Santos’ Friends of Pets United never existed. Neither do “spay/neuter cookies.”
WASHINGTON D.C.––The most infamous of all of New York third district Congressional Representative George Santos’ many scams, now extensively exposed, was probably the easiest: inventing and raising funds in the name of a pet rescue organization that never legally existed and never verifiably helped even one dog or cat.
At least 42 other scam artists have done essentially the same thing and been caught since ANIMALS 24-7 debuted in 2014, many of them raking in vastly more money than Santos before running afoul of law enforcement.
“Spay/neuter cookies” has run since 2009
How many scammers have raised funds in the name of fake animal charities and not been caught is of course unknown.
Perhaps hundreds of other suspected scammers, meanwhile, have at least legally incorporated nonprofit organizations before raising funds with unverifiable claims––like former People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals cofounder Alex Pacheco, who may have raised millions of dollars since 2009 under the incorporated name 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You, on the promise that somehow, despite Pacheco lacking any scientific credentials, laboratory facilities, identifiable scientists or veterinarians on staff, or biologically plausible theory as to how it might be done, he is on the brink of developing a one-dose “Spay and Neuter Cookie” to permanently sterilize either female or male dogs and cats.
(See “600 Million” reasons to toss Alex Pacheco’s alleged spay/neuter cookies, Pseudo-science & the Alex Pacheco “Spay & Neuter” Cookie, Alex Pacheco of “600 Million” says he was gunner on a boat with no guns, Steve Hindi & SHARK up the ante & call Alex Pacheco’s bluff, Alex Pacheco serves stale “Spay & Neuter Cookies” again for Christmas, and Spay/neuter popcorn? It’s as real as Alex Pacheco’s s/n cookies!)
Santos scammed more flamboyantly
Santos just scammed more flamboyantly than most, even Pacheco, who apart from his 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You appeals tends to keep a low profile.
Santos, a Trumpist Republican, forged practically the entire resumé that got him elected in November 2022 to a seat long held by Democrats.
Santos has now been extensively exposed for lying in his campaign literature and elsewhere, shamelessly and profusely, about his education, athletic achievements, work experience, ethnic heritage, net worth, properties owned, car owned, his mother’s occupation, political fundraising accomplishments, his relationships to people killed in a 2016 night club mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, claims to have starred in Disney Channel television shows, and even his name and address.
“Fabricated a charity”
Santos is only known to have used two different addresses in connection with his run for Congress, but has used at least half a dozen names and variants of those names in recent years, most often posing as “Anthony DeVolder” and “Tony D.,” as well as having allegedly used the name “Kitara Ravache” while performing for three years as a drag queen in Brazil.
Wrote University of Dayton professor of accounting Sarah Webber for The Conversation edition of January 17, 2023, “Because I’m a nonprofit accounting scholar, what has really caught my eye are the reports that Santos fabricated a charity.
“On an early version of his campaign website,” Webber recited, “the freshman lawmaker claimed to have founded and run what has been alleged to be a fake nonprofit animal rescue group called Friends of Pets United.
“Santos says the group rescued 2,400 dogs and 280 cats and that it trapped, neutered and released over 3,000 cats from 2013 to 2018,” Webber summarized.
“Fake charities are a serious problem”
Yet, Webber continued, “Friends of Pets United has no web site. There is no record of the Internal Revenue Service granting the organization nonprofit status, or of a group by that name annually filing the required paperwork [IRS Form 990] with the IRS.
“Regardless of what the stakes are in Santos’ case,” Webber went on to explain, “fake charities are a serious problem. Their scams divert donations that would probably otherwise support legitimate causes that benefit society in one way or another. And they can undercut donors’ confidence, discouraging charitable giving overall.
“A lot of different schemes”
“The term ‘fake charity’ encompasses a lot of different schemes,” Webber wrote.
“In one common scenario, someone pretends to represent a real charity and pockets money that should have gone to that organization.
“It’s also not unusual for someone to set up a fictitious charity,” Webber acknowledged, “often with a name that sounds much like a legitimate cause – to fool donors into thinking they are giving to another, valid, organization.
“Sometimes charitable fraud is committed by the donors themselves,” Webber finished. “When that happens, the donor seeks out illegitimate tax deductions by donating to groups they know are fake nonprofits.
ANIMALS 24-7 has over the past 30 years exposed countless examples of all three types of “fake charity.” Probably the least damaging to legitimate animal rescue and advocacy was a long defunct antivivisection society that laundered money for a New York City organized crime syndicate, occasionally contributing some funds to spay/neuter work.
Santos’ Friends of Pets United appears to have run into trouble relatively early in its bogus existence.
“The full details of the [fake] charity’s activities are not known,” summarized Patch staff reporter Jacqueline Sweet. “Santos created a Facebook group for the charity around 2015, where group members shared images of dogs who needed foster homes or donations.
“The Facebook group was archived around 2020, according to Barbara Hurdas,” Sweet wrote, “who met Santos when she worked with him at a Dish Network call center in Queens in 2011, and remembered him starting Friends of Pets United and sharing it on social media after he left Dish in 2012. Facebook groups cannot be deleted, but an archived group becomes inaccessible to anyone besides its members, and Hurdas reported that the name of the group was changed to ‘The End.’”
“The End” for Friends of Pets United came in 2016.
U.S. Navy veteran Richard Osthoff, reportedly homeless and living in a chicken coop beside a New Jersey highway, appealed to Santos, who was then using his Anthony DeVolder alias, for help when his pit bull Sapphire was allegedly diagnosed with a life-threatening stomach tumor.
Osthoff posted photos of Sapphire with 23 GoFundMe appeals of his own, appearing to show that the dog had a large lipoma, a type of fatty tissue tumor that would not normally be either fatal or seriously debilitating.
Osthoff, who previously solicited funds via GoFundMe purportedly to save another dog’s vision, told multiple media that Santos raised $3,000 via GoFundMe for Sapphire’s surgery, and sent Osthoff to a veterinary practice in Queens, but the veterinarian told him that Sapphire’s tumor was inoperable.
Santos kept money “to help other dogs”
Instead of either refunding the $3,000 to donors, or turning it over to Osthoff for Sapphire’s terminal care, Santos claimed to have retained it to help “other dogs.”
If appropriate language had been used in soliciting donations, and if other dogs had been verifiably helped, this would have been a legitimate use of the money.
But such was not the case.
Sapphire died in January 2017. By then Osthoff and other would-be intervenors on his behalf had complained to GoFundMe.
“When we received a report of an issue with this fundraiser in late 2016,” GoFundMe spokesperson Jalen Drummond told CBS News, “our trust and safety team sought proof of the delivery of funds from the organizer. The organizer failed to respond, which led to the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with that account prohibited from further use on our platform.”
Responded Santos after Osthoff’s story became public, “Reports that I would let a dog die are shocking and insane. My work in animal advocacy was the labor of love & hard work.
“Over the past 24 hours,” Santos tweeted, “I have received pictures of dogs I helped rescue throughout the years, along with supportive messages.”
But Santos shared neither the pictures nor the messages.
Continued to pose as animal advocate
Meanwhile Santos continued to pose as an animal advocate.
Reported David Freedlander for NYMag.com, “When ‘Anthony Devolder ‘showed up in 2018, uninvited, at the house of Vickie Paladino, a firebrand far-right political activist from northeastern Queens then running for the New York state senate, he said that he wanted to sign up as a volunteer. His big issue, he told campaign staffers, was animal rights, and he was pushing for a no-kill shelter in College Point.”
Despite all that, Santos has been named to two House of Representatives’ committees, dealing with small business and science, space, and technology.
Having supported new House speaker Kevin McCarthy through 15 votes for the speakership, and with McCarthy trying to maintain a slim Republican majority in the House, Santos appears likely to remain in Congress, at least for a time.
Santos is likely to get off easier, if ever charged with anything associated with his “Friends of Pets United” hustle, than Tori Lynn Head, 55, of Portland, Oregon, who with co-defendant Samantha Miller, 52, cofounded a purported pet adoption agency and boarding kennel called Woofin Palooza in 2019.
Unlike the Friends of Pets United scam, Woofin Palooza involved actual animals, though conning people out of money appears to have been the biggest part of the operation.
The Woofin Palooza case was extensively exposed by Joelle Jones of KOIN and Maxine Bernstein of the Oregonian before both local and federal law enforcement took notice of the financial crimes involved.
Woofin Palooza reportedly began scamming as early as November 2019, and came under investigation by Multnomah County Animal Services for animal neglect in August 2020.
Head, summarized KATU staff reporter Jeffrey Kirsch on January 10th 2023, “is scheduled to plead guilty to several charges in Multnomah County Court. Head will get five years on probation and be banned from owning any domestic animals or working in an animal care facility, according to a plea agreement.
“Head is pleading guilty to eight counts of animal neglect, three counts of forgery, and one count of computer crime,” Kirsch explained.
Impounding 117 animals from Woofin Palooza as result of their August 2020 investigation, Multnomah County Animal Services found “cats and dogs kept in cramped kennels, adult and baby animals mixed together, and species mixed together,” Kirsch recounted.
Kept doing intake & adoptions
“Feces and urine were found throughout the facility, running down from some cages into the cages of other animals. Visibly sick and injured animals were seen throughout the facility, and often had no access to water.
“Portland Veterinary Wellness stopped working with the business after they discovered an outbreak of mycoplasma at the facility, a highly contagious disease that can be spread to humans,” Kirsch continued. “However, Woofin Palooza allegedly kept intaking and adopting out animals.”
But neglect of animals was only half the story.
“Federal prosecutors also claim that Head and his codefendant Samantha Miller charged customers nearly $3,500 in sham appointment fees to see pets, failed to reimburse customers over $23,000 in spay and neuter fees, and that the bills for follow-up veterinary care topped $142,000,” Kirsch continued.
“Prosecutors say Head and Miller misrepresented the health and behavior of animals at least 280 times between December 2019 and January 2021.”
Federal sentencing due in April
Having previously pleaded guilty in 2022 to federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and dispensing prescription animal drugs without proper labeling, Head “is due to be federally sentenced on April 25, 2023,” Kirsch added, “and faces 37-46 months in prison according to the proposed plea agreement.
“Miller’s Multnomah County case is still going through the courts,” Kirsch finished, “with a hearing scheduled for March 10, 2023. Miller was indicted on the same two federal counts as Head in December 2022.”
Desmond Fodje Bobga
The last big scam involving no animals that was brought to federal court appears to be that of Cameroonian citizen Desmond Fodje Bobga, 30.
Bobga, according to a Department of Justice media release, was on April 28, 2022 sentenced to serve 21 months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, “for his role in a scheme to trick American consumers into paying fees for pets that were never delivered and for using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to extract higher fees from victims.”
Bobga apparently took in many times more money through his pet-related scamming than either Santos or Head and Miller did.
“Desmond Fodje Bobga was extradited to the United States from Romania in April 2021,” the Department of Justice media release continued.
Bobga was in Cluj, Romania, purportedly to attend university.
Scammed from 2018 to 2020
“According to court documents, from approximately June 2018 to approximately June 2020, Bobga conspired with others to offer pets for sale on internet websites. He and others communicated by text message and email with potential victims to induce purchases.
“Following each purchase, Bobga and co-conspirators claimed that a transportation company would deliver the pet and provided a false tracking number for the pet. Bobga and his co-conspirators, posing as the transportation company, then claimed the pet transport was delayed and that the victim needed to pay additional money for delivery of the pet.
“Bobga and co-conspirators told some victims that they needed to pay more money for delivery because the pet had been exposed to COVID-19. The perpetrators used false promises and bogus documents regarding shipping fees and COVID-19 exposure to extract successive payments from victims. Once Bobga and the co-conspirators received money directly and indirectly through wire communications from the victims, they never delivered any pets.”
Bobga was sentenced 16 days after Bay Area News Group reporter Ethan Baron on April 12, 2022 reported that Google had sued Bobga, seeking recovery of funds, after having been alerted to his activities by the American Association of Retired Persons in August 2021.
“The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose contains embedded examples of online ads showing photos of floppy-eared basset hound pups with big soulful eyes,” Baron wrote. “One young dog is said to be named Boris and another is said to be named Hattie, each selling for $700.
“Last year,” Baron continued, “pet scams made up 35% of all online shopping frauds, the lawsuit said, citing the Better Business Bureau. A study showed that puppy scams increased by 165% in the U.S. from January to October 2021, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the suit.
The Department of Justice charged Bobga with “conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, forging a seal of the U.S. Supreme Court, and aggravated identity theft,” an earlier media release said.
The Bobga operation duplicated possibly the oldest fraud operation on the internet. A man claiming to be “Ishmael Bangura” promoted a similar scam from Sierra Leone in 2010, a “Reverend Brown” who claimed to be a “western missionary” did the same thing from Nigeria in 2008, another such scam run by a purported veterinarian surfaced in Bangkok, Thailand in 2008, and the earliest version investigated by ANIMALS 24-7 popped up on America Online in 1994.