The isolation and drudgery of the pandemic has an unprecedented number of people looking to add a pet to their household. And because those looking to cheat people out of their money through fraud are quick to develop strategies based on cultural trends, adopting pets online has become the latest frontier exploited by scammers.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported in December that online pet scams during the pandemic more than doubled, and that figure jumps to a nearly 500% spike going back to 2017. Further, the monetary losses in 2020 compared to the previous year roughly tripled, from $1 million to an estimated $3.1 million (4,300 cases).
This latest scam preying on people wanting to add a friend to the family—the overwhelming majority of which are puppies, but also includes kittens and parrots—starts with a legitimate-looking website loaded with photos of cute animals or a similar listing with a link promoting a website. The second part involves the seller insisting the buyer use their (fake) shipping company to extract more money in fictional fees.
BBB said anyone searching for a new pet online is “extremely likely” to encounter a scam website.
“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 Michelle L. Corey, BBB president and CEO. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners.”
People are routinely defrauded out of thousands of dollars, but BBB said the average loss is $750.
A woman from Fairfield, on the outskirts of the Bay Area, reported to the BBB’s Scam Tracker that she wanted to purchase a Yorkshire terrier puppy from an online seller who would only accept payment via mobile apps or gift cards. She initially paid $600 for the puppy by purchasing a pair of $300 vanilla (generic) credit cards and sending photos of them to the seller. Two days later, she was asked to use the same method to pay another $750 for “reimbursable pet insurance.” When she was asked the next day to similarly pay $850 for a “regulated crate,” she told the seller she wasn’t going to spend any more and to stop the purchase. The seller promised to refund her by gift card but never contacted her again.
In December, Amanda Coppola told KCAL Channel 9 in Los Angeles that she and her husband wanted to buy a puppy for their daughter. After settling on a pug and contacting a breeder online, Coppola was told a puppy was headed her way—if she sent $850 via online payment app Zelle. On the day the puppy was due to arrive, Coppola was asked by the “shipping company” for a $1,200 deposit for a temperature-controlled crate, $980 for travel insurance, and $880 for a change of ownership. The scammers claimed that if the family didn’t comply, the dog would be stuck at the transport facility and Coppola could be charged with animal cruelty. In the end, the family was scammed out of $4,000 and there was no puppy.
Victims of this scam almost never get their money back because perpetrators insist on getting paid with hard-to-trace gift cards or mobile payment apps (both Zell and CashApp have issued warnings about pet scams).
To avoid being scammed when looking for your next puppy or kitten, BBB recommends:
- 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 or section of text in the description that you can then use to search for replication on other websites or listings.
- 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’s likely a fraudulent offer.
- Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet before adopting.
Petscams.com, which tracks and exposes fraudster operations, says dummy pet delivery services may be the scammer just using a different email address, but increasingly scammers are impersonating genuine pet delivery carriers. The site says a fake pet shipping service will consist of three things:
- Images taken from a search engine.
- Text plagiarized and modified from a genuine delivery company.
- A simple web form that allows you to “track” your pet.
If you suspect you’ve discovered a pet scam or have fallen victim to one, report it to both BBB and the Federal Trade Commission. If you have any questions regarding adopting or purchasing a new pet, it’s always a good idea to contact a professional veterinarian licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Veterinary Medical Board.
This article originally appeared in the spring edition of DCA’s Consumer Connection magazine.