The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets as people seek adding a pet to the family to ease the loneliness and tension of prolonged time at home. Many feel that they now have more time to train a puppy. With this rising demand has come a spike in pet scams, in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to purchase a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially considering scammers’ evolving tactics.
Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, the agency’s 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 the Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined. The COVID bump is continuing into the 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 reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020.
Law enforcement and consumer advocates now say a person searching online for a new pet is extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or website.
The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal. Scam Tracker reports show that many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money.
, which tracks and exposes these scams, recommends using another tool popularized by COVID-19 — video conferencing — to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying as a way of reducing scam vulnerability.
“COVID-19 has made for a long and uncertain year, and a ‘quarantine puppy’ or other pet has proven to be a comfort for many people, but it also has created fertile ground for fraudsters,” said Lechelle Yates, Director of Communications for BBB of Central and Northwest N.C. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.”
At the current pace, pet scams reported to the agency will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first . The projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.
If buying a pet online, the BBB recommends:
See the pet in person before paying any money. 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 your 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.
If you are the victim of a pet scam, contact:
Your credit card issuer – if you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.
Canadian Antifraud Centre – or call 1-888-495-8501 for scams involving Canada.