Hundreds of pet owners across the UK have reported that they have received blackmail threats from scammers who claim to have found their lost pooches and missing moggies.
As BBC News reports, fraudsters are combing online forums where desperate owners post messages about their lost pets, and then demand thousands of pounds in "reward" for the animal's safe return.
However, the truth is that the frantic dog and cat owners are being scammed - as the cold-hearted person contacting them does not have the missing pet at all, and is merely taking advantage of the animal lover's desperation to be reunited.
Victims are typically reeled in through social engineering, after scammers describe the animal's appearance, and detail its shy demeanour.
Police in Cumbria have been co-ordinating an investigation named "Operation Façade" into the criminal scheme, after it became clear that despite victims being located across the United Kingdom, the many reports appeared to have a link to the county of Cumbria.
On October 26 2023, 24-year-old Brandon Woolveridge of Barrow in Cumbria was jailed to three years and eight months in prison after admitting to blackmailing pet owners who had posted appeals on social media after their dogs and cats had gone missing.
Woolveridge demanded thousands of pounds be paid into bank accounts for the safe return of pets, sometimes threatening to kill the animals if victims did not agree.
The court heard that:
Cumbrian police managed to catch Woolveridge after examination of phone evidence linked him to the crimes.
"Woolveridge’s victims were already extremely distressed at the loss of their much loved pets, when he cruelly chose to prey on them. He then made this ordeal even more traumatic by firstly raising their hopes that their pet would be returned, then frightening them into believing he would harm their pets if he did not get money," said Detective Inspector Amanda Sykes of Cumbria Police. "They would then have their hopes dashed and their money taken when they realised this was all a lie."
Of course, it's likely that Woolveridge is not the only scammer exploiting pet owners' desperate desire to be reunited with their much-loved cat or dog.
“Operation Façade has been a very complex investigation, with over 200 victims to date identified from across the whole of the UK," continued Detective Inspector Sykes. "The investigation is continuing, and we will pursue anyone who has been involved in these blackmail offenses or handling the money taken from the victims."
Animal lovers who have lost their pets are advised not to pay any rewards without making extensive checks that the claim is legitimate and the pet has really been found. According to Cumbria Police, checks could include making a video call with the person to confirm that they have your pet.
“If you have concerns that the person wo has contacted you may be acting fraudulently, then please do not give them any money or personal information and contact the police," advised Detective Inspector Sykes.