South Florida an Online Puppy Call Center Haven

Owners earn millions in controversial business that anger scores of customers nationwide

By Jeff Burnside
|  Friday, Mar 25, 2011  |  Updated 1:01 PM EDT
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NBC Miami has learned that South Florida has become "the" hot spot for the call centers that sell puppies online. Hidden cameras are showing us what's happening on the other side of those computer screens.

South Florida is becoming home to yet another controversial business that makes people angry nationwide: selling puppies online.

South Florida is a Mecca for the telephone sales centers that sell these puppies, using thousands of websites that try to look distinct even though they all lead to a handful of call centers here, acting as the broker between breeders and buyers nationwide.
 
You can buy anything online these days, but should you buy a dog online? There are warnings against it, but thousands do anyway despite the potential harm to a vulnerable, 8-week-old puppy that must be put in an airline cargo hold.
 
Critics say buying a puppy online can, in some cases, cost thousands, harm the puppy, and leave buyers disappointed when they get a different kind of dog than they thought they were getting, and heartbroken when the puppy becomes ill and sometimes dies.
 
A puppy mill is usually defined as a commercial breeding facility where dogs continuously breed, often exposed to the elements, provided little or no socialization, and are well-known for sickness and genetic defects. The vast majority of puppy mills are in the midwest.
 
Thousands of puppy websites -- all run by just a handful of companies or call centers based in South Florida -- sell millions of dollars worth of dogs online, and arrange shipment nationwide. Buyers often believe dogs on these websites come from those running these websites, not puppy mills.
 
But a lot of their outraged customers coast to coast tracked down by NBC Miami or who posted complaints online are furious over receiving puppies suffering from ailments commonly associated with puppy mills.
 
Complaints include phrases like “never again," "a total rip off," the "worst experience of my life."
 
A Maltese puppy was purchased off breedersdirect.com by Debbie Podesta, who says she was promised "a champion bloodline" for her $2,130. But the puppy looks nothing like the dog she saw online, and arrived in California near death acting strangely, infested with worms, ear mites, parasites, and bogus papers.
"And when it comes to animals with no voices,” Podesta told the animal welfare group Last Chance for Animals, “and them being taken advantage of, and using them as pawns in this scheme to make money, it's sickening."    
Another separate South Florida web operation, purebredbreeders.com, is run by Jason Halberg, who has told people he has thousands of puppy websites trying to look different from each other.
 
Sales data from employees show the call center can sell a thousand puppies a month and mark the price up on puppies by hundreds or thousands of dollars each.
 
Halberg’s Chief Financial Officer, Miles Greenberg, says they go farther than any website to avoid buying from puppy mills. He says they interview hundreds of dog suppliers, and check inspection reports. But rather than visit the breeding facility in person, they rely on photos and videos provided by a local third party, Google, or the breeder himself.
 
But shipping tiny dogs across country from Midwest breeders -- puppy mills or not -- invites trouble, critics say.
 
"Oliver" arrived in New Jersey near death, comatose with open wounds, mites, and a freakish demeanor. His owner's vet even said it arrived "unfit for sale."
 
As angry customers made themselves heard, a group called "Last Chance for Animals" listened and followed the chorus of anger to South Florida.
 
Just off President’s Circle, at 3900 Hollywood Boulevard, you won’t find any dogs in the office building. Just really good salespeople and others running many websites like breedersdirect.com.
 
After the initially agreed to an interview with NBC Miami to explain angry customers and whether the dogs they broker come from puppy mills, the firm's lawyer said no.
 
But "Last Chance for Animals" got someone hired there to use this hidden camera. It purported to show a sales meeting where the leader urges call center salespeople to do fake interviews with customers, then push harder to close the sale.
 
"I think that's one of the problems we're having,” he says, “is that we're getting people who are going through the interviews, but they're not -- exploiting is not really the right word I'm looking for. But not taking advantage of the information they're giving you."
 
In another video clip, the LCA infiltrator chats with a fellow employee who says she knows the story about breeders direct.
 
“The guy who does own it is in prison, right now,” the employee says.
 
“The guy who owns it is in prison?” the infiltrator asks. “What is he in prison for?”
 
“Internet scams,” the employee replies.
 
“What?! The guy who owns this company is in prison for Internet scams?” the infiltrator asks again.
 
“Yep.”
 
“What the hell's his name?”
 
“Vineet Chhabra,” the employee replies
 
Vineet “Vincent” Chhabra served several years in prison for illegal Internet pharmaceutical sales. "Last Chance for Animals" believes he was running the Internet dog business from prison.
 
Chabbra's company lawyer said Chabbra helps run the company that his father founded. Their main website, breeders direct.com, has shut down and changed it's name. Critics say when websites attract complaints online, they simply re-open under a new name.
 
Both Chabbra’s group and Halberg’s group say they are in intense competition with each other and other South Florida online puppy sellers. Each say they strive to avoid including puppy mills in their puppy suppliers.
 
Leading animal welfare groups all say buyers should Google the name of the website and the word "complaint." You'll be amazed what you find.

And leading animal advocates say adopting a dog from your local shelter helps fight euthanasia and the puppy mill industry.

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