The demand for “quarantine puppies” and other pets increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with it a spike in scams that has persisted even as virus-related lockdowns have abated. Online pet scams — in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to adopt a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist — are especially pervasive during the holiday season, when families may be looking to add a furry family member as a gift. Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution if shopping for a pet online.
In addition to a shortage of puppies available due to high demand, earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspended imports of dogs to the U.S. from countries deemed at high risk of rabies. The U.S. typically imports 1 million dogs each year and have since updated the restrictions.
People currently shopping for pets online are very likely to encounter a scam listing in an online ad or website. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help people avoid heartache and loss of money.
Online shopping scam reports to BBB Scam Tracker skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and pet scams make up 35% of those reports in 2021. While pet scam-related reports are down slightly from 2020, they are expected to double this year to those reported in 2019, and more than four times as many were reported in 2017, when BBB published its first investigative study about online puppy scams.
Scammers frequently capitalize on the high demand during the holidays by posting pictures of pets in Christmas hats and other gear. When a would-be pet parent pursues the listing, the scammer refuses to let the consumer meet the pet before buying – often claiming COVID-19 considerations. The scammer claims that they must use a pet delivery agency of some kind, often an airline. BBB Scam Tracker has received many reports of fake web pages impersonating real businesses for this purpose. The scammer also may demand fees for vaccinations or other last-minute “needs.” Ultimately, the pet does not exist, and the consumer has lost money and emotional investment.
The largest group of victims by age are those 25-35, followed by those 35-44. The average financial loss reported to BBB Scam Tracker was $1,088. While 82% of pet scam reports involved dogs, other reports included cats, birds and iguanas.
The tactics used in pet scams continue to evolve. Scammers increasingly ask for payment through untraceable cash apps such as Zelle, Google Pay, Cash App, Venmo and Apple Pay. A review of BBB Scam Tracker data finds that the vast majority of reports listed Zelle as the payment method involving the purchase of online pets.
A St. Louis woman told BBB Scam Tracker in April 2021 that she paid a $500 deposit via Zelle for a cavapoo puppy she had seen online. The seller sent her several photos and then asked for the remaining balance on the puppy via Zelle — a transaction that the would-be buyer’s bank flagged as fraudulent. The woman requested a refund but never received it, and the puppy is still listed on the seller’s website.
A Castro Valley, California, woman reported losing $1,350 during the summer of 2021 when she and her husband tried to buy a Samoyed puppy online. The woman told BBB Scam Tracker she signed a contract to purchase a puppy from a “breeder” who contacted her via email; she paid the “breeder” $1,350 via Zelle. She said she knew she had been scammed when the “shipping company” handling the puppy’s delivery contacted her and asked her to rent a temperature-regulated crate.
Pet scams are a worldwide problem, with the United Kingdom and Australia reporting large increases in pet scam complaints in 2020 and 2021. Many pet scams originate in Cameroon, according to data from Petscams.com, which tracks and catalogs puppy scams.
Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad have worked to apprehend pet scammers. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced criminal charges against a Cameroonian national living in Romania; among other tactics, the suspect had claimed the pets he was selling had COVID-19 and required would-be buyers to purchase a “vaccine guarantee document.”
BBB recommendations for buying pets online:
- See the pet in person before paying any money. Consider a video call with the seller if there are concerns about meeting in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This way, you are able to see the seller and the actual pet for sale. More often than not, scammers won’t comply with the request and help avoid a scam.
- Conduct a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.
- Research the breed to get a sense of a fair price 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 for pets to meet in person before adopting.
- BBB urges more law enforcement action against pet scammers.
- The media and public should help to educate those looking for pets online by sharing BBB’s tips and study.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:
- Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogs puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
- Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online.
- Canadian Antifraud Centre – antifraudcentre-centreantifraude 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 the transaction was not completed.
Read more about pet scams on BBB.org.