Pittsburgh Tribune | A woman from Cheswick was widowed when her beloved 2-pound Chihuahua died.
Although on a fixed income, she decided to buy a black and white, long-haired Chihuahua puppy named Bentley that she saw online.
She contacted the person who posted the ad and made arrangements to send the seller $600 via a money order from Walmart.
Then she got a call telling her she needed to pay an additional $900 for a special cage and shipping. After sending that money, the woman got another message telling her she needed to pay hundreds of dollars more for a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit.
The woman testified Thursday that she realized then that she was being scammed. She said she refused to send any additional money and demanded, to no avail, that her money be returned.
The money scammed from the Cheswick woman was part of more than $111,000 lost by at least 70 unsuspecting victims through an online puppy scam, federal prosecutors said.
One of the people charged in that scam, Desmond Bobga, 29, of Cameroon, pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
On Thursday, he was ordered by Senior U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to serve 21 months in federal prison followed by two years of supervised release and pay restitution of $79,030.
He has already served 17 months since his arrest in Romania in December 2020.
The Cheswick woman, identified in court documents as Victim No. 5, was the only victim who appeared at Bobga’s sentencing.
“Financially, this was very hard for me,” she testified. “Emotionally, I had fallen in love with this puppy.”
The woman said she even called her mortgage lender to ask if she could skip a month’s payment so she could be sure she had enough money to pay for Bentley. They allowed her to do so, but required that she pay an additional $300 per month for three months to make up for it.
“I was heartbroken, but more than that, I suffered financially because of it,” she said.
The woman told the court that she doesn’t care if Bobga pays her $1 per week for 1,500 weeks. She just wants him to remember not to do what he did to her ever again.
Federal prosecutors said Bobga created the website lovelyhappypuppy.com and listed a variety of puppies for sale there. The scam continued from June 2018 to June 2020. Four of the victims listed in the criminal complaint were from Western Pennsylvania, including people living in New Brighton, Pittsburgh, Cheswick and Marion Center.
While at least 70 people were identified as victims, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Cook said he suspects there are many more.
“A large number of people were affected by this conspiracy,” he said.
In December 2021, the Better Business Bureau reported that 35% of online shopping scams involved pet-related cases, and many of the cases originate in Cameroon.
Bobga told Fischer that he had learned from his mistakes.
“To the victims, I am deeply sorry for the emotional and psychological trauma,” he said. “I implore you all to find a place in your heart to forgive me.”
Documents filed in the case said Bobga experienced extensive trauma throughout his life in Cameroon, which is in the midst of a civil war.
Bobga’s aunt said in a video-recorded statement that his father was abusive and murdered when Bobga was 6. Because his mother was suspected of involvement, Bobga was then sent to live with relatives until she was cleared when he was 10.
Bobga’s sentencing brief said he has been an advocate for peace in Cameroon throughout his life, but he has been targeted by those espousing violence.
In January 2020, Bobga fled Cameroon to escape the violence and attend university in Romania. Assistant public defender Sarah Levin told the court that Bobga’s mother was kidnapped and beaten to send him a message. In addition, a house in their family compound was burned because of his advocacy, the brief said.
Levin asked the court to consider Bobga’s difficult history — as well as the likelihood that he will be deported at the completion of his prison term — and sentence him to time served.
“Circumstances beyond your control can take everything you have — except your ability to respond,” Bobga said. “I am more than equipped and ready. I will dedicate my life to righting my wrongs.”
Fischer said he deserved a sentence in the advisory guideline range of 21 to 27 months of incarceration.
“You and your cohorts basically preyed on vulnerable people during the heart of the covid-19 pandemic while people were under restriction,” the judge said.
Although she said she believed Bobga was bright and remorseful, Fischer said she believes there’s still a risk that he could re-offend, given his young age and life circumstances.
“You should be able to put those skills to better use than scamming people on the internet,” she said.