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They thought they were buying a family dog. Turns out they were leasing it.

TAMPA — Maria Rodriguez never owned the puppy she thought she purchased from the pet store.

She leased it, like an appliance from a Rent-A-Center.

Yes, she took home the fuzzy black poodle her daughter picked out at Puppies Tampa. She got the food bowls, the leash. The toys, the treats. But the purebred dog came at a premium cost. One, she said, a pet store employee assured her could be managed through a finance plan for which Rodriguez would certainly be approved.

Rodriguez signed the paperwork on an iPad screen. She doesn't remember anyone using the word "lease." She assumed the contract she signed with Wags Lending was for a loan she'd pay off over two years.

"I wanted to surprise my husband. It was his birthday," she said. "I went ahead and got it when I shouldn't have."

She didn't realize the $1,500 dog would wind up tripling in price. She didn't know Wags legally owned the dog her family named Milly or that the company had the right to take its "property" away should Rodriguez miss a payment. Nor did she realize that if Milly died or ran away, Rodriguez would still be on the hook for payments — fees and all.

Pet leasing is what it sounds like: Animals are treated like washing machines with a rent-to-own contract. Pick out your pup. Sign a contract. Pay a monthly bill. Then, when the term is up, make one more lump-sum payment in order to keep your pet. Such arrangements have proliferated over the past five years.

Read more: Her dog almost died even though Petland said it was healthy.

But some pet shoppers say the terms weren't explained to them before they signed on the touch-screen line.

Leasees from all over the country say they were charged two to four times the actual sticker-price of their puppy. Some of the country's biggest animal rights groups have spent the last two years filing lawsuits accusing leasing companies and pet stores of predatory practices.

Only three states have banned pet leases, and Florida isn't one of them. Florida's Office of Financial Regulation wasn't even aware of pet leases within the state until a Tampa Bay Times reporter raised the issue.

It was a bankruptcy attorney that Rodriguez was working with that told her it wasn't a loan she was paying for Milly.

"You're leasing a dog," Rodriguez recalled being told after the lawyer reviewed her contract.

"Leasing?" she thought. "How can you be leasing a dog? It doesn't make any sense."

• • •

Rodriguez filed for bankruptcy just under a year ago. Missed car payments stacked up. She and her husband separated. Even after her lawyer, Alan Borden, told her she was in a lease with Wags Lending, Rodriguez planned to resume payments. By April, she couldn't keep up.

When Rodriguez told the pet lease collectors she declared bankruptcy, she gave them Borden's contact. But the phone calls demanding money didn't stop. That's against the law, the crux of her lawsuit against a company that has no shortage of legal woes.

Dusty Wunderlich, a Nevada man, was the CEO of the holding company that created Wags in 2013. For the first few years, the practice went unnoticed by animal rights advocates. Soon media caught on; local newscasts reported on people in fear repo men would take their dogs. A 2017 Bloomberg profile on Wunderlich and his business model published shortly before the entrepreneur says he left and the company filed for bankruptcy.

The pet leasing business began with Wags, but that's not where it ended.

My Pet Funding is the same concept with a new name. It's available at the Tampa pet store Rodriguez got Milly. The language in the new contracts is similar to the contract she, a man from Riverview and likely hundreds of others signed when dealing with Wags Lending.

Neither Wunderlich nor Wags Lending could be reached for comment. My Pet Funding did not respond to emails.

"We like niches where we're dealing with emotional borrowers," Wunderlich told Bloomberg.

• • •

Many pet shop puppies cost between $1,500 to $2,500. Financing can make the expensive seem more manageable. Some pet stores offer their own credit cards — but leases give financing to people who may have been denied a card but are still smitten with a set of puppy eyes.

"Pet stores have a have a very small window to move puppies, their 'inventory,' " said Jennie Lintz, director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' puppy mill campaign. "They only stay a certain size for so long. So when a consumer walks into a pet store, they want to close that sale."

Rodriguez said she was that customer. She could not afford Milly, but a sales clerk made financing sound attractive. Even a customer who could afford a purebred dog outright, like Imraan Shameem, signed the dotted line because he thought financing could help him build credit. He walked into a Jacksonville area pet store in 2015 and spotted a German Shepherd he couldn't leave without.

"I wasn't supposed to get a dog that day," said Shameem, now 30 and living in Riverview. "I just fell in love with her mannerisms."

He named her Leica. She was about $1,450. A pet store employee told him he would pay no interest, he said. He recalls only being shown a document with the in-store cost and did not understand he would be expected to pay up to $3,500 total for his puppy. He realized something was off after his first bill came. He wanted to pay off the dog immediately to minimize the inflated fees as much as he could, but the website wasn't letting him log in and employees were not taking his calls, he said.

"I was more likely to get in touch with Barack Obama than anyone in that company," Shameem said.

His contract was assigned to Monterey Financial, a financial collections company in California. The same company has also been assigned to recent contracts from My Pet Funding.

Shameem intentionally missed payments, knowing that Monterey would come looking for him, he said. Soon the voicemails started. Everyone he spoke to had a different story about how to pay out of the contract, he said. And then there was the worker who said the repo man would come for the dog if he didn't pay up.

"I burst out laughing," he said. "I said, 'Lady, I'd like to see you try.' "

• • •

Shameem's ordeal was one of the main examples used in a complaint made to the Federal Trade Commission filed by the Humane Society and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. It spelled out the problems of the industry, calling for a formal investigation.

As far as the two groups are aware, no one's dog has actually been taken away by the leasing companies or collection agencies.

"But they want the customer to believe they can and will take the dog back at any point," said Kelsey Eberly, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Based on the contracts, Eberly said, even if the companies don't act on taking the dogs away, they still retain the legal right to do so. The method of a lease itself, she said, is a way to avoid the regulations and laws that protect borrowers.

Monterey Financial has not been assigned any Wags leasing contracts in a year, CEO Shaun Lucas said in email. The company also handles collections on My Pet Funding contracts, but Lucas said the company uses "several servicing and financing companies" for the "legally compliant program."

"Monterey Financial was not the party who made the decision to extend a certain type of financing to the consumer, the pet store and consumer arrived at that decision, and each lease came with a 30 day Satisfaction Guarantee," he wrote.

Monterey said the onus is on the pet store to explain the lease terms and for customers to be aware of what they are signing. Tampa Puppies and its owner did not return three requests for comment for this story.

Of the dozens of cases Lintz has looked through, she said every one has had Monterey as the collections agency.

Neither Wags nor My Pet Funding have licenses to broker or finance in Florida, according to the Office of Financial Regulation. Monterey, records shows, is licensed to purchase installment contracts involving motor vehicles, retail and home improvement finances in the state. But should that mean they're certified to handle pet contracts?

"Animals are not like cars," Eberly said. "And they know that."

• • •

Before Tampa lawyer Alan Borden took on Maria Rodriguez's bankruptcy case, he'd never seen a pet lease. But he's seen about every other type.

"It was structured along the lines of a furniture-renting place," Borden said. "From the animal side of it, how do you, under law, consider it property just like a couch?"

Borden, whose never dabbled in animal protection law, called it cruel. Usually, if his clients have leases on items they cannot pay he organizes for them to return the property: couches, televisions, game consoles. He hated to have to tell Rodriguez to do the same with her family pet.

Except when Rodriguez called Tampa Puppies back, the lawsuit says they said they don't take returns. When she called the finance company, they told her they just wanted her money. Borden worried if his client kept the dog, it may show the court she wasn't being careful with her finances.

Ultimately, Rodriguez gave Milly to a family friend.

"We found her a good home," she said. "She's spoiled now."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Correction: A complaint made to the Federal Trade Commission over the practice of pet leases was filed by the Humane Society and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the complainants.

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