If you are shopping online for a pet this holiday season, use caution. Complaints continue to escalate into Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker as fake pet and puppy scams are on the increase, according to the latest BBB Risk Report. Scammers know that few things pull at a person’s heartstrings like an adorable puppy. And as consumers rely on the internet to find new pets, they will be met with a slew of heart-tugging ads. A BBB study found that many of the ads are scams, and anyone looking online for a pet is extremely likely to encounter one.

The FTC estimates only about 10% of victims report these crimes – so the problem is likely more widespread. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the number of pet scam reports skyrocketed.

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-19 bump continued into the 2020 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.

The median loss related to pet scams reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of the BBB reports in 2020.

Estimated complaints and scams pertain to pet scams, by year:

2017: 884

2018: 1,578

2019: 1,870

2020: 4,300

How the scam works:

A photo of an adorable puppy on a website or an online ad pops up during a search. The description is endearing and appears to be from a breeder or pet seller. In other situations, ads or social media post descriptions come across as a distraught pet owner who must find a new home for a beloved dog. Once an inquiry is made about the pet, a quick response is sent to wire transfer money or an urgent request is made to purchase prepaid gift cards, or send money via an online payment cash app, to obtain the puppy previewed online.

The “seller” then promises the pet will be shipped right away. What comes next is a series of unexpected problems. Scammers use a variety of excuses — all of which need to be paid in advance. With each new problem or scenario, scammers promise that they will refund the unexpected costs as soon as the pet is delivered. However, the pet is never delivered and neither is the refund because all of the transactions are carried out through untraceable transactions.

“Scammers love to take advantage during emotionally charged situations,” Mechele Agbayani Mills, President of BBB Serving Central East Texas said. “The excitement of buying a new pet can cloud good judgment, so victims can be both hurt financially and emotionally when they realize they have lost their money along with hopes for a new pet.”

Tips to Protect Yourself from Pet Scams:

  • Visit and inspect the pet yourself by arranging to meet with the prospective seller in person. Most legitimate breeders welcome the visit.
  • Never send money via wire transfer to people or companies you don’t know and trust. Once the money is wired, it is gone for good. The same goes for prepaid debit cards or gift cards. Always use a credit card in case you need to dispute the charges. If anyone asks you to pay for anything with a gift card, you may be dealing with fraud. Petscams.com has also warned people about paying with Zelle, a digital payment system.
  • Search the internet for the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, it may be a fraudulent site. Consider searching for text from ads or testimonials to see if the seller copied it from another site or if they’re hosting multiple sites.

Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting or purchasing. If someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price, it probably isn’t true. If the content on the page states they register the dogs with a specific organization or registry, confirm it by contacting the registry or organization directly.

Check out the website. Go to BBB.org and find out if there is a listing of the business or the breeder listed on the website.

Find out what other consumers are saying. Check BBB Scam Tracker and conduct an internet search on the breeder’s or organization’s name.

Consider visiting the local animal shelter. Many shelters are looking for fosters to help relieve animal stress and reduce overcrowding at their facilities.

For more holiday tips, visit the BBB Holiday Tips page. For other tips on how to be a savvy consumer, go to bbb.org. To report fraudulent activity or unscrupulous business practices, please call BBB at 903-581-5704 or use BBB ScamTracker.

About BBB: BBB is a nonprofit, business-supported organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Most BBB services to consumers are free of charge. BBB provides objective advice, free BBB Business Profiles on more than 5.3 million companies, 11,000 charity reviews, dispute resolution services, alerts and educational information on topics affecting marketplace trust. Visit bbb.org for more information. BBB Serving Central East Texas was founded in 1985 and serves 19 counties.

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