The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets as many feel that they now have more time to train a puppy. With this rising demand has come a spike in pet scams, in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to purchase a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist. Better Business Bureau advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially since these scams are prevalent during the holidays.
Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, BBB Scam Tracker saw a spike in pet fraud reports, with nearly 4,000 reports received in 2020 from the U.S. and Canada, totaling $2.8 million in losses. Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined. The COVID bump is continuing into the holiday season with consumers reporting 337 complaints to BBB about puppy scams in November 2020, a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.
The median loss reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020. Law enforcement and consumer advocates now say a person searching online for a new pet is extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or website.
In addition, the pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal. Scam Tracker reports show that many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money. Petscams.com, which tracks and exposes these scams, recommends using another tool popularized by COVID-19 -- video conferencing -- to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying as a way of reducing scam vulnerability. Scammers have also made COVID-19-related money requests for items such as special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine, according to Scam Tracker reports. There have been instances where purchasers wanted to pick up the pet but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“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 Marjorie Stephens, BBB serving Northern Indiana President and CEO. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.”
At the current pace, pet scams reported to BBB will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams. The projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.
A Griffith, IN, woman purchased a Yorkie puppy from a breeder claiming to be based in South Bend. After paying for her new puppy, the woman was told she needed to pay a refundable veterinarian fee of $400 to ensure the puppy’s health upon arrival. The woman says she received a text at 11 p.m. the night before she was scheduled to pick up the puppy. The text demanded another $500 for a transportation permit from the city of South Bend. Upon contacting the South Bend Police, the woman was told she had likely been scammed, as there was no $500 permit fee from the City of South Bend.
A Placentia, CA, woman purchased a Yorkie puppy for $770 from the same company claiming to be located in South Bend. She was then asked to pay an additional $550 to cover puppy insurance, to be refunded when the puppy arrived. The day the woman was supposed to pick up her puppy in another state, she received a call from an unknown number stating the puppy was in another state (not the state she was supposed to pick it up from), and that due to breathing issues, the sellers would need another $600 to change out the puppy’s crate. Neither woman ever received their puppy.
BBB recommendations for buying pets online:
- 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 your research. If the seller sends you a photo of your intended pet, do a reverse image search to see if the same photo has been posted in multiple places. If you find multiple photos of your “pet,” it may be fake. Do a search online for distinctive phrases in the description advertised for your pet. Scammers will often copy/paste information from one puppy profile to the next, so several similar listings by different companies should be a red flag.
- Know the price. 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 could be a fraudulent offer.
- Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet in-person before adopting.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:
- Better Business Bureau. Visit BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online.
- Petscams.com. petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and works to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Visit reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
- Your credit card issuer. If you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.