YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – You’re already frantic. Your beloved dog slipped out from its gate and you’ve looked everywhere for him, to no avail.

Now, as local pet owners like Susan Nespeca learned, there are people who will also try to prey on your vulnerability.

It was around 10:30 a.m. February 22 when Nespeca’s yellow lab Cooper took off from her backyard. The backyard gate had inadvertently been left open, just slightly, and the dog had only been gone minutes before Nespeca’s husband noticed.

The two then frantically searched the neighborhood, but Cooper vanished without a trace. Their search also led them to post to all of the missing pet sites — Facebook, PawBoost, Nextdoor and Pet FBI.

Later that day, Nespeca’s daughter received a message on Facebook from a man. He had found the dog and was willing to meet them.

“This was the story: He went to his son’s house and saw this beautiful dog and knew right away it was somebody’s pet, and that he wanted to do the right thing and return the dog, and saw the post on Facebook,” Nespeca said.

The couple later told police that the man wanted them to reimburse him $25. He said someone had sold the dog to his children, but he’d be happy to return the dog if they could just get that money back.

There were questions. Cooper had a collar on that was embroidered with the couple’s phone number on it, yet there had been no calls to say he had been found.

Still, the dog had been gone for some time at this point and they were hoping that this man had him. They downloaded Cash App to send him the money in order to get their dog back.

“We set up a meet. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, and we realize that now after talking to the cops,” Nespeca said.

He didn’t show up.

The Nespecas aren’t alone.

Other local pet owners reported being scammed in the same way, by a person who seems to be monitoring the missing pet sites for opportunities.

Shannon Hurd said just recently, a man who gave her the same name and phone number also contacted her after she posted about her missing dog on several Facebook pages. She said he gave her a similar story, and she believed him — at first.

“He seemed so sincere, going to pay this money for me to get my dog back. He said he was on his way, and he was going to get my dog back and bring her to me, and then he asked me to Cash App half the money back,” she said.

Hurd said she was then suspicious.

“He was texting me until I told him, no, I’m not sending him money through Cash App, and he just stopped texting me,” she said.

One woman, who didn’t want to be named, said the man also contacted her through Facebook, claiming to have found her two dogs that got loose.

She said the man told her that he knew the person who found the dogs and that he would get the dogs back to her. He just wanted money — through Cash App — for dog food and for taking care of them.

She didn’t end up meeting him, and another woman who found her dogs later contacted her and returned them.

The woman said the scammer was still trying to claim he had the dogs when they were back home with her.

“He’s out here extorting people. Literally extorting people for their dogs,” she said.

“[He] tries to get money from people who lost their dogs from people who are desperate to get their dogs back so he knows he’ll get the money. It’s sad, but that’s exactly what he does,” she added.

The scammer also caught the attention of Mahoning County Dog Warden Dianne Fry. The agency posted a warning on its Facebook page in April, asking pet owners to be wary of anyone who asks for money after finding a lost pet.

WKBN contacted the number being used by the scammer, and a woman answered. She denied that she had involvement in the scams but acknowledged that she had been receiving some “weird calls” lately.

The Dog Warden said if you do lose a pet, first call the pound or local shelters to make sure that the animal hasn’t been turned in there. If someone does contact you about finding it, ask for a photo or some other proof that the person has the animal.

“When anybody is asking you for money upfront, but they can’t show you anything, any kind of proof, I would be very, very leery of anything like that, because these people prey on emotional situations like that,” she said.

Fry said if you do arrange a meet-up with the finder, ask the person to meet you at a local police department and let the police know that you’ll be meeting there. She said her agency can also be the go-between, and you can ask the person to bring the dog there so you can pick it up.

Cash App also pointed to an article on its website, directing users on how to avoid scams like these. There are also resources for reporting such fraudulent transactions.

For the Nespecas who got Cooper when he was just 6 weeks old, the search continues. They believe that someone has their dog since he hasn’t been spotted in the area, and they’re offering a reward for his safe return.

This time, however, Susan said she will be more suspicious of anyone who contacts her about his disappearance.

Anyone who may have seen Cooper can call 330-770-4448.

Online scammer targets local missing pet owners
Photo of Cooper