Online Puppy Scams Rising Sharply in 2020, BBB Warns

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets as people seek adding a pet to the family to ease the loneliness and tension of prolonged time at home. 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 (BBB) advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially considering scammers’ evolving tactics.

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.

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-19 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.

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 Use Mobile Apps Like Zelle, Cashapp

With the increase in scam activity has come an evolution in tactics. Scam Tracker data indicates that mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp are often used now, whereas Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfers were popular payment methods documented in the 2017 study.

Both Zelle and CashApp have issued warnings about pet scams. In addition, pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools such as sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.

The 2017 BBB study noted that most scammers are unable to process credit cards. Although that remains the case, some pet scammers now use fraudulent online forms to collect credit card information.

Since the scammers do not have legitimate arrangements to process credit cards, victims may receive an error message stating that the card was declined.

Scammers then direct the buyer to send money a different way.

But now the scammers have stolen the credit card number and use these stolen cards to pay for domain names of websites and otherwise fund their scam activities. Pet buyers using a credit card need to monitor their credit card statements carefully.

In addition to telling buyers they cannot meet a pet before paying because of the pandemic, fraudsters have 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 also were instances where purchasers wanted to pick up the pet but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam, 12% of pet scam complaints to BBB were about kittens or cats. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data shows that scams involving kittens have more than doubled since 2017.

The FTC also received 185 reports of parrots being ordered but not delivered during the first half of 2020.

Fraudulent listings for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs are particularly pervasive, according to Scam Tracker reports.

BBB recommendations for buying pets online:

See the pet in person before paying any money. Consider a video call with the seller so you can see them and the actual pet for sale. Since scammers are not likely to comply with the request, this may help avoid a scam.

Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.

Do research to 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 before adopting.

Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:

Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.

Canadian Antifraud Centre – antifraudcentre-centreantifraude or call 1-888-495-8501 for scams involving Canada.

Your credit card issuer – if a credit card number was provided, even if the transaction was not completed, they may be able to reverse it. Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.

Find out more at www.bbb.org

Copyright Today’s Credit Unions