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AG sues 2 Arkadelphia men in online puppy sale scam

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Two Arkadelphia men accused of running multiple fraudulent dog breeding websites, which allegedly were used to scam victims across the country out of more than $160,000, are being sued by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, court records show.

The civil consumer protection lawsuit, filed Thursday, against Helda Berinyuy and Thierry Ekwelle asks for a business injunction, victim restitution, civil penalties and court costs, according to records.

Berinyuy and Ekwelle used at least 10 websites to sell fictitious American Kennel Club-registered puppies including dogs of the Shih Tzu, Yorkshire terrier, Chihuahua and German shepherd breeds.

“Thankfully, no puppies were harmed in this scheme, but sadly, these two men scammed hopeful and trusting would-be pet owners out of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars,” Rutledge said in a news release Monday. “I will not tolerate unconscionable scams that are so harmful to Arkansans.”

Records state the defendants continued to scam buyers after they paid for the puppies via wire services such as Zelle, Walmart or Western Union. Soon after paying, buyers would receive a call from the defendants posing as a Little Rock Municipal Airport official, records state. They would request a $900 fee for shipping costs and in some cases additional money for insurance, covid-19 documents, late fees and emergency vet bills.

The men stopped communicating with buyers and often the websites would disappear after a buyer became suspicious or requested refunds, court records state.

Stephanie Sharp, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said as of Monday that the office didn’t have any plans to investigate criminal charges. She also declined to speak about whether any other agencies were investigating the case.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations often investigates multi-state financial crimes but media affairs officer Connor Hagan said Monday he was unable to confirm or deny any ongoing investigations. It is common for the agency to not comment on cases.

Berinyuy, living in the country on a student visa from Africa, was previously convicted for the scheme in 2019 in Saline County and sentenced to 36 months probation for theft of property and forgery, court records show. It says he failed to report to his probation officer several times.

“Currently, Defendant’s whereabouts are unknown to his probation officer,” the suit says.

The Benton Police Department was first alerted to the scam in December 2018 when a manager of Harp’s grocery store noticed the defendants using identification cards with various names and addresses when receiving Western Union wires that ranged from $500 to $700, court records show.

Police were able to find Berinyuy upon arrival to the call and he was arrested for what would later become the 2019 conviction, the record shows. Police estimated at that time the scam and netted more than $78,000.

“However, this felony conviction did not deter Defendant Berinyuy’s fraudulent and deceptive trade practices related to the advertisement and sale of puppies on the internet,” the suit says. “By mid-2020, consumer complaints related to the online sale and non-deliver was trending with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), Better Business Bureau (“BBB”) and the state.”

A Maryland woman lost more than $4,000 in the scheme after attempting to purchase a puppy from minidachshundbreeders.com in late March 2020, court documents state. She sent $650 for the dog through Western Union and another $990 for shipping. Another $875 was paid for pet insurance and a “site license.”

She was contacted a third time by a man requesting $875 for a “quarantine document” because of the lockdown and a fourth time for a $790 document late fee, court records state. She refused to pay a $800 fee because the dog was distressed.

Documents show investigators were able to determine the defendants picked up money from locations throughout the state, including West Memphis, Little Rock, Fayetteville and Texarkana. Photos taken from videos showed the defendants using identification cards with more than 30 different names.

The suit asks that both defendants be fined $10,000 for each violation of Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. It doesn’t list how many violations each defendant faces.

The attorney general’s office previously released tips for avoiding such scams, including visiting breeders in person and paying by check or credit card rather than wire transfers or prepaid debit cards.

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