Americans love pets; about 70% of U.S. households own at least one. Pet owners are generous people, spending nearly $70 billion a year on acquiring, feeding and caring for their animals. Unfortunately, a growing chunk of that money is lost each year to something called a pet scam.
Puppy scams ranked at the top of the list for online purchase scams last year, accounting for nearly 25% of all reported purchase-related frauds. That statistic is shocking but not really surprising: it’s easy for fraudsters to create an authentic-looking pet website to trick potential buyers. Experts believe 80% of online pet advertisements are placed by pet scammers.
Dog scams aren’t cheap. Although the average victim loses around $600, losses over $1,000 aren’t uncommon—one victim lost $5,000 on a pet scam. While anyone can fall prey to a pet scammer, the FTC says most victims are in their 20s and 30s.
If you’re looking for a pet online, you’re a potential target. Online pet scammers know how to appeal to motivated buyers with adorable puppy pictures, fake pedigrees and too-good-to-be-true prices for in-demand breeds.
What is a pet scam?
Pet scams have evolved over the years. Early on, scammers placed a classified ad for a free dog or puppy. Usually, the scammer claimed he was moving out of the country or had an allergic child and couldn’t keep the pet. While the animal itself was offered free of charge, the scammer asked for money to cover costs for transporting it to the victim. This scam tugged the heartstrings of dog lovers who hated to see a family pet sent to a shelter.
Today, pet scammers are more sophisticated. They start by creating a fake breeder’s website, swiping puppy pictures from the internet to paint a picture of a reputable kennel. Then they place classified pet ads on sites such as Craigslist and Petfinder, offering puppies and dogs at prices well below the market rate for popular breeds.
Once you’re interested in a puppy, the scammer works hard to draw you in and keep up the ruse. Some actually require you to complete a questionnaire about your family, home environment and how you plan to care for the pet before you are “approved” for ownership.
After you agree to buy the puppy, the scammer arranges payment, usually via wire transfer. Scammers ask for much more than the cost of the dog. In many puppy scams, the fraudsters request money to buy an airline-approved crate, veterinary travel certificates, airfare and pet travel insurance—all seemingly legitimate costs to a concerned buyer. As long as you continue to pay, the scammer has an endless list of reasons for requesting more money.
In the end, the scammer cuts off communication without ever delivering the animal or sends you a fake airline confirmation for a flight your future puppy will never take. Either way, the outcome is the same: you’ve paid a lot of money for a nonexistent pet.
Even worse? Your chances for recovering the money are slim to none since pet scammers rely on payment platforms with limited buyer protections. Fraudsters favor money wiring services such as Western Union and MoneyGram because it’s very hard for consumers to get their money back.
How to identify a pet scam
It can be difficult at first to spot a pet scam because the criminals go to great lengths to appear legitimate. “It’s easy to create a website and find pictures of cute puppies, so people should be skeptical of what they see online,” said Jennie Lintz, director of puppy mill initiatives for the ASPCA.
Price is a big giveaway: if you see a puppy offered for well-below the average price for similar dogs, you could be negotiating with a scammer. When you see someone selling an ‘AKC-registered’ French bulldog puppy for $500, you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate breeder.
Secrecy and obfuscation are the hallmarks of a pet scam. You won’t be able to see the dog before the sale because it’s located in a distant city or country. While most reputable long-distance breeders are happy to have the dog examined by a local vet of your choice, that’s never an option with a scammer.
Here are some other red flags that might indicate a potential pet scam, which have a lot in common with other online scams:
- Not revealing a full name or contact information. Ethical breeders list their names, addresses and contact information on their website; they are usually eager to discuss their puppies over the phone. Scammers obscure their identity with anonymous Gmail or Yahoo! email accounts. A Gmail address isn’t necessarily a red flag, but emails from “[email protected]” with no verifiable name or phone number should set off alarm bells.
- Receiving emails with syntax, grammar or spelling errors. Many dog scams are based in Cameroon, and as such the scammers may not be fluent English speakers.
- Asking for payment via wire transfer. When you pay with a credit card or service like PayPal, you have ways to recover your money if you are caught up in a pet scam. Once a scammer accepts your wire transfer, however, you may never get your money back. If the person asks you to lie about the reason for the transfer—to say you’re sending money to a family member or friend instead of buying something—it’s virtually guaranteed you’re dealing with a pet scammer.
- Rushing the sale. Scammers usually insist on an immediate sale. They may say they’re discounting the price of the dog because they’re moving in a few days and need to sell it right now. or they might pressure you by telling you they’ve had other offers on the dog. If you are being pressured to send money right away, step back and research the seller.
- Promising to deliver within 24-48 hours. It’s almost impossible to get the appropriate vaccinations, licenses and health certificates, let alone a reasonably priced air transportation, on short notice. Scammers often promise this as a way to quickly close the “sale.” Pay attention to transportation costs, as well. It can easily cost $1,000 or more to ship a dog, so a seller charging $250 to deliver your dog is probably trying to scam you.
While the internet is the preferred place for pet scammers to find victims, not all online pet ads are fraudulent. Many ethical breeders advertise their puppies on classified sites. However, you can protect try to yourself from becoming a pet scam victim by following these recommendations:
- Know the market value of the puppy you’re considering. Before you start shopping for pets, research the going rate for the breeds you’re interested in. Exercise caution if you see an ad offering a dog at heavily discounted prices since this is a common hook for pet scammers.
- Search the seller’s email address. Most pet scammers place the same ad with several sites. If a Google search of the seller’s email turns up multiple identical ads, you could be dealing with a pet scam.
- Reverse image search any photos. Scammers snag photos from the internet for their websites and emails; a reverse image search can reveal if the photos were taken from another breeder’s or rescue organization’s site. If the photos aren’t original, it’s probably a pet scam.
- Research the seller’s reputation. Ask for references from the seller’s vet and other buyers. Request digital copies of any registration papers and puppy vet records before you commit to buy. It’s also a good idea to try to learn more about the seller’s identity with a people search service before you pay for your pet.
- Pay with a credit card whenever possible. Credit card companies offer some of the strongest buyer protections, so you have help if you’re unwittingly caught up in a pet scam. Unlike debit cards, which take existing funds from your checking or savings account, credit cards draw from your line of credit, so you aren’t out actual cash while you dispute the purchase. Never wire money to buy a pet.
Lintz strongly recommends buying only from breeders you meet in person. “Responsible breeders encourage you to visit so you can see where the puppies were born, how they’re being raised, how the mother is being treated. They will be open to answering any questions you may have,” Lintz said.
She advises buying close to home so the breeder can serve as a resource for questions or concerns as your puppy grows. “A good breeder plans each litter and is devoted to the health and wellbeing of their dogs.”
Of course, if your heart isn’t set on a purebred pup, your local shelter is one of the best places to find a family pet.
What to do if you’ve been scammed
If you uncover a scheme before you’ve sent any money, immediately cut off all communications from the seller. If you have exchanged phone calls, block their number so they can’t continue to contact you. Report the scammer to the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker and file a complaint with the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP. You can also report online scams to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Contact the site where you found the ad—and any other sites you uncovered in your email search—and report the pet scam. Ask them to take down the ads to help protect other consumers.
If you sent money to the scammer, report the transaction to your local law enforcement agency. Your next steps depend on how you paid.
With money wire services, you may be out of luck if the scammer collected the payment. Western Union allows you to file a formal fraud complaint to request reimbursement, but there is no guarantee a refund will be issued. MoneyGram also has a poor reputation for refunding fraudulent payments, but you should still file a fraud claim using their online reporting form.
If you paid with a check, debit or credit card, contact your financial institution right away. Your bank’s fraud department will help you get your money back and assist law enforcement in tracking down the criminals.
If it seems too good to be true…
Don’t be ashamed if you’re caught up in a pet scam; it’s natural to be excited when you think you’ve found the puppy of your dreams. Just don’t let your excitement overwhelm your common sense. Do your research, check the seller’s references and reviews, don’t hand over money to an unknown entity and always be skeptical of unbelievable deals.
“The internet has replaced the mall pet shop for many prospective pet owners. The trouble is it’s almost impossible to know what you’re getting into when you buy online,” Lintz said, “and it can open you up to a world of heartache.” A new puppy becomes a 15-year-commitment; take the time to find a reputable breeder or local rescue organization that will partner with you to create a lasting and happy relationship with your pet.