See the pet before you pay: Online puppy scams 'spike' during pandemic, BBB says
If you want to take the puppy home, see the puppy before you give the seller any money.
That's the core message from Better Business Bureau as the consumer watchdog group issued a warning Wednesday about online pet scams, which have spiked as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Use "extreme caution" when shopping for a pet online, BBB said.
BBB said Wednesday that its Scam Tracker pulled in more than 3,200 pet fraud reports in the U.S. and Canada during 2020, with the spike coming after cities and states adopted health and safety measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. At the current pace, there could be five times more pet scams in 2020 than there were in 2017, when the BBB issued a big study on the topic. Consumers are likely to lose at least $3 million in pet scams, this year, six times more money than three years ago. The Canadian government also said their pet fraud complaints have increased by one-third since 2017.
It turns out that while living in lockdown, lots of people want a puppy. But searching online for a new pet means it's almost inevitable that you'll encounter a scam listing or website.
"We keep seeing these types of scams during the pandemic," Stephanie Garland, regional director for the BBB, said this week. With so much shopping taking place online, scammers are adapting their methods.
Many BBB Scam Tracker reports show that fraudsters often tell would-be pet owners they can't meet the animals before sending payment. They ask consumers to use mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp more often than Western Union or MoneyGram, previously used more frequently. Pet scammers use sponsored links and other online advertising tools to boost the reach of their websites.
"A professional breeder won’t ask you to wire them money and then ship their valuable puppy off to someone they have never met," states the office of the Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt.
One Laclede County resident, Stephanie Justice, recently told BBB that she contacted a website offering poodle puppies after two previous interactions with online dealers that seemed sketchy.
"They started out great," she told BBB. "They had lots of info, talked about the shipping process since they were out of state. It wasn't until we started talking about payment that there were a lot of typos starting to appear, and they wouldn't cooperate in letting us see the puppy via FaceTime or phone call to discuss everything."
The excuses came rolling in. The supposed poodle dealer "said they were in the military and didn't like social media so they wouldn't let me see a social media page either."
Justice cross-checked the photos sent by the dealer of the puppy, searching by image of the pup, dubbed "Kuma." She found 11 other websites using the same photos. "Some (used) with the exact same name and everything!" Justice told BBB. "I emailed them back with photos of the website that I took and informed them that I would be turning them into the BBB and I have never heard from them since."
In another testimonial, a woman from the St. Louis area reported that a now-defunct website that had only been registered in September, danielcuteyorkshirepuppieshome.com, bilked her out of a $100 deposit on a dog. She realized she was dealing with likely fraudsters before sending a $700 payment for a Yorkshire terrier, sight unseen, that the so-called pet dealers demanded.
BBB said that other scammers have tried "COVID-19-related money requests" on consumers, asking them to pay for items such as special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccine. In other cases, purchasers wanted to pick up a pet, but were told that wasn’t possible due to "COVID-19 restrictions."
The watchdog group noted that 12 percent of the pet scams reported to BBB include kittens or cats. And between January and June, the Federal Trade Commission got 185 reports of parrots being ordered but not delivered. But fraudulent online listings for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs are particularly pervasive, according to BBB's Scam Tracker reports.
How to buy a pet online
The good news is, there are many common-sense tips to help consumers issued by groups like the BBB and the Missouri Attorney General's Office. Here's a roundup.
See the pet in person before paying any money. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, BBB suggests 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. The state attorney general suggests getting multiple photos from the seller. Have the pet posed with that day's print newspaper to ensure the pet is real. See the pet in person, and see the seller's place of business. Research the seller extensively before agreeing to any payment.
Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet, and search for a distinctive phrase in the description. If it comes up on a lot of websites, it's probably a scam.
Be mindful of the website where sales are going on. "Well known breeders will not sell on Craigslist," the Missouri attorney general's office says. Look the website up on WhoIs. Was it registered recently? That's a red flag.
Avoid dealers based outside the United States. If the seller says they are in a particular state, but asks you to send money elsewhere, especially another country, it is probably a scam. If the seller provides a non-U.S. phone number, that's also a red flag.
If the price seems too good to be true for a purebred dog, that's a red flag.
Ask for breeder information. "If they will not provide it, walk away," the state attorney general's office advises Missourians.
Other red flags: Bad grammar and spelling in emails from the seller. Refusing refunds. Any request to send money by wire or online. Any refusal of a refund. "Legitimate breeders will offer to help if a problem arises, (and) that can mean taking the dog back or finding a new home," says the state attorney general's office.
How to report an online puppy scam
Missouri Attorney General's Office: File a consumer complaint by using ago.mo.gov/civil-division/consumer/consumer-complaints or calling 1-800-392-8222.
Federal Trade Commission: File a complaint at reportfraud.ftc.gov or call 1-877-FTC-Help.
Better Business Bureau: Go online to the BBB Scam Tracker.
Your credit card: Contact your card issuer if you provided a credit card number to a possible pet scammer, even if the transaction wasn't completed.
Petscams.com: Go online to this site, which catalogs puppy scammers and tries to get fraudster websites taken down.