Pandemic Puppy Scams Soaring

Along with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic came a sudden interest in pet purchases and adoptions across the country. More people were home, some of them alone, and most were unusually stressed. So they turned to shelters and breeders to fill in the holes that in-office work and social get-togethers with friends and family used to fill.

After all, pets provide comfort, affection, companionship, and exercise, all rolled into one adorable little package. But BILLSHARK wants to warn you about the surge in scams specifically targeted at all these openhearted people who hoped to give loving homes to puppies and kittens.

Falling in love can be costly

USA Today recently told the story of a Pennsylvania woman who lost nearly $5,500 in an online illicit pet scam. A Pennsylvania state police news release described how the woman was told she would be receiving two puppies.

“The unknown actor then had the victim purchase multiple gift cards and send the information via email and through a Zelle application,” the report said.

Another woman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, fell in love with an online picture of a French bulldog. The supposed owner quizzed her about her ability to properly care for the puppy, which gave the prospective buyer a sense of security. It turned out to be an act.

“The picture pulled me in,” said Tara Hughes. “The questions made me feel it was legit and that they cared about where their puppy goes.”

The scam quickly unraveled when the “owner” asked for a deposit, then declined to meet in person. Hughes eventually learned that the puppy she had planned to make part of her family didn’t exist.

Complaints soaring

Because the pandemic was a worldwide phenomenon, the scams are, too. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reported there already were more victims of animal fraud by September 2020 than in all of the previous year. It said financial losses totaled $455,000, or an average of $1,500 per victim.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a warning recently. He warned about the increasing numbers of pet sale scammers posing as online retailers, charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for a puppy or kitten, plus airline and transport fees.

And last month the Better Business Bureau (BBB) issued a warning. They advised “extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.” Its figures show triple the number of pet scam reports over the previous year. It projected 2020 losses totaling over $3 million.

The COVID twist

The scammers have updated their tactics, which they have adapted to the pandemic. They’re adding to the typical animal scams featuring heart-tugging stories accompanied by adorable photos (usually stolen from another website or even people’s Facebook posts).

“In addition to telling buyers they cannot meet a pet before paying because of the pandemic,” the BBB writes, “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 wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

The BBB warned that the fraud extends to those who just want to rescue a pet, not just purchase one. The scammer doesn’t ask for an adoption fee. But they say they need money to ship a pet, even if the consumer offers to pick it up in person.

The scams are not restricted to puppies, either, according to the BBB.

“While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam,” the BBB writes, “12 percent of pet scam complaints to the BBB were about kittens or cats. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also received 185 reports of parrots being ordered but not delivered during the first half of 2020.”

Avoiding the scammers

The BBB offers the following guidelines 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. This way you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Scammers are not likely to comply with the request, this may help avoid a scam.
  • Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.
    • If you see thousands of hits and the same image on multiple sites, it’s a scam.
  • 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.

Other warning signs:

  • A foreign accent: most of the scammers are overseas.
  • Requests for gift cards, wire transfers, Bitcoin, and cash apps: these leave buyers no way to get their money back.

BILLSHARK understands the need for animal companionship during the pandemic. Just be sure not to get ripped off in the process.

Another good way to protect your money is to let BILLSHARK review your bills for free. We have saved our clients hundreds and even thousands of dollars, and we can do the same for you. Remember, if we don’t save you money, you pay nothing!

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