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A cautionary tale from the Better Business Bureau: now more than ever, it’s ‘buyer beware,’ especially when it involves online pet purchases.

By Tracey L. Kelley
December 08, 2020
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Border collie puppy portrait
Credit: Iuliia Zavalishina / Getty

Stress of the pandemic and sheltering in place has prompted more people to seek comfort and companionship from pets, especially dogs. The good news is many rescue and adoption organizations experienced dramatic drops this past year in their resident numbers as they placed more animals into welcoming homes. The more tragic news is that due to this increased demand for pets, online puppy scams skyrocketed.

An early December release from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) indicates pet fraud reports are five times higher in 2020 than in 2017: 4,300 this year compared to 884 just three years ago. According to the BBB Scam Tracker, the financial losses are astronomical as well: the average individual amount lost is $750, but the projected total for 2020 is more than $3 million.

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 Michelle L. Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO, in the release. “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.”

People between the ages of 35 and 55 represented half of the fraud reports issued to the BBB in 2020. 

According to Petscams.com, opportunities for French bulldogs and Yorkshire terriers are popular breeds most often misrepresented through Craigslist puppy scams and other online puppy scams. Others in recent years include Pomeranians, various types of bulldogs, and husky-type breeds. Cats and kittens are pushed by fake online pet sellers, too, but less than 20 percent of scams involve them.

Most reputable breeders don’t offer animals as guaranteed holiday purchases, either. Giving an animal as a gift requires much more forethought

To avoid getting trapped in puppy scams online, here’s what the BBB recommends:

  • Visit a local shelter or adoption service to meet a prospective pet. 
  • If you’d prefer a particular breed, research prices before contacting owners to understand the average cost. Purebred dogs offered at greatly discounted prices are likely scams or an extension of puppy mills.  
  • Use video-conferencing or a safe in-person session to meet the owner and the animal and see their living conditions—and don’t send any money until you do. If the owner refuses to permit either of these actions, they’re probably fraudulent. 
  • While online payment platforms such as Zelle, Venmo, and other mobile apps are convenient, they can also be an easy way for fraudsters to steal your money. Most scammers are unable to process credit cards or, if they claim to, will also pilfer your card information without completing the transaction. If a seller asks you to pay by some type of gift card, report it immediately.
  • To verify that an animal pictured isn’t fake, conduct a reverse image search on the photo and its description.   
  • Never agree to have an animal shipped to you, especially with payment upfront. There are strict guidelines for companion pet transport established by the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association and the International Air Transport Association, and both of these organizations regularly report fraudulent activity to Petscam.com and scamwarners.com 

The BBB also has these additional tips prospective pet parents should review to help avoid fake online pet sellers. And remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true—it probably is. Use your best judgment and practice care and caution whenever you're thinking of adding a new pet to your family.