Online puppy scams more than double in 2020, BBB warns

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The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets as people seek adding a pet companion 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 comes a spike in pet scams, where 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) Serving Western Virginia 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 bump continues throughout 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.

In 2020, our local BBB service area alone received 16 pet scam reports to BBB Scam Tracker, totaling in $9,700 dollar-lost, a 40 percent increase from $6950 in 2019. The number of local reports of puppy scams has more than doubled, a 128 percent increase compared to the seven reports in 2019. The median loss reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $1075. 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 tell 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.

“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 Julie Wheeler, BBB Serving Western Virginia 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 2020 dollar-loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.

BBB Scam Tracker Data

YearPet Scam ReportsLosses
2017884$448,123
20181,578$718,248
20191,870$1,016,380
2020 (Jan. 1 – Nov. 30)3969$2,843,552
2020 (projected)4,300$3,100,000

 

With the increase in fraud 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.

A Grayson County woman told BBB in October that she paid $1700 for a teacup poodle puppy she found online listing a local Galax address. The seller asked for payment through MoneyGram, then changed the method of payment to Zelle and prepaid Visa “Vanilla” Gift Cards. Another woman near the Dry Fork area in Pittsylvania County also received a request for payment using CashApp for a puppy in September.

The fraudulent seller gave detailed instructions and confirmation of payment with a screenshot of her CashApp transaction. Thankfully, through persistent questioning, warning signs were revealed before sending the $800 electrically.

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 was not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In September 2020, a Montgomery County resident reported to BBB a dalmatian puppy scam based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Thankfully, the victim recognized the red flags before paying $600 and an additional $100 for the transportation fee to deliver the puppy to Virginia. Through a reverse image search, the suspicious buyer found photos from the scam website mirroring a legitimate breeder from Washington D.C. The buyer realized it was a scam after the seller avoided her phone calls.

On Nov. 30, a McGregor, Iowa, woman told BBB she had attempted to purchase a Boston terrier puppy from an online seller supposedly from Roanoke, Virginia and listed a Richmond mobile phone number. The seller, Boston Terrier Breeding Family, would accept payment only via money order. As instructed, she initially paid $705 for the puppy.

The next day, all communication ceased from the seller. The woman reported it to BBB Scam Tracker to help others avoid being swindled by the legitimate-looking website. Further BBB investigation confirmed that the website domain owner was registered with Namecheap, Inc. and the domain owner was from Panama. Even though BBB reported the fraudulent site to the FTC and the domain registration site, the website remains operational.

“These scammers have multiple websites which sell other puppies besides Boston terriers. They normally use the most popular breeds as they can find the most victims,” says Wheeler. “If you inquire about one of their puppies, they will offer you huge discounts. Scammers will even throw in the best puppy food for your new puppy. In addition, many of these sellers will claim to deliver the puppy by employing a fake delivery company using another scam website they set up in order to steal your money by charging for non-existent delivery, veterinary bills, and medical insurance for your puppy as well as multiple other fees.”

Like the development of tactics, new fraudulent pet schemes have also surfaced. A recent discovery of a “Secret Santa Dog Toy Exchange” highlights the relentless efforts made to target pet enthusiasts by reinventing a classic, pyramid-schemes.

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.

There have been a few law enforcement actions against pet scammers since BBB’s previous study was issued in 2017. In the U.S., a man was arrested in Minnesota for pet fraud in December 2019.

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 you 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.
  • BBB urges you to take more law enforcement action against pet scammers.
  • The media and public should help to 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, catalogs 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.
  • Your credit card issuer – if you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.

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