MIAMI VALLEY — 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 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 they can’t see the pet in person before 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 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 current events to find new avenues for targeting victims,” said John North, president and CEO of BBB serving Dayton and the Miami Valley. “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. We’ve received several reports from local residents about puppy scams.”
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 Huber Heights resident came across two puppy scams as he was recently searching for a Maltese puppy to replace a dog he had lost. He found one online and agreed to pay $800 for it ($600 for the puppy and $200 for shipping). He paid the fees via Zelle, which enables individuals to electronically transfer money from their bank account to another bank account. Two hours after paying the fees, the breeder claimed the puppy was with the shipper and the shipper would be contacting the buyer directly. The shipper did contact the buyer only to request another $1950 via Zelle or other cash transfer service to cover the cost of a special climate-controlled pet carrier and the buyer was instructed to act immediately to prevent a delay. The buyer refused to pay and an offer was made to split the fee, which the buyer declined. The buyer asked if he could pick up the dog, which was allegedly in the Baltimore area. The buyer was told he could, but they’d have to get back with him with an address. He has heard nothing from the breeder or shipper.
Continuing his search for a Maltese, he came across another breeder, which was selling a puppy for $650, including delivery. When the buyer asked to see the puppy, the breeder said that due to COVID-19 no one was allowed to come to the home. He was told he could pay for the puppy through a cash app. Fortunately, the buyer didn’t pursue the purchase.
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’re considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, it’s likely 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, 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’re 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 payment didn’t go through and request the payment via wire service or gift cards.
· Research prices for the breed you’re 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. You can find a list of BBB Accredited local animal shelters at www.BBB.org.
· 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 sales websites taken down.