As our stay home, work safe orders continue, we are turning to the Internet for all kinds of things. Many people are going online to do their shopping and to connect with others. Unfortunately, scammers are preying on just that, and using the pandemic as a convenient cover for fraud. While the scam itself is nothing new, the opportunity for this particular scheme is at an all time high.
New data from BBB Scam Tracker shows a recent surge in online puppy scams since COVID-19 has taken hold in the U.S. In the month of April alone there have been more reports about fraudulent pet websites than in the first three months of this year combined. The current pandemic has given scammers seemingly legitimate reasons to ask for upfront money or to explain why a pet cannot be seen in person, before would be pet owners figure out they have been conned.
The scheme is usually dependent on bogus, often sophisticated, advertisements to hook unsuspecting consumers. Incredibly, experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent. In fact, it can be difficult to navigate an online search for a pet without coming across a bogus website.
What it looks like:
In virtually all cases, the scammers never own the animals described on the sites. While some scammers offer “free” pets, others offer animals for sale at deeply discounted prices. Those paying for the pet are almost always asked to send money through Western Union or MoneyGram or directly through popular apps like Cash App or Zelle. In addition, in nearly every fraud case, the thieves instruct the potential buyer that an animal must be shipped from a remote location. The fraudsters don’t make arrangements for an in-person meeting with a potential buyer and often ask victims to send money to a supposed third party who will take over responsibility for transporting the animal. Those who pay for pet shipping often are asked to buy or rent a special crate for the pet and, if they are successful in obtaining payment for that, they may follow up with requests for special insurance or shots for the animals. At times, the thieves may claim the pet is stuck at an airport in transit and additional money is needed for food and water. The requests for money on one pretext or another will continue as long as the victim continues to send money. Eventually, most victims realize that something is wrong and they are probably being duped. However, when they finally stop sending money, the thief usually claims the pet is at the airport, and threatens the potential buyer with criminal charges for “animal abandonment, unless additional payments are made to resolve the issue.
After all of that investment of time and money, it’s understandable that a threat like that might have some people second guessing their instincts. The BBB urges the public to be on guard against online pet scams; inspect an animal in person before paying money, and pay by credit card if you do make an online purchase.
What if I’ve been a victim of this fraud?
• File a report with BBB’s Scam Tracker
• File a complaint at Petscams.com
• File a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. Call 1-877-FTC-HELP
• Homeland Security Investigations at the Department of Homeland Security also handles international fraud. Call 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423) (from U.S. and Canada)
• If you sent money through Western Union, MoneyGram or a Green Dot MoneyPak, you should contact those companies directly for information about the transactions at Green Dot, 800-795-7597; Western Union, 1-800-448-1492; and MoneyGram, 1-800-926-9400.
How to find a pet and avoid the fraud:
• The Humane Society of the United States will refer consumers to local shelters. They also provide tips for finding a reputable breeder.
• Those looking for a pet should avoid puppy mills. A BBB study warned about the problems people have when they deal with those businesses.
• Avoid buying a pet without seeing it in person.
• Never send cash via money order or Western Union to a stranger.
• Always use a credit card in case you need to dispute the charges.
• Do research to get a sense of what a fair price is for the breed you are interested in adopting. Think twice if someone is advertising a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price … it could be a fraudulent offer.
• Report and learn about fraud in your area at BBB Scam Tracker.
You can also contact us here at the BBB Education Foundation at 713-341-6141 if you have any questions about making an online purchase.
Melissa Ramsey is the BBB Education Foundation columnist. For more information, call 713-341-6141.