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Puppy scam reports skyrocket during COVID-19 pandemic, BBB warns

Published: May. 13, 2020 at 7:55 AM CDT
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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 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 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 Jim Hegarty, BBB president and CEO. “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 Nebraskan consumer reported on BBB Scam Tracker that she had lost $750 to a puppy scammer on April 7, 2020. She described finding a Golden Retriever on the website

. It looked legitimate to her, but BBB’s examination of the text on the site revealed all kinds of grammatical errors. For example, one sentence on the site says, “we esteem cordiality, regard, and opportune reaction to each request.” Hegarty explained, “This sentence makes no sense. Mistakes like this, which are common on these fake sites, are a huge tip-off to the rip-off. BBBs experience with this scam is that victims are often mesmerized by the advertised puppy and overlook some of the obvious red flags. The crooks rely upon this dynamic.”

The consumer was also sent additional photos and a video of the puppy. That was when she and her family were hooked! They hesitated about shipping a dog and normally would have never considered doing this. But the “seller” convinced her that the puppy was a part of their family, and they would never do anything to harm it. The “seller” also assured her that “in this time of COVID-19, everything needs to be delivered in this manner.”

She was instructed to use Zelle, a cash app, to make the payment. Although the buyer never heard of Zelle, she found it on her banking app. Unfortunately, she did not read Zelle’s suggestion, until after her payment was submitted, that you are only supposed to make transactions with people you know or trust. “I guess I trusted this at the time. I’ve always been able to cancel transactions before but apparently not with Zelle.”

The next day she woke up having a bad feeling about the transaction and did more research. She found that the address given to her had been used in other puppy scams. At the end of her post on BBB Scam Tracker she wrote, “I’m out money, but I want these people shut down. Lesson learned for me but please help protect others in the future.”

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, 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.

- Be cautious sending 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 payments are 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 catalogs puppy scammers, tracks complaints and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.