By SUBMITTED BY THE BETTER BUSINESS BUREAU on December 18, 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets which has led to 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 projected dollar loss from puppy scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017. At the current pace, pet scams reported to Better Business Bureau (BBB) will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams.
Soon after cities and provinces 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 across North America. Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined. This increase is continuing into the holiday season with consumers filing 337 complaints to BBB about puppy scams in November 2020, a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.
Tactics used by Scammers
With the increase in scam activity has come an evolution in tactics. Scam Tracker data indicates that mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp are now being used, whereas Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfers were popular payment methods documented in the 2017 study. Both Zelle and CashApp have issued warnings about pet scams. In addition, pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools such as sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.
The 2017 BBB study noted that most scammers are unable to process credit cards. Although that remains the case, some pet scammers now use fraudulent online forms to collect credit card information. Since the scammers do not have legitimate arrangements to process credit cards, victims may receive an error message stating that the card was declined. Scammers then direct the buyer to send money a different way. But now the scammers have stolen the credit card number, and use these stolen cards to fund their scam activities. Pet buyers using a credit card need to monitor their credit card statements carefully.
According to Scam Tracker reports, in addition to telling buyers they cannot meet a pet before paying because of the pandemic, fraudsters have made COVID-19-related money requests for items such as special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine. Petscams.com, 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.
In October, a Calgary woman reported to BBB Scam Tracker that she attempted to purchase a puppy online but the puppy did not arrive and she has not received a refund of the $3,300 she paid for the puppy. “I paid for the dog and his transport company contacted me to say I have to pay for insurance. Then the dog was sick and I had to pay a vet bill which they said was refundable because of insurance. No dog, no refunds.”
There have been a few law enforcement actions against pet scammers since BBB’s previous study was issued in 2017. A woman was arrested for puppy fraud in Waterloo, Ont. in September, and a Newfoundland woman was recently sentenced to 33 months in prison for this fraud.
BBB advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.
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 as it could be a fraudulent offer.
Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet before adopting.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:
Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavours to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online
Canadian Antifraud Centre – antifraudcentre-centreantifraude or call 1-888-495-8501
Your credit card issuer – if you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.
If you’ve spot a scam (whether or not you’ve lost money), report it to BBB Scam Tracker. Your report can help others avoid falling victim.