Scammers target the lonely to sell them fake puppies

The pandemic has led to a rise in scammers offering to sell puppies to lonely people in hopes of giving them some comfort during these uncertain times.

Scammers are advertising animals that don’t exist and after receiving payment, the sellers disappear.

The scammers are using COVID-19 as the excuse for why buyers can’t see pets in person and have set up fake websites.

Since the pandemic began, BBB’s Scam Tracker  has received 2,166 reports of pet scams in the past few months, up from 700 for the same period last year – more than triple the number reported last year.

Overall, pet scams comprise 24% of online scams reported to BBB’s Scam Tracker. During the same period last year, it was 17%.

The typical dollar amount lost to pet scams also rose from $600 last year to $700 this year, one of the highest for all categories. The percentage of people who reported losing money inched up from 68% last year to 70% this year.

The biggest increase in online shopping fraud is pet scams, more than triple compared to previous years.

Pet scams now comprise 24% of online scams reported to BBB Scam Tracker (up from 17% in 2019).

Pet scams are now the riskiest scam, according to the BBB Risk Index.

Of those targeted for a pet scam, 70% end up losing money.

The typical dollar amount lost to a pet scam is $700, one of the highest for all categories of scams.

Pet scams are not only the riskiest scams, they are also one of the most heart-breaking. These increases truly make sense when pet adoptions and pet-related purchases are booming during the pandemic as well. Legitimate online pet supply retailer Chewy (a BBB Accredited Business) is seeing record revenues. Animal shelters across North America are seeing their animals being adopted out and fostered at record rates

Some shelters even have waiting lists – something unheard of not long ago.

Scammers frequently take advantage of the news to find new avenues for targeting victims. 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 consumers wanted to see or pick-up the animal but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

One woman reported losing more than $1,100 to two different puppy scammers in April 2020. She said the first seller agreed to sell her a pug puppy for $500, including shipping, and had her pay with a prepaid gift card he instructed her to buy at Walmart. The woman told BBB the seller subsequently notified her that COVID-19 had delayed shipment of the puppy and would not issue her a refund; she tracked the gift card and found that it had already been spent at a Target store in Texas.

The woman said she subsequently made contact with another seller who agreed to sell her a pug puppy for $620, including shipping. She said after she paid half the fee, a third-party shipper contacted her and demanded $750 for a climate-controlled crate; when he offered to split that fee with her, she sent him $300. The seller and shipper subsequently both turned out to be fraudulent, and the woman did not receive refunds or either puppy.

“This seller absolutely played on my emotions and vulnerability,” the woman told BBB. “I’m a highly educated person, but I’ve never felt so stupid in my entire life.”

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.
  • Avoid wiring money, or using a cash app or 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.
  • If you think you have been scammed or have found a suspicious website, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. In Canada, contact the Canadian Antifraud Centre
  • Consider reaching out to a local animal shelter. 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, or refer to Humane Canada for information.

The American Kennel Club also has some tips:

How do you sidestep a swindler? Here are some tips from the AKC.

  • If they insist on communicating only by email, they’re probably trying to hide that they’re overseas.
  • If a reverse image search shows photos on a seller’s website appearing elsewhere, that’s a red flag.
  • Just say no to Venmo. Asking for wire transfers or payment with gift cards also are signs of a sketchball

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Peg Fong is also in recovery from newspapers

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