Scam artists are trying to hit the airwaves with offers for free purebred puppies in their latest efforts to dupe consumers out of hundreds of dollars, learned.

In this latest twist to the old free puppy scheme, swindlers recently approached a Missouri radio station about buying air time to run ads for free Yorkshire Terrier, English Bulldog, and Maltese puppies.

They are vet checked, very healthy, and also friendly, a fraudster who used the name Tom Jones wrote in an e-mail to a St. Louis radio station. I will want the ad to run for 3 weeks so let me know the cost if you can't run the ad for free. In another ad, a con artist using the name R Miller said he wanted his ad for free Yorkie Terrier puppies to run for two weeks.

The radio station didnt air the ads, but an investigator with the St. Louis Better Business Bureau (BBB) responded to the person claiming to have the free English Bulldog puppies. A few days later, Investigator Bill Smith received a reply from a pastor who said he and his family recently moved to Africa to do missionary work.

We have the puppies right here with us, Pastor David Sanchez wrote in an e-mail. Both of them are my darling sweetheart and super spoiled!

Pastor Sanchez, however, said his family didnt want to keep their babies -- 10-week-old Bella and Max -- in Africa because of the weather.

I am giving them out because of (sic) bad condition and we're spending months for the Christian mission and I don't want Bella and Max to die in this bad weather, he wrote.

Although Pastor Sanchez repeatedly said the puppies were free, he asked Smith to split the cost of transporting them to the United States.

We both will be responsible for the shipping cost, he wrote in the e-mail, which also contained pictures of the puppies. Smith soon learned that Pastor Sanchez wanted him to wire $450 -- using Western Union -- to a person in Nigeria that he identified as Wale Peters with the Overseas Diplomatic Courier Service Company.

It will be better if you can do the transfer at any grocery store closest to you, Pastor Sanchez wrote. Once again, note that you have to make the transfer via western union only. When Smith told Sanchez he couldnt afford to wire that much money, the so-called man of the cloth quickly lowered the shipping fee.

I just spoke to my wife about your message and she said I should inform you to proceed and send $150 right away while we meet up with the rest balance, Pastor Sanchez said. We don't really have much on us but act fast to enable the shipping.

photo "Max" and "Bella" as seen in an email from "Pastor Sanchez"

Not new

Puppy scams like this arent new or limited to the Midwest, Smith said.

These are a nationwide problem, he told And theyve been going on for a few years. The BBB and the American Kennel Club issued a joint release about this issue back in 2007. This is, however, the first time weve noticed a radio station has been solicited to put ads on the air for free dogs, he added.

In most cases, the thieves behind these schemes run ads in newspapers or on Internet sites like Craigslist. The ruse, however, is usually the same: The con artists pose as ministers or members of the military whove been transferred Africa, taken their dogs with them, and discovered they cant keep the pets during their oversea stays.

They offer to pay half the cost of transporting the dogs to the consumers, Smith said. But people whove wired the money soon discover that the puppies never come.

A quick Internet search revealed other consumers have received strikingly similar e-mails about 10-week-old puppies named Bella and Max.

Consider this message a consumer posted in May regarding an e-mail she received from a Pastor Owen Green for free puppies named Bella and Max.

(Both) of them are my darling sweetheart and super spoiled, wrote Pastor Green, who said he and his wife were doing missionary work in Africa. (We) have the puppies right here with usI am giving them out because of bad condition and we're spending months for the christian (sic) mission and i don't want Bella and max to die in this bad weather.

The Missouri Attorney Generals office also posted information on its Web site back in 2007 about a similar e-mail for free puppies.

I have received an e-mail that is supposedly from a woman who is in Africa asking me to adopt her puppy, a Missouri consumer wrote the office. This seems to be a scam and I wanted to warn others about this email."

Missouri authorities told the consumer not to fall for the ruse. This is a scam and recipients of the e-mail are asked to send hundreds of dollars for shipping fees, authorities said. Scammers are successful by tugging at the heart strings of unsuspecting victims.

That advice, however, came too late for one Missourian.

Before I read up on puppy scam I got scammed, a consumer named Gloria said. I had just lost my Yorkshire Terrier. I was checking the Internet for puppies. Well, the next day I get this note on e-mail saying her name was Cathy, and she was a Yorkshire breeder. (She) just sold her last puppies to a Jim WalcoxI should connect him. Well, you might know he's in Africaa Rev.

What to do

Consumer protection experts say dog lovers can protect themselves from getting taken in puppy scams by:

• Ignoring e-mails and offers for free puppies from people living in Africa or other foreign countries;

• Never wiring money to strangers, especially those who live outside the United States;

• Never sharing personal information, including social security numbers or bank account information, with strangers or companies you didnt contact;

• Never falling for touching stories or pictures of animals. It is always best to deal with known, reputable businesses, or visit a shelter, the BBB said.

The organization also warned media outlets to be wary of accepting ads for free or low-cost puppies from anyone outside the United States. These are almost always scams, the BBB warned.