After years of waiting, Kaylaw Prado thought she'd finally be getting the emotional support animal of her dreams. Instead, thousands of dollars later, she says, it all turned out to be a scam.
Prado, 30, and her family, who live in Scugog, Ont. about 70 kilometres northeast of Toronto, had been looking to get capuchin monkeys.
The hope was that the animals would be a positive influence on her partner's 36-year-old brother, who has Down syndrome and other health problems. They hoped Prado's five-year-old daughter, who lost two fingers in a lawnmower accident in 2020, would benefit too.
So when they looked online in late March and found Universal Chimp Farms, allegedly based in the United States, they were thrilled. Prado says the seller agreed to send two monkeys by April 6 once the family had paid about $1,500 for each animal.
But they soon realized they were being conned, she says.
"It's the fact that they knew we had disabled children, and they sit there and take that much money from us," said Prado.
"It's sickening. It's absolutely sickening."
The family says Universal Chimp Farms kept demanding additional payments to cover other costs and threatening to withhold the animals until it received more money. Prado and her relatives say they eventually handed over $8,000 — although they could only show CBC News receipts for $2,700 — but the monkeys never arrived.
The family members say they filed a report with Durham Regional Police, who have told CBC News they are unable to comment.
CBC News has also reached out to Universal Chimp Farms, but hasn't received a response.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says Prado and her family are victims of a classic non-delivery merchandise scam, which is often used by con artists to target vulnerable people and those experiencing financial hardship. The centre says the scheme has become more common throughout the pandemic, with Canadians losing more than $75 million as of February 2022. Scammers defrauded Canadians of $380 million in 2021, it says.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's regulations on primates, "personal importation for breeding or pet purposes is prohibited from any country due to public health concerns and zoonotic disease potential."
Emotional support animals are also not recognized as service animals under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Municipalities generally regulate the ownership of exotic animals in the province.
The family says they didn't realize that until after their money was already spent and that it planned to apply for a prohibited pet licence in Scugog once the monkeys arrived.
Prado's partner, Cory St. James, says he tried to point out the red flags that popped up. For example, he says, the seller only accepted payment in prepaid Visa and Mastercard gift cards. He says the family had to go to several different retail stores to purchase all the cards — adding a couple of Walmart stores actually refused to sell them, saying management feared a scam in the making because the family was buying so many.
The seller also didn't provide pictures or videos of them interacting with the monkeys and would only communicate through texts or emails, St. James says.
But to St. James and his family, the monkeys represented a bright spot in what's otherwise been a "rough two years," with his mom's house burning down just weeks after his daughter's lawn mower accident. So they pushed ahead after receiving multiple documents detailing transfer of ownership, health records and delivery confirmation, hoping it'd be worth it in the end.
"I wanted this monkey so bad for our family. I had blinders on, " said St. James's mom, Darlene Johnson.
"I should've listened to him."
Fraud on rise during pandemic
Jeff Horncastle, a spokesperson for the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, says those red flags, especially the forging or faking of official paperwork, are common tactics used by scammers.
"A lot of times, these fraudsters put a lot of time into what they're doing. They'll make it look as legitimate as possible," he said. Horncastle also says the pandemic has made people more vulnerable to fraud, because of money problems and loneliness.
"So many people have been through financial hardship and a lot of stress. The last thing they need is to lose a decent amount of money."
Horncastle says it's important for consumers to review all documents and the directions sellers give them. He says buyers should conduct thorough research into businesses, including online reviews. If they're not sure, he says, they can also contact the centre or other experts for help.
For her part, Prado says she hopes by raising awareness she can prevent other people from falling victim to this kind of scam.
"I hope this goes global … and these people get scared, they stop doing what they do and the police find them."