When Wayne Werner and Pamela Lanuza wanted to find a new puppy for their kids, they went looking where most people do: the internet.
"I Google searched it and up popped a whole list," Werner said. "I thought I found a dog, a Great Dane named Madison. Madison was $800. Got in contact through email. Got a response right away. Then it moved to text."
The Chicago couple sent the money for the blue-eyed Great Dane through Western Union to a company called Walsch Great Danes, reports CBS News' Don Dahler. They were given a bill of sale and told "Madison" would be shipped by air carrier from South Florida. Then, according to Werner, they got a phone call saying the dog was stuck in Savannah, Georgia, and they would have to pay another $1500 to get it to Chicago.
"That's kind of when I was starting to, my heart just started to sink. We were all excited. We had gotten supplies," Lanuza said.
There was no dog and no Walsch Great Danes. Their advertised address in Fort Lauderdale is actually a thrift shop. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Werner and Lanuza are victims of an international scam that affects as many as 37,000 people a year, paying an average $100 to $1,000 for dogs they'll never see. The Better Business Bureau also says at least 80 percent of websites advertising pets for sale, the vast majority believed to be puppies, are frauds and mostly based in West Africa.
"One of the red flags also was, the guy asking for the more money for the cage was a Virginia number and he didn't speak very good English," Werner said.
Consumer watchdog groups like IPATA.org and PetScams.com post fake puppy sale sites every week, but new ones keep coming. Sam Aussies is one of them. The site, which is still online as of Thursday morning, claims to sell adorable and affordable Australian shepherds for $750.
A discounted dog should be a warning to consumers says breeder Jordan Mills. Asked what's involved in breeding dogs, Mills said, "What's not involved? ... The training, the getting them ready for their new homes, the vet visit, to have the vet look them over, the vaccines."
Mills, who has bred French bulldogs for a decade, sells them for an average of $3,200 through her website, which scammers duplicated two years ago to defraud potential buyers.
"They took my website and they mirrored it completely," she said. "But there was no one behind it … people are putting their trust in you, a good deal of money and then they're sitting there waiting for something that doesn't exist."
Mills recommends that people who are looking to get a puppy from a breeder go to their home.
"I welcome people into my home," Mills said. "If you can't visit the person, another great resource is to FaceTime them … You want to be able to talk to this breeder. Ask them how they got into breeding. Get a real history from them. You're getting one of your new family members."
You can also look locally, which is where Wayne Werner and Pamela Lanuza finally found their Great Dane, Atticus.
Werner and Lanuza did not lose their $800 because they insured their purchase through Western Union, but the Better Business Bureau recommends using a credit card for any online deposit.
Above all else, however, they say meet the dog and breeder in person before buying.