Jenny the crossbreed Chihuahua has had a rough couple of months.
In early November she was left for dead in a hit-and-run in her home city of Warren, Ohio.
Now, she’s become a pawn for fraudsters, scammers and cheats who are using her to trick Australians out of their cash, data or both.
It’s an increasingly common story, which nearly always begins with the good intentions of a kind-hearted animal lover.
On this occasion, it was Jason Cooke, the founder of the Ohio animal shelter Healthy Hearts and Paws.
Having been called to the hit-and-run by local police, he took to Facebook.
“DOG HIT BY CAR!!!” he posted on November 5 alongside two photos of a severely injured Jenny.
“I picked the dog up and rushed her to MedVet Girard where her condition is critical … she has no identification and isn’t microchipped,” he continued, before providing a link for donations to the animal shelter.
Remarkably, Jenny pulled through and Mr Cooke thought nothing more of his post.
That was until he was told his photos of Jenny had started to appear on community Facebook pages around the world.
“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ This is my picture. It’s on my camera roll,” Mr Cooke told AAP.
“And then I told my friend about it. She’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw that dog in Kentucky. Somebody posted that dog in Kentucky’.”
“Desperately looking for this guy’s owner. Found him lying on the side road in Rochester … Please bump this post to help me find his owner!!” reads a typical fraudulent Facebook post that uses Mr Cooke’s photo of Jenny.
Before long, there were dozens of posts featuring Jenny’s image, each of them spinning a similar emotionally manipulative story with a different town or suburb name inserted.
AAP FactCheck, the fact-checking arm of AAP, has seen hundreds of similar fake ‘injured dog’ posts on social media in recent months.
When the posts get enough shares, scammers change the photos and text to something completely unrelated, such as adverts for improbably cheap real estate.
Sometimes the edited posts include links to suspicious websites that ask for personal information or credit card details.
Dan Halpin from Cybertrace, a Sydney-based cyberfraud investigations company, says the injured dog posts are part of a scam known as ‘clickbaiting’.
He explained the strategy is to build large audiences using emotional content.
“This tactic…exploits human empathy, curiosity, and trust, which is later manipulated for fraudulent purposes,” he said.
The injured dog clickbait scams are most likely conducted by what he describes as “small-scale operators” including “low-level copycats”.
Australians lost an estimated $80 million to social media scams in 2022, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
US internet security firm Malwarebytes says there are several ways to check the veracity of social media posts about injured animals.
One tip is to paste a segment of the text into Facebook’s search tool to see if the wording is original or duplicated from other posts.
Malwarebytes also advises putting the photo of the animal into an online reverse image search tool like TinEye, to see if it has been published on the internet previously.
Facebook users should also check the profile of the person who posted the suspicious content to see if it looks suspicious.
If comments on the post are disabled, that may also be a sign it has been posted by a scammer.
Mr Cooke said injured dog scams are also hindering the work of genuine animal rescue centres.
“It hurts us, reputable organisations that are trying to provide care for these animals in need, because people may be more hesitant to help,” Mr Cooke said.
But if there is one bit of good news, it’s that Jenny is blissfully unaware she’s being used by cybercriminals.
Now rehomed, she is well on the road to recovery and living her best life.
“She’s probably getting more love and attention now than she did previously,” Mr Cooke said.
“So yeah, I’m glad it worked out for her.”