They can be very mobile. They can move around from country to country, city to city, wherever. We're seeing a lot more with these online crimes. You're getting really sophisticated criminal syndicates overseas. They make a lot of money putting spyware on people's computers."
Though this type of fraud is increasing, no federal or state statistics track the problem, according to a recent report on National Public Radio.
Barak Y. Orbach, professor of law at the UA, likens these types of schemes to the decades-old Nigerian scam in which potential victims are contacted by a supposedly wealthy foreigner who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland with the promise of a hefty reward to the person assisting him. If the potential victim is hooked, he or she will be asked to use thousands of dollars of their own money to facilitate the transfer of the foreigner's fortune.
Because the adopt-a-dog scam plays on emotion and hits up victims for just a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, the story seems more plausible and potential victims are less guarded, Orbach said.
Even if those running the schemes can be tracked, the cost to find them and bring them to justice would be prohibitive, he said.
"The legal system has limited resources. Do we want resources spent on that or other things?"
These types of cyber crimes are so prevalent, Orbach contends the budget to enforce laws against such fraud would have to be infinite. Though agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission are looking at ways to combat the problem and better educate consumers about identity theft, "this is one of the crimes that will be tolerated and there will always be schemers," Orbach said. "The question is, as a society, how much in resources do we want to allocate to that? We have to be realistic about what we demand of the legal system."
Monrad could not put a dollar figure on how much the scam has cost her company, but she and her staffers have spent many hours responding to calls and emails from those victimized by the scam, tracking down websites and contacting agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission in search of a solution.
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.