Published: 06:00, 28 July 2021
| Updated: 16:15, 28 July 2021
Cruel fraudsters told a woman her missing cat had been found - before stealing hundreds of pounds from her bank account.
Lisa Fernandes was desperately relieved when a man claiming to be from the RSPCA called to say her long-haired tabby Hazel had been handed in to a Canterbury vets.
But her relief turned to upset and anger when she arrived at the vets to find her beloved cat was still missing, and she had been targeted by fraudsters.
Lisa and her family were "really, really worried" when four-year-old Hazel, who has a health issue affecting her legs, went missing last Monday evening.
"It's very uncharacteristic behaviour," said the 37-year-old, of Homersham in Canterbury. "She's a very, very nervous, timid cat."
"She lives her life in our house and garden."
Concerned about Hazel's disappearance - which coincided with last week's heatwave - the family searched for her night and day and printed off hundreds of flyers.
"I've been out at 3am looking for her," said Lisa. "We've done everything we could possibly think of."
On Thursday, Lisa entered Hazel's details including her microchip number to an online lost cat register, and messaged the RSPCA on Facebook.
It appeared her prayers were answered that afternoon, when she was called by a man claiming to be from the RSPCA.
He said Hazel had been found about two miles away on the grounds of the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and handed in to Vets4Pets in Wincheap.
"We were just massively relieved," said Lisa. "All I wanted to do was get off the phone and go and pick her up, but he kept me on the phone for ages.
"He gave the first eight digits of her microchip number and our postcode."
It is not known how the man got these details, but it is thought he could have found them online.
The first digits of a microchip number are also believed to be more generic than the latter numbers, which are specific to an individual animal.
"He said she has no injuries, there would be no medical bills," said Lisa. "The only thing we'd have to pay was a £5 discharge fee to the charity."
Lisa provided her bank details so the payment could be made.
"We got the cats from a charity and had to pay a fee to get them, so I didn't think it was odd at all," she said.
"Now I look back on it, the guy was babbling. There were so many red flags."
Lisa and her partner, Brett, rushed to Vets4Pets in Wincheap.
Finding she was not there, they tried Canterbury's other Vets4Pets in Sturry Road, thinking there had been a mix-up.
While en route, Lisa received a fraud alert message from her bank. Logging into her online banking, she saw a £368 payment had been made to Next.
"At that stage neither of us made the connection," she said.
"It was only when I got to the second vets and the RSPCA lady said 'we've had no cats come in' that I had a light bulb moment.
"The realisation dawned on us - it was a scam. All the pieces fit into place.
"I was so angry, mainly at the fact we'd got our hopes up and the fact someone could do that. We really thought she was coming home, and she wasn't.
"You hear about these scams preying on people in vulnerable situations. Normally I think myself reasonably savvy, but I was just so blinkered. I wanted to find her. That's all I cared about and I just could not see outside of that."
The fraudsters had made eight transactions to businesses such as Next and Just Eat, adding up to about £900.
"Because they had made these orders, they had obviously put in a delivery address," explained Lisa. "The address was a council estate in Dudley."
One payment of about £370 had gone through and was refunded, while the others were blocked.
Lisa's bank has sent the information to police.
To her family's joy, Hazel was found on Friday evening and is now safely back home.
But Lisa, who works at Canterbury Christ Church University, wants to make other pet owners aware of the scam.
The RSPCA says she is not the first to be targeted.
A charity spokesperson said: “We believe that these people are scouring websites and social media to find missing pet posters and are targeting those owners who have offered financial rewards.
"The fraudsters are mirroring our phone number so the incoming call displays 0300 123 8585 which is particularly concerning.
“It’s disgraceful that these scammers are preying on already distressed pet owners and we’re incredibly concerned that they may end up pocketing hundreds of pounds from owners who are desperately looking for their missing cats.
“If your pet is missing please alert your microchip company and inform local rescue centres and vet practices as well as speaking to neighbours and local businesses.
“If you are using missing pet posters or sharing your pet’s details online please be aware that your phone number may be used by scammers and be incredibly careful when offering reward money or sharing any banking details over the phone.”
The RSPCA stressed that it does not ask for money for veterinary care for missing pets over the phone, and urges anyone who receives such a call not to give out their personal details.
Anyone who is contacted about a missing pet in RSPCA care is advised to ask for a reference number and the officer’s name, and call the charity's national call centre on 0300 1234 999 which is open between 7am and 10pm.
If the call is not genuine, contact the police on 101.
Escaped animals, unusual finds and news from the RSPCA can all be found here.