The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning that the number of online puppy scams has risen sharply in 2020.
The rise in scams comes as more families seek to adopt pets to ease the loneliness, tension or boredom associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scammers are taking advantage of the rising demand by tricking would-be pet owners into paying hundreds of dollars or more to purchase animals that ultimately don’t exist.
The BBB says its Scam Tracker has received nearly 4,000 reports of pet fraud so far this year and the bureau projects it will receive about 4,300 reports by the end of 2020, amounting to approximately $3.1 million in losses. Last year, there were only 1,870 pet scams reported, amounting to just over $1 million.
The BBB says it started to see this spike in scams when the pandemic hit the U.S. in the spring. Accordingly, there were more reports in April than in the first three months of the year combined.
This trend is continuing into the holiday season as well. The BBB says it received 337 complaints about puppy scams in 2020, which is a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.
The median loss reported to Scam Tracker this year is $750 and victims between 35 and 55 accounted for half of the reports.
With scammers evolving their tactics during these difficult times, the BBB says consumers should exercise extreme caution when shopping for pets online.
Data from the Scam Tracker shows that mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp are often being used now, whereas Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfers were popular payment methods documented in a 2017 study. Also, the BBB says pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools, like sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.
Additionally, the pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal. Reports show many fraudsters are telling victims they cannot meet the animals before sending money because of COVID-19. To combat this, experts recommend using video conferencing to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying.
Scammers have also made COVID-19-related money requests for items such as climate-controlled crates, insurance and non-existent COVID-19 vaccines.
Michelle L. Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO, says knowing the red flags associated with these pet scams can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.
The BBB recommends the following when 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 so you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Since 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.
- 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.
- BBB urges more law enforcement action against pet scammers.
- The public should help to educate those looking for pets online by sharing BBB’s tips and study.