Online puppy scams rising

Pensacola, Fla. (December 3, 2020) – The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets as people seek adding a pet to the family to ease the loneliness and tension of prolonged time at home. Many feel that they now have more time to train a puppy. With this rising demand has come a spike in pet scams, in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to purchase a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist. Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.

Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, BBB Scam Tracker saw a spike in pet fraud reports, with nearly 4,000 reports received in 2020 from the U.S. and Canada. Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined. The COVID bump is continuing into the holiday season with consumers reporting 337 complaints to BBB about puppy scams in November 2020, a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.

The median loss reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020.

Law enforcement and consumer advocates now say a person searching online for a new pet is extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or website.

The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal. Scam Tracker reports show that many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money. Fraudsters have also made COVID-19-related money requests for items such as special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine. There also were instances where purchasers wanted to pick up the pet but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Petscams.com, which tracks and exposes these scams, recommends using another tool popularized by COVID-19 — video conferencing — to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying as a way of reducing scam vulnerability.

“COVID-19 has made for a long and uncertain year, and a ‘quarantine puppy’ or other pet has proven to be a comfort for many people, but it also has created fertile ground for fraudsters,” said Norman Wright, BBB serving Northwest Florida president and CEO. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.”

At the current pace, pet scams reported to BBB will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams. The projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.

With the increase in scam activity has come an evolution in tactics. Scam Tracker data indicates that mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp are often used now, whereas Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfers were popular payment methods documented in the 2017 study. Both Zelle and CashApp have issued warnings about pet scams. In addition, pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools such as sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.

There have been a few law enforcement actions against pet scammers since BBB’s previous study was issued in 2017. In the U.S., a man was arrested in Minnesota for pet fraud in December 2019. In Canada, a woman was arrested for puppy fraud in Waterloo, Ontario in September 2020, and a Newfoundland woman was recently sentenced to 33 months in prison for this fraud.

Local reports featured two different websites. One of which is no longer available and the other is still live. Petscams.com lists this website as a scam and noted that the domain was purchased in September 2020 for one year from Panama. The website itself does not list any phone number or physical address and has many grammatical errors on the site. The only way to initiate contact is through an email address. The person interested in a puppy has to provide all of their contact information and wait to hear back from them.

BBB recommendations for buying pets online:

  • See the pet in person before paying any money. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, consider a video call with the seller so you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Since scammers are not likely to comply with the request, this may help avoid a scam.
  • Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.
  • Do research to get a sense of a fair price for the breed you are considering. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price … it could be a fraudulent offer.
  • Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet before adopting.
  • Consumers questioning the legitimacy of a website can contact Tammy Ward, Communications Director, 850.429.0002.

Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:

  • Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
  • Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online.
  • Your credit card issuer – if you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.