In June, Catelyn, a woman from Texas, went online to find her family a Dalmatian puppy. The website she visited looked normal, the puppy perfect, so she sent off $850, a fair price for the spotted canine. Soon after, she received an email claiming the dog needed insurance for its cross-country journey.
Wanting to keep the puppy safe, Catelyn handed over another $725. Only a few hours later, the seller reached out to her again about another issue. A $615 “thermal electronic” crate was required for the flight. The seller told her that the puppy would not be allowed to board if she did not pay, so Catelyn sent the third payment. The days ticked by without any dog. When she tried to reach the sellers by email and phone, they had blocked her number.
Catelyn eventually realized she had been defrauded. She was devastated to have lost nearly $2,200 and “her” puppy, which never really existed.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) urges consumers to exercise caution this holiday season when purchasing a pet online. BBB Scam Tracker reports indicate that consumers who purchase pets without seeing them in person, use hard-to-track payment methods like Zelle and accept extra charges, such as for shipping insurance or special cages, are at substantial risk of being scammed. Because purchasing a pet can be such an emotionally charged experience, BBB urges consumers to be on high alert for scams.
So far this year, pet scams in North America appear to be on the decline, even as losses exceed $1 million and are expected to approach $2 million. That total is down by a third since the peak of more than $3 million during the pandemic in 2020-2021, according to BBB Scam Tracker. Pet scams historically make up a quarter of all online shopping frauds reported to BBB and are on track to be about 18% this year. As reports decline, however, average monetary losses are climbing, with an average loss of $850 in 2022, up 60% since 2017. BBB has tracked this swindle since 2017, when it issued an in-depth study, Puppy Scams: How Fake Online Pet Sellers Steal from Unsuspecting Pet Buyers (https://www.bbb.org/content/dam/0734-st-louis/puppy-scams-creative/puppy-scams-bbb-study.pdf).
Puppy scams remain consistently profitable for scammers because their multitiered setup allows scammers to convincingly go back to a consumer several times to ask for money.
On the front end, puppy scams operate much like other online frauds. Scammers entice buyers to their website after an online search, social media advertisement, email or text message. The fake websites are incredibly convincing, with names like https://jamesdachshundpuppies.com or Sunsetpuppiescenter.com. Pictures of healthy and adorable puppies adorn the pages, with sellers falsely promising purebred dogs for reasonable prices.
Yorkies, dachshunds and French bulldogs make up nearly 30% of all puppy scams, according to 2022 BBB Scam Tracker reports; however, consumers mentioned more than 40 breeds, meaning that buyers should be cautious when shopping for any breed online.
In another twist to the scam, when a buyer finally settles on a dog and attempts to pay, scammers claim the credit card was declined or is not working. In reality, scammers have stolen that information to use later. But the fraud has just begun. They then ask the shopper to pay using Zelle, PayPal or gift cards. While the shift to these insecure payment types should raise a red flag, consumers said it is easy to be swept up in the emotions of the moment when buying a pet and push forward anyway.
Stephanie, a shopper in Illinois, was looking for a puppy in August when she came across Jamesbernedoodles.com. The website seemed legitimate enough, and it offered “discounted puppies and free shipping.” When two different credit cards were declined, the seller asked her to buy gift cards instead. Stephanie was told to buy Visa gift cards, scratch off the numbers on the back and read them to the seller.
Dozens of reports to BBB describe the excitement of adding new animal members to the family. These consumers note that they brushed off concerns and failed to do research, such as reverse image searches of the puppy pictures, because they simply wanted to get an animal before the offer went away.
After the initial payment is complete, fraudsters use the shipment of the dog to extract more money. They tack on hundreds of dollars for bogus charges like “insurance” or heating and cooling devices for crates. These “courier scams” use fake emails, shipping numbers and documents for companies like FedEx or Delta Airlines to legitimize the charges. Because these methods are used in all types of online commerce frauds, scammers develop intricate layers of fraud to fool consumers. When the buyer begins to get suspicious, the seller pulls out high-pressure tactics and threats, claiming that the consumer will be charged with a crime for failing to secure the animal safely.
In the end, Stephanie sent even more money to ensure the delivery of her new dog. It never came. She lost $2,300. “I was looking for a puppy for our kids,” Stephanie said. “We have had a rough year and wanted to add some spontaneous joy.”
Money orders used to be a frequent payment choice for scammers, who now seem to prefer credit cards, money transfer apps (Venmo, Zelle, PayPal) and gift cards, according to an analysis of BBB Scam Tracker reports. To avoid credit card chargebacks, fraudsters might prolong the grift by providing fake tracking numbers and other bogus information. They hope that consumers will not notice the con until it is too late to dispute the charge. Still, BBB recommends consumers pay with a credit card when possible, as those companies have strong procedures in place for disputing fraudulent transactions.
Many bogus puppy websites, often registered outside of North America, appear and vanish quickly, hampering law enforcement efforts. Prosecutions in puppy scam cases are tough to crack, as perpetrators are often outside of the country. Still, law enforcement arrested a woman in San Antonio for her alleged role in 75 scams. She faces six months in jail.
Derek Smythe with Artists Against 419, a volunteer group fighting online fraud, said there is little legal action taken against these pet scammers, who might run websites and advertise on sites like Facebook and Instagram without fear of prosecution. “It is because everyone is ignoring it,” he said. “It is quite devastating when you see all these things put together.”
Pet scams make up one of the biggest chunks of online retail frauds reported to BBB Scam Tracker. A BBB 2021 online retail fraud study and a November 2022 update show the massive scale at which bad actors have co-opted the online shopping process.
BBB finds pet scams make up a large chunk of online purchase fraud
|Year||Online Purchase Scams||Pet Scams||Proportion Pet Scams|
BBB tips for researching puppy sellers
- See pets in person before paying any money.
- Try to set up a video call to view the animal.
- Conduct a reverse image search on photos attached to ads.
- Research the breed to figure out the average market price.
- Check out a local animal shelter for pets to meet in person before adopting.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a puppy scam
- Better Business Bureau: BBB Scam Tracker (bbb/org/scamtracker) to report fraud online.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC): reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
- Canadian Antifraud Centre: https://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/report-signalez-eng.htm or call 1-888-495-8501 for scams involving Canada.
- Your credit card issuer: Report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if you did not complete the transaction. Monitor your statements, and if you suspect fraud, ask for a refund. It is not guaranteed, but many credit card companies will grant one.
- Petscams.com: petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.