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I've found your cat, give me money: Owner of lost pet hit with ransom demand

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The joy of someone finding a lost pet can quickly turn sour if they have fallen into the hands of scam artists.

With the Internet enabling people to broaden their appeals for information about missing pets, it has given rise to nefarious individuals looking to take advantage of owners' angst.

Last week, Katherine Smith, 23, took to the Web when her four-month-old tabby cat Japhy went missing from her home in South St. Paul, after she let him outside and he failed to return.

After posting an appeal on Craigslist, she told BringMeTheNews she received a call from a man calling himself Cedric, who said he lived nearby, had found her cat and was feeding him.

"I asked if I could pick Japhy up tonight and he said no, that I couldn't come over. He would drop the cat off and needed some money," Smith said.

"I said I had $20, which I didn't even have. He said that was not enough, but after I explained to him how upset I was and how worried I'd been about my cat, he said he'd come over. After half an hour he hadn't shown up so I called him, but got no answer.

"My phone number was on his collar, and that's where he said he got the number from, but some people warned he might also be trying to scam me using my Craigslist ad."

Smith's experience bears hallmarks to many of the lost pet scams that have been reported across the country.

Website Pet Amber Alert identifies four of the most common lost pet scams used by fraudsters looking to prey on heartbroken owners. It includes the "pay-me-first" scam where the person pretends to have found the lost pet – even though they haven't – and demands payment before they return it.

In another, known as the "tag team scam," one person calls up claiming to have found a pet and gets information about it, only to then say the pet they found doesn't match the description. Then, their accomplice will use the information to say they have found the pet, and as such can be more convincing in their attempts to extract money up-front from the owner.

Last year, NBC reported on the rising number of cases in New York where crooks were demanding ransoms for the return of pets, with some stealing them in the first place, while others pretend to have them in response to lost pet appeals.

In Indianapolis, RTV 6 reported on a growing trend of pet ransoms, with dogs particularly targeted by "flippers" who posed as a lost pet's owner to retrieve the animal, and then try to profit from its return to its actual owner.

Cat returned in the end

In Katherine Smith's case, she encouraged her Facebook friends to plague Cedric's phone with messages demanding he return her cat after he failed to get back in touch with her.

She had contacted the St. Paul Police Department as well, and Sgt. Paul Paulos told BringMeTheNews they investigated the number.

It appeared to have the desired effect, as she received another call from him, and this time he was much more willing to accept the initial $20 she offered, she said.

She went round to what she described as a seedy-looking house a few blocks from her own and, unlike some of the scams, Cedric did indeed have her cat.

"I drove the borrowed car to the given address and waited outside for what felt like 15 minutes before this guy and lady came outside with my cat, so I handed the $20 over and got him back," she said.

After Smith got Japhy back, she didn't pursue anything further with the police, Paulos said.

"I guess he gave up trying to make more money off of me," Smith said.

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