Some families obeying stay-at-home orders have turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking they would have plenty of time to help the pet adjust to its new surroundings. Many, though, have come across scammers who advertise on websites for animals that don’t exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given scammers reasons to ask for money or explain why buyers can’t see the pet in person before those heartbroken, would-be pet owners figure out they have been conned.
Puppy scams like these were the subject of a 2017 in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB), and they are prolific during the holidays. New data from BBB Scam Tracker shows that these scams have spiked since COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., with more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.
“Scammers frequently take advantage of the news to find new avenues for targeting victims,” said Marjorie Stephens, President and CEO of BBB Serving Northern Indiana. “The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, along with some quarantined families’ decision to adopt a pet sight unseen has created fertile ground for fraudsters.”
BBB’s earlier study found that for these types of frauds to be successful it’s usually dependent on bogus, often sophisticated advertisements to hook unsuspecting consumers. Experts believed, at that time, that at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an Internet search for pets may be fraudulent.
Actual numbers of pet fraud may be much higher than reported, because many victims either choose not to file complaints or do not know where to turn for help.
Many victims who contacted BBB’s Scam Tracker reported they wanted to adopt a puppy in order to ease their isolation and brighten their lives during the pandemic.
Victims were often told that they needed to send money for special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine. There also were several instances where the consumer wanted to see or pick-up the animal but was told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A Noble County woman reported losing more $550 to a puppy scammer in April 2020. She said the seller agreed to sell her a yorkie puppy for $400, with an additional $150 for transportation. When she suggested meeting half way, the seller told her the driver had already left with the puppy. Two hours later, the seller called and relayed that their driver had been pulled over and needed $200 more for proper permitting to transport a puppy. The woman declined to pay the additional fee and demanded all her money back. She never received her puppy or a refund.
“They gave me the runaround about my money,” the woman told the BBB. “They blocked my phone number and it just makes me so mad. They need to be stopped.”
A second woman, from St. Joseph County, had a similar run in, but caught on to the scam before sending fraudsters any funds.
“The fake organization doesn’t list their address and when you inquire about where they are located, they respond with photos of dogs for sale,” the St. Joseph County woman said. “They say they’ll ship as soon as you pay with a money order and that sounded like a scam.”
Tips for avoiding puppy scams:
• Don’t buy a pet without seeing it in person. If that isn’t possible, conduct an internet search of the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, its likely is a fraud. You also can search for text from ads or testimonials, to see if the seller copied it from another website.
• Don’t send money by Western Union, MoneyGram, or a cash app like Zelle or a gift card. These payment methods offer no recourse and no way to get your money back if you are the victim of a fraud. Fraudsters may claim to accept credit cards, but may steal your credit card information to use it in other scams or inform you that payment didn’t go through and request the payment via wire service or gift cards.
• Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting. If a purebred dog is advertised for free or at a deeply discounted price, and then other payment is required for services like vaccination or shipping, it could be a fraudulent offer.
• Consider reaching out to a local animal shelter. Especially during this time of quarantine, many shelters are looking for fosters to help relieve the animal’s stress and reduce overcrowding at their facilities. Humane Society of the United States refers consumers to local shelters.
• If you think you have been scammed, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. You also can report it to petscams.com, which catalogues puppy scammers, tracks complaints and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sale websites taken down.