More than 100 people in 40 states believed they were paying 42-year-old Fonjeck Eric Azoh for a pit bull puppy to be delivered to their home, federal prosecutors said.
Instead, all they got were requests for more cash to cover “unanticipated” expenses — and no puppy.
Azoh, who lives in Maryland, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison on Wednesday, Nov. 24, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia said in a news release. A judge also ordered him to pay $158,000 in restitution, forfeit $67,000 that investigators previously seized and pay an extra $92,000 in forfeiture.
A defense attorney representing Azoh did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment. Azoh, who has remained in custody since his arrest in January, could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors said Azoh orchestrated the scheme through a website purporting to sell puppies and told his customers to send money via a global money transfer service at Walmart. After the initial payment was sent, they said he’d ask for more money to cover the cost of transportation or insurance.
“Over time the conspirators continue to ask for more money from the victim with no intention of sending the animal, but for the sole purpose of extracting as much money from the victim as possible,” investigators said in court filings. “Eventually, the victim realizes that they are the victim of fraud and that they have no recourse to recover their funds or the pet they were attempting to purchase.”
Walmart reports ‘suspicious’ activity
According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal charges, federal investigators were tipped off to the scheme in the spring of 2020 by Walmart after the company’s security team noticed some “suspicious financial activity” at its stores in the Washington, D.C. area.
Walmart customers and some associates had complained about a man using fake identification documents to withdraw money using the transfer service, called Walmart2Walmart, the affidavit states.
Investigators then used surveillance footage and license plate numbers to link Azoh to the alleged fraud.
In total, the government said, Azoh conducted 282 fraudulent transactions at various Walmart stores and targeted 119 victims, whose average loss was around $650 a piece.
One victim reportedly told investigators they spoke with someone from the puppy website on the phone and heard dogs barking in the background. Investigators said the victim “now believes that the background noise was nothing more than a ruse, an audio soundtrack used by [redacted] to make the scheme more believable.”
$43,000 in cash found at airport
Law enforcement didn’t encounter Azoh until October 2020, when he was traveling from Washington Dulles International Airport to Cameroon in Africa, purportedly to attend his father’s funeral.
According to the affidavit, Azoh was stopped by customs officials who discovered he “was traveling with a large amount of currency” but didn’t have the required documentation. Azoh first told officials he had $10,000, but border agents ultimately uncovered $43,580 in currency stashed in his carry-on bag.
Azoh reportedly told investigators the money came from his business buying cars in Maryland and shipping them to Cameroon and that he “did not realize he had to declare the additional currency found in his carry on bags.”
U.S. Customs and Border Control took the money and allowed Azoh to get on his flight, court documents show.
After Azoh returned to the U.S., law enforcement searched his home in Maryland. During the search, prosecutors said, Azoh agreed to be interviewed and admitted to speaking to victims on the phone about purchasing puppies and collected money from them using fake IDs — some of which he kept and some he sent back to Africa.
Azoh was then served with a subpoena to appear before a judge in December 2020, the government said.
But Azoh never showed up for court. Instead, prosecutors said, he “left the United States without being detected by law enforcement.” He was found in Mexico City and sent back to the U.S. in January.
Azoh told the judge he didn’t intentionally miss his court date but was quarantining in Mexico after being exposed to COVID-19, court filings show. The judge ordered he remain in custody pending trial, citing in part concerns about him leaving the country undetected again.
‘Lost nearly everything’
Azoh was charged by criminal complaint on Jan. 7. The judge issued his detention order a week later, and Azoh pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in August, court documents show.
The recommended prison sentence was between 27 and 33 months. Prosecutors requested a sentence at the “midpoint” of the guideline range, saying Azoh used over 200 fake identities to pull off the alleged puppy scam and preyed on innocent families.
The government said it involved “predatory tactics and manipulation.”
“The people the defendant exploited were acting in good faith and wanted nothing more than to welcome a dog into their home,” prosecutors said in sentencing documents.
A defense attorney representing Azoh sought a sentence well below the recommended guidelines. He said Azoh had “lost nearly everything he has worked for.”
“Mr. Azoh does not come from wealth or privilege – he is in the very truest sense of the word a self-made man,” his attorney said in sentencing documents.
The judge ultimately settled on 30 months.
This story was originally published November 24, 2021 5:50 PM.