Purchasing a Puppy Online Remains Extremely Risky, BBB Warns Holiday Shoppers

The demand for “quarantine puppies” and other pets increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with it a spike in scams that has persisted even as virus-related lockdowns have abated.

Online pet scams — in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to adopt a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist — are especially pervasive during the holiday season, when families may be looking to add a furry family member as a gift.

Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution if shopping for a pet online.

People currently shopping for pets online are very likely to encounter a scam listing in an online ad or website. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing money.

Online shopping scam reports to BBB Scam Tracker skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and pet scams make up 35% of those reports in 2021.

While pet scam-related reports are down slightly from 2020, they are expected to be double this year to those in 2019, and more than four times as many as those reported in 2017, when BBB published its first investigative study about online puppy scams.

Scammers frequently capitalize on high demand during the holidays by posting adorable pictures of pets in festive sweaters and hats.

When a would-be pet parent pursues the listing, the scammer refuses to let the consumer meet the pet before buying – often stating the reason is related to COVID-19 safety precautions. The scammer claims that they must use a pet delivery agency of some kind, often naming an airline.

BBB Scam Tracker has received many reports of fake web pages impersonating real businesses for this purpose. The scammer also may demand fees for vaccinations or other last-minute “needs.” Ultimately, the pet does not exist, and the consumer has lost money and an emotional investment.

The largest group of victims by age are those 25-35, followed by those 35-44. The average financial loss reported to BBB Scam Tracker was $1,088. While 82% of pet scam reports involved dogs, other reports included cats, birds, and iguanas.

The tactics used in pet scams continue to evolve. Scammers increasingly ask for payment through untraceable cash apps such as Zelle, Google Pay, Cash App, Venmo, and Apple Pay. A review of BBB Scam Tracker data finds that many reports listed Zelle as the payment method involving the purchase of online pets.

A St. Louis woman told BBB Scam Tracker in April 2021 that she paid a $500 deposit via Zelle for a Cavapoo puppy she had seen online.

The seller sent her several photos and then asked for the remaining balance on the puppy via Zelle — a transaction that the would-be buyer’s bank flagged as fraudulent.

The woman requested a refund but never received it, and the puppy is still listed on the seller’s website.

A Castro Valley, California, woman reported losing $1,350 during the summer of 2021 when she and her husband tried to buy a Samoyed puppy online.

The woman told BBB Scam Tracker she signed a contract to purchase a puppy from a “breeder” who contacted her via email; she paid the “breeder” $1,350 via Zelle. She said she knew she had been scammed when the “shipping company” handling the puppy’s delivery contacted her and asked her to rent a temperature-regulated crate.

Pet scams are a worldwide problem, with the United Kingdom and Australia reporting large increases in pet scam complaints in 2020 and 2021.

Many pet scams originate in Cameroon, according to data from Petscams.com, which tracks and catalogues puppy scams.

Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad have worked to apprehend pet scammers. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in December 2020 criminal charges against a Cameroonian national living in Romania; among other tactics, the suspect had claimed the pets he was selling had COVID-19 and required would-be buyers to purchase a “vaccine guarantee document.”

BBB recommendations for buying pets online:

See the pet in person before paying any money. If you’re worried about the pandemic, consider a video call with the seller so you can see the seller and the pet for sale at the same time. Scammers typically will not comply with the request, and it may help avoid the loss of money and heartbreak.

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

Research the breed to get a sense of a fair price under consideration. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price. It could be a fraudulent offer.

Visit local animal shelters and review their websites for available adoptable pets you can meet by appointment.

The media and public can help educate those looking for pets online by sharing BBB’s tips and study.

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

Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.

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

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

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

Your credit card issuer – report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.

In 2020, people turned to BBB more than 220 million times for BBB Business Profiles on 6.2 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at BBB.org.

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