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Heartbroken over the death of her dog, Diva, Sandy Vanderbrug began scanning online classifieds for a replacement.

She wanted the same breed - a fluffy, hypoallergenic variety called Coton de Tulear - so she was thrilled when she found an online ad offering Coton de Tulear puppies for $750, less than half the going price.

On the phone, the woman said her name was "Valerie" and asked if Ms. Vanderbrug had heard of Cottonelle. She had, of course: Valerie Ford is an Ontario breeder so famous for her trophy-winning dogs she's known in breeders' circles as the Cottonelle lady.

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Assuming she was talking to Valerie Ford, Ms. Vanderbrug was told the puppy came at such a bargain because the breeder was getting out of the business.

But when she went to the woman's dishevelled home in East Toronto, she was shown a bobble-headed puppy with coarse hair and a suspiciously Shih Tzu-like underbite.

"It looked like a Gremlin. Teeth like I'd never seen," Ms. Vanderbrug said of the puppy. "I thought, this is not Valerie Ford."

Puppy fraud is one of the most common Internet scams - and it's on the rise, according to RCMP Corporal Louis Robertson, director of the Canadian anti-fraud centre PhoneBusters, which is managed jointly by the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and the Canadian Competition Bureau.

Some scammers ask for financial deposits in exchange for a dog that will never materialize, he said. Others send photos of dogs asking for money to help rescue them from famine or homelessness - a scam that was particularly popular after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.

"You look at that little puppy dog with the big brown eyes and you say, 'Gee, I have to send money as soon as possible,' " Cpl Robertson said.

Others are similar to the one Ms. Vanderbrug ran into, he said; sellers post ads for dogs they claim are purebred but they're actually mutts or come from puppy mills.

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Luckily for Ms. Vanderbrug, she sensed a problem before any money changed hands.

The real Valerie Ford lives on an acreage about 160 kilometres east of Toronto, where she's bred Coton de Tulears for 13 years. She received an e-mail from Ms. Vanderbrug in March, warning her that an impersonator was piggybacking on her reputation in order to sell mutts. Ms. Ford had already received two other warnings from concerned buyers.

"I was very angry," Ms. Ford says. "I felt worse because she was taking advantage of the vulnerable, uneducated new puppy buyer. And I felt even worse for the dogs."

PhoneBusters has received 168 complaints of puppy scams over the past five years, probably only a fraction of the actual number because people are often too embarrassed to admit they've been duped, Cpl. Robertson said.

Another Toronto woman who answered the same ad as Ms. Vanderbrug, on Kijiji, which is similar to Craigslist, said she felt something was wrong after she realized the puppy was too big to be a Coton de Tulear, hadn't had any shots and smelled.

"You'd think, if you were selling a dog to someone, you'd clean it up," said the woman, who did not want to be identified. "I just didn't have a good feeling."

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She eventually bought a puppy from the real Ms. Ford, whom she found through the Canadian Coton de Tulear Club website.

Ms. Ford recommends buyers visit a breeder's home to make sure it is run ethically. A dog walker comes daily to her home in Warkworth, Ont., to exercise her 14 adult dogs, including four males and nine females. A groomer visits once a week. Some of her dogs sleep in a heated barn with satellite television.

All of her puppies have their first shots, are de-wormed and registered, so when customers spend $2,000 plus tax for one of her dogs, they know they're getting the real thing, she says.

Ms. Ford's lawyer sent the fake breeder a warning letter and so far she hasn't heard about any more about her.

Ms. Vanderbrug recently brought home a retired show dog named Hailey-bop, which she bought from a top Coton de Tulear breeder in Ottawa.

"I think there are a lot of legitimate people there," Ms. Vanderbrug said. "But on Craigslist, you've got to be very careful ... because if you pay these people, you perpetuate what's wrong."


Tips for buyers

It is easy to become caught up

in a puppy scam and spend hundreds of dollars on a dog that doesn't exist or isn't the breed the buyer thought. RCMP investigators offer some tips to make sure buyers know what they're getting:

Be wary when breeders ask for deposits, or full payments, to be sent in advance. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Get to know the breeder. Many claim to have recently moved, or to be planning a move. Nevertheless, ask for a name, address and phone number. Some scam artists go the extra mile and pose as well-known breeders; try to confirm they are who they claim to be.

If possible, visit the home of the breeder to see that the dogs are treated well, and the breeds are what the owners claim. Reputable breeders will keep their dogs in top shape.

Purebred puppies can be registered under Canada's Animal Pedigree Act. Buyers looking for purebred dogs should only purchase puppies that have been listed.

If you still fall for a phony offer, don't wallow in regret - call the Canadian Anti-fraud Call Centre (1-888-495-8501) and report the scam. They've received 168 calls in the past five years.

Josh Wingrove

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