BBB Warning: Puppy Scam Reports Skyrocket During COVID-19 Pandemic

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MURFREESBORO: "A Murfreesboro, Tennessee, individual reported losing $800 to a puppy scam in May 2020. They came across a puppy on what appeared to be a legitimate website. After they requested to see a video of the puppy to verify it was real, the seller explained that the puppy would cost $650, and the shipping would cost $150. The price for the puppy included "health certificate, one-year health guarantee, medical records, crate, toys, food samples, and a booklet of information to care of the puppy." The seller came back after they paid the $800 online and were told a "pet courier company" would take over."

MORE: Some people have turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking they would have plenty of time to help the pet adjust to its new surroundings. Many have come across scammers who advertise on websites for animals that do not exist and are never shipped. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has given pet scammers the perfect reason to explain why potential owners can't see the pet in person. Would-be pet owners then take longer to figure out they have been conned and delay the inevitable heartbreak.

Puppy scams like these were the subject of a 2017 in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB), and they continue on being prolific during the holidays. New data from BBB Scam Tracker shows that these scams have spiked since COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., with more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.

"Scammers frequently take advantage of the news to find new avenues for targeting victims," said Robyn Householder, President, and CEO of BBB serving Middle TN and Southern KY. "The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, along with some quarantined families' decision to adopt a pet sight unseen, has created fertile ground for fraudsters."

BBB's earlier Study found that for these types of frauds to be successful, it is usually dependent on false, often sophisticated advertisements, to hook unsuspecting consumers. At that time, experts believed that at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an Internet search for pets may be fraudulent.

Actual numbers of pet fraud may be much higher than reported because many victims either choose not to file complaints or do not know where to turn for help.

Many victims who contacted BBB's Scam Tracker reported they wanted to adopt a puppy in order to ease their isolation and brighten their lives during the pandemic.

Victims were often told that they needed to send money for special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine. There also were several instances where the consumer wanted to see or pick-up the animal but was told that was not possible, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A Murfreesboro, Tennessee, individual reported losing $800 to a puppy scam in May 2020. They came across a puppy on what appeared to be a legitimate website. After they requested to see a video of the puppy to verify it was real, the seller explained that the puppy would cost $650, and the shipping would cost $150. The price for the puppy included "health certificate, one-year health guarantee, medical records, crate, toys, food samples, and a booklet of information to care of the puppy." The seller came back after they paid the $800 online and were told a "pet courier company" would take over.

When the "courier company" reached out, they explained that the puppy would be in a medical check before it's flight. They told BBB they then received an email and phone call stating, "my puppy was too young to fly in the ventilated crate the breeders had provided. They claimed that we had to pay for an upgraded "electric thermal crate," which was $1200.00." This set off a red flag for a potential scam, so the individual decided to ask the breeder to go to the airport and pick up the puppy, and they would drive the 8 or so hours to pick up the puppy. The seller then ended all communication with individuals, and they have since reported the transaction to their credit card company.

While the situation might change, puppy scams have been reported to BBB 517 times from March to May. One woman reported losing more than $1,100 to two different puppy scammers, had this to say, "I'm a highly educated person, but I've never felt so stupid in my entire life." Remember, always do your research and always try to do business with a trusted organization, like a local humane shelter or an accredited breeder.

Tips for avoiding puppy scams:

- Don't buy a pet without seeing it in person. If that isn't possible, conduct an internet search of the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, it's likely is a fraud. You also can search for text from ads or testimonials, to see if the seller copied it from another website.

- Don't send money by Western Union, MoneyGram, and a cash app like Zelle or a gift card. These payment methods offer no recourse and no way to get your money back if you are the victim of a fraud. Fraudsters may claim to accept credit cards, but may steal your credit card information to use it in other scams or inform you that payment didn't go through and request the payment via wire service or gift cards.

- Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting. If a purebred dog is advertised for free or at a deeply discounted price, and then other payment is required for services like vaccination or shipping, it could be a fraudulent offer.

- Consider reaching out to a local animal shelter. Especially during this time of quarantine, many shelters are looking for fosters to help relieve the animal's stress and reduce overcrowding at their facilities. Humane Society of the United States refers consumers to local shelters.

If you think you have been scammed, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. You also can report it to petscams.com, which catalogs puppy scammers, tracks complaints and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.

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