You could say that Virginia Anderson’s house has gone to the dogs. They have eight of them. So when four-year old Annie suddenly went missing 18 months ago, Virginia Anderson and her family were determined to find her.
The Andersons frantically searched the neighborhoods near their Omaha-area home, and ran ads in their local newspaper.
“$500 reward for information leading to the safe return of Annie, 4-year-old German Shephard with black face” read the ads.
Just before Thanksgiving, a man called collect and said he had Annie. He said he was traveling through town on a motor home, and had seen her struck by a pickup. He didn’t know what to do with the dog, so he decided to bring her with him.
He said he was going to put her on a United Airlines flight back to Omaha. Virginia went to the airport that evening, hoping to be reunited with Annie.
But Annie was not on the flight. There was no dog. And the Andersons had lost more than their pet. They had sent the man $1354 - the amount the caller had insisted Virginia send him to cover the cost of a large veterinary bill and the ticket to fly Annie home. Erin Moriarty reports on a new criminal trend.
“He sounded like a loving, caring person,” says Virginia. “He described the dog, and basically everything he told us was in the ad.”
Virginia Anderson’s story has become all too familiar to Irv West: “There are a lot of scammers out there who know that you’re desperate. And they move in. They’re very predatory.”
A pet owner himself, Irv says there seems to be a growing criminal element that preys on people who lose animals. When he’s not raising llamas in his backyard in upstate New York, he runs a Web site that reunites owners with their lost pets. For the past year he’s been tracking complaints like Virginia Anderson’s.
“We’re well known as a group that find scams, so people turn to us first,” he says. He says the Internet allows con-men to read lost pet ads placed in local papers all over the country, ads that often contain too much identifying information about the pets.
“The risk is enormous, especially with newspaper ads,” he says. West says that the man who scammed the Andersons may have been making more than $2,000 a week.
In fact, in the past 18 months, state and federal authorities say they’ve have documented 18 cases including Virginia’s, where pet owners around the country have been ripped off in a nearly identical manner by a very persuasive man, frequently calling from Nevada. Investigators believe the person behind the scam is William Muniz, a California man with a 20-year criminal history.
April Stanley had her beloved Kaia for two years. Then, April says, Kaia disappeared out a friends window. Muniz called her and actually threatened to keep her cat if she didn’t wire him money.
She says he told her that she “obviously weren’t responsible enough to have her, and this happened to her.”
April sent $400 and, assuming her cat was on her way back, stopped searching. When her cat wasn’t returned, she was crushed.
The pet owners were all told to wire money though Western Union. That’s because it can be picked up anywhere, and is impossible to trace. But authorities say William Muniz made one big error. He came here to Reno Nevada, to this casino to pick up his money, and got caught on tape.”
Nevada put out a warrant for the arrest of William Muniz, and last year he was picked up in California. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and to federal wire fraud charges.
He still faces charges of theft by deception in Nevada, and if convicted as a repeat offender he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
“I think he’s totally heartless,” says Virginia. “Not only does he take you money, he takes your time, he steals a little piece of your trust. And that’s something you’re not going to get back.”