Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series about scams occuring in central Pennsylvania and how people can protect themselves.
Christina Carroll’s family cat, Fred, got frightened off their Hanover deck last month and never came back.
So Carroll and her mother Holly Collins contacted the Find Toby Facebook page, which is a clearinghouse in central Pa. to reunite lost and found animals through its large social media presence. The page has 108k followers.
But some people who follow the page aren’t looking to help. They are scammers looking to profit from distraught pet owners.
Moments after Carroll’s post hit the Find Toby page, her cell phone dinged with a text message: “I got your cat.”
When she asked: “Where?,” the person wouldn’t provide a location.
They said they were with an animal control group and needed her to confirm a code to “make sure you’re not fake” before they could proceed with reuniting her with her lost cat.
But why would the person need to confirm her cell number when they just texted her on that very same cell phone, Carroll asked. The person didn’t respond.
Another scammer took a more threatening tone, saying her cat is “under my neighbor’s custody,” and the neighbor wanted a reward.
“His name is John. I advise you pay him. John is very wicked (sic) he can kill your pet. Just give him what he’s asking for.”
Situations like that are playing out daily in Pennsylvania as part of a relatively new scam designed to use your phone number to set up fraudulent accounts.
In Carroll’s case, she was prepared. She had worked with the Find Toby page last month after she found a cat and was warned that scammers would be lurking. She recognized this supposed “animal rescue” wasn’t located near her and that the threatening scammer was a fraud.
“It’s honestly heartbreaking,” she said. “I had been driving around my mom’s house for four hours, circling, 9 months pregnant in this heat looking for her cat. And then I get a message like that.”
Messages from scammers often come from phone numbers with area-codes from other states. Sometimes the messages include improper English, cryptic messages or there are odd mistakes in the messages.
They also refuse or avoid saying where they found the animal. Instead, they ask for verification by confirming a six-digit code sent to your phone.
If you confirm that code, the scammer can use your phone number to set up fraudulent accounts, possibly access your online accounts and commit crimes using your phone number.
In some cases, the scammer sets up a Google Voice account using your phone number. Once you confirm the code, that completes the account setup but the other person now controls the account.
The advice from law enforcement is to never confirm a code in a situation like that.
When scammers reach out, simply report and block the number.
In other states, some scammers have spoofed the phone numbers of legitimate animal rescues and ask for a fee to return your pet.
But animal rescues say they would never demand payment over the phone to release a found pet. There might be a small fee involved once the pet’s owner comes to the shelter but not before that.
Glenda Rupert, one of the founders of the Find Toby nonprofit, said they started noticing the scam about six months ago. She said it is hitting other lost and found animal websites and Facebook pages as well.
“It’s really cruel,” she said. “People who have lost pets are holding onto any kind of hope.”
Not posting phone numbers on Facebook for pet owners is one option to avoid scammers, but not a good one, since that’s the quickest way to reach the pet owner, Rupert said. If a lost animal is spotted, the owner needs to be reached immediately.
It’s unclear who’s behind the scams, whether it’s local criminals or international scammers.
State and federal law enforcement officials told PennLive they haven’t seen significant reporting regarding this type of scam.
“But as always, we’d encourage the public to report scams and scam attempts to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov,” said Carrie Adamowski, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Philadelphia office.
Brett Hambright, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, said he checked with his team and they had no recent investigations into this type of scam.
“As general guidance, we encourage any Pa. consumer that feels they have been harmed to file a complaint with us,” Hambright said.
Many people like Carroll and her mom, don’t report the incidents as crimes. They handle them like nuisances, delete the messages and move on. In Carroll’s case, her mom eventually found Fred. He returned home in a few days on his own and is now being doted on by Holly Collins.
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