The COVID pandemic has had an unlikely (although understandable) effect: a huge spike in the number of people adopting and buying pets. As people are ordered to stay at home and avoid contact with their nearest and dearest, the companionship offered by a pet is becoming an increasing solace. Unfortunately, the trend has been accompanied by another, altogether less benevolent, one: a dramatic increase in the number of online pet scams. Apparently, the criminal element of society has taken our increased interest in owning a pet as a challenge, a challenge they’ve more than willing to rise to.
Report Finds That Around 80% Of Online Ads For Pets Are Scams
According to a report by the Better Business Bureau, online puppy scams have increased by a massive 500% this year, with the result that would-be puppy owners have lost over $3 million. “Fraudsters are trolling the internet, looking for hopeful pet owners,” Better Business Bureau president and CEO Steve McFarland says via MSN. “The latest tactic is telling would-be pet owners that due to social distancing restrictions they cannot meet the animals before sending money.” Although genuine ads do exist, they’re few and far between: according to the Better Business Bureau, at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that pop up during internet searches are fraudulent.
Typically, the fraudsters will post details of fake litters under the guise of an existing breeder. Pictures of the puppies will be provided, and you’ll get the option to select the one you want. Thanks to social restrictions, the ‘breeder’ can easily fend off any requests to see the puppy before you send payment. Once payment is made, you can kiss goodbye to your money, your puppy, and any further contact from the ‘breeder.’ According to iheartdogs.com, the demographic most vulnerable to online scams are people in their 20s and 30s. As people that fall within this age category are used to doing most of their shopping online, they are less inclined to query the prospect of buying a dog (or anything else) without first meeting it in person.
The Extent of the Problem
While 2020 has seen a dramatic rise in the number of online scams, the problem has actually been ongoing for several years. According to Better Business Bureau data, over 10,000 scam reports and complaints occurred between 2017 and 2020. The majority (60%) involved reports of customers never receiving their pet. The other 40% consisted of consumers reporting a pet with severe health or genetic problems or no accompanying documentation. As those complaints represent only a fraction of the actual numbers (the FTC estimate that only 10% of online crimes are reported), it’s clearly a huge issue.
“Scammers love to take advantage of people when they are in highly emotional situations,” says Steve Bernastell via AKC. “The excitement of buying a new pet can cloud judgment, and victims can be hurt financially and emotionally when they realize they have lost their money, and hopes for a new pet.”
The Red Flags
Fortunately, it becomes easier to spot the scammers from the genuine breeders once you know what to watch out for. Some of the main red flags to keep an eye out for include:
- Limited Communication – A genuine breeder will be happy enough to speak to you over the phone or via video call. A scammer, on the other hand, will try to avoid speaking to you directly as much as possible. In many instances, the scam breeders are outside the US. As such, they’ll understandably go to some lengths to avoid offering you their phone number. If the breeder you’re in contact with refuses to communicate by anything other than email, take it as a red flag.
- Suspicious Photos – Scammers will typically rely on stock photos to advertise their non-existent pups. They’ll also usually use copied text in the written section of the listing. Try popping the text into a search engine. If it returns multiple hits, you know you’ve got a problem.
- Low Asking Price – If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Before you start looking at listings, research the average market value of the breed you’re interested in. If you spot a listing where the asking price is way below the average, take it as a warning.
- Dodgy Payment Methods – If you pay for an online purchase by credit card or Paypal, you at least stand a chance of getting your money back if there’s a problem. If the seller encourages you to wire them money, pay via gift cards, or use an app like Venmo, ask yourself why.
How to Protect Yourself
Scammers might be clever, but it’s easy enough to beat them at their own game with some diligence. Even though the idea of welcoming a puppy into your home is exciting, don’t let the excitement cloud your judgment. Take the time to review listings thoroughly, taking careful note of any warning signs. Once you find your perfect pup, make sure to meet or at least talk to the breeder. If possible, this should be in person. If circumstances don’t allow that, set up a video call or phone call instead. Reputable breeders are always happy to take your questions and give you as much information as you need about both them and their dogs. Quiz them on the breed, how long they’ve been breeding, about the pup’s parents, about any breed-specific health complaints you should be aware of, and anything else that comes to mind. If the breeder’s legit, there shouldn’t be any awkward pauses.
Likewise, a reputable breeder won’t balk at providing you with references from past customers. Do your own research as well: if you’re buying a purebred puppy, you shouldn’t have too many problems in finding reviews about the breeder online. As most breeders who advertise online will also have their own website, be sure to check it out, paying particular attention to contact details and location. A reputable breeder won’t have a problem with their customers knowing where they’re based; a disreputable one might think twice. Finally, don’t let anyone rush you into making a decision. A reputable breeder knows that buying a puppy is a big decision and needs careful consideration. Take your time to research thoroughly; if you start feeling that the breeder is rushing you to make a decision, walk.