It's hard to find a silver lining in the deadly COVID-19 pandemic — unless you're a puppy.
Pet adoptions skyrocketed this year, creating waiting lists with dog breeders and at shelters. Scammers took notice and jumped into action.
A new Better Business Bureau investigation shows there was five times more pet fraud in November compared to 2017, the first year the numbers were tracked. They project a total of $3.1 million in losses to pet-related scams.
It’s not just happening in the United States. The BBB says the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reports pet fraud has increased by a third since 2017. In June of this year alone, Vice reported Britons spent more than $436,000 “on puppies that didn't even exist.”
The best way to avoid a pet scam is to see the animal in person. But perpetrators have made excuses, using the pandemic to their advantage, says Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist with the BBB.
Fraudsters have even been cashing in by asking people for money to pay for the puppy, airfare, and oftentimes, a so-called COVID-19 compliant crate — “whatever the heck that is,” Baker says.
So far this year, the BBB has received more than 4,000 reports of pet fraud. The most basic scam involves the trickster grabbing an image of a furry friend online, posting it for sale at a rate cheaper than most breeders, then deceiving a person to send money before seeing the puppy in real life.
They tend to nag the person over and over for more money over a variety of made-up reasons, he says. When someone gets fed up and refuses to send more cash, the scammer will claim the pet is stuck at the airport. They’ll then threaten to report the incident to the government as animal abandonment, Baker explains.
Baker advises being skeptical when an online breeder asks buyers to wire cash through money transfer apps such as Cash App or Zelle. Scammers used to utilize Western Union or MoneyGram, but have since pivoted to forms of mobile payment.
“Once money is sent through those platforms, you basically have no way of getting it back, even if the whole thing is a total fraud,” he says.
Most scammers don’t have the ability to process credit cards, but will still try to steal credit card information, he says.
The BBB’s Scam Tracker reports ads for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs are ripe with fraudulent listings.
This summer, a woman in California tried to buy a $600 Yorkshire terrier puppy online. She told the BBB she was swindled out of another $750 for pet insurance before realizing she was being deceived.
“Unfortunately, people are so used to shopping on the internet that that's just the first place they go,” Baker says. “And the crooks have really got good sites and sometimes they steal sites from real breeders. Just copy the entire website so they look very professionally done.”
Some even pay for a sponsored link at the top of a search engine so the crooks appear first on the list, he says.
The best solution to protect yourself against pet scams is to visit a local shelter, even though many have run out of puppies, he says. For breeders, the BBB has a search tool that lets people see if businesses are legit.
Baker suggests trying to see the puppy in person before transferring any money. If that’s not possible, ask the seller to video conference with all three on the call — the seller, the buyer and the pet.
“No scammer is going to be able to do that,” he says.
Remember to Google the photo too, he says, to see if it’s a generic dog picture ripped from the internet.
Scammers aren’t just conning people with promises of cute canines. Fraudsters are capitalizing on any and all pets, he says, from kittens to parrots and even full-sized horses, because “there's no limit to what you can sell online if you don't actually have to have the product.”
This segment aired on December 22, 2020.