DAYTON – 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 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. Better Business Bureau advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.
Soon after cities and states 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 from the United States and Canada.
Data from BBB Scam Tracker showed 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 many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money. 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.
“Scammers frequently take advantage of current events to find new avenues for targeting victims and the pandemic is no exception,” said John North, president and CEO of BBB serving Dayton and the Miami Valley. “People shopping for pets online now 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 BBB will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams. The projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017. According to the Canadian Antifraud Centre, complaints about pet frauds reported to them have also increased by a third since 2017.
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 often used now, 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.
Because the scammers do not have legitimate arrangements to process credit cards, victims may receive an error message stating 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 pay for domain names of websites and otherwise fund their scam activities. Pet buyers using a credit card need to monitor their credit card statements carefully.
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, according to Scam Tracker reports. There also were instances in which purchasers wanted to pick up the pet but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A Huber Heights resident came across two puppy scams as he was searching for a Maltese puppy to replace a dog he had lost. He found one online and agreed to pay $800 for it ($600 for the puppy and $200 for shipping). He paid the fees via Zelle.
Two hours after paying the fees, the breeder claimed the puppy was with the shipper and the shipper would contact the buyer directly. The shipper did contact the buyer only to request another $1,950 via Zelle or other cash transfer service to cover the cost of a special climate-controlled pet carrier, and the buyer was instructed to act immediately to prevent a delay.
The buyer refused to pay and an offer was made to split the fee, which the buyer declined. The buyer asked if he could pick up the dog, which was allegedly in the Baltimore area. The buyer was told he could, but they’d have to get back with him with an address. He has heard nothing from the breeder or shipper.
Continuing his search for a Maltese, he came across another breeder, which was selling a puppy for $650, including delivery. When the buyer asked to see the puppy, the breeder said that due to COVID-19 no one was allowed to come to the home. He was told he could pay for the puppy through a cash app. Fortunately, the buyer didn’t pursue the purchase.
While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam, 12% of pet scam complaints to BBB were about kittens or cats. Federal Trade Commission data shows scams involving kittens have more than doubled since 2017.
The FTC also received 185 reports of parrots being ordered but not delivered during the first half of 2020. Fraudulent listings for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs are particularly pervasive, according to Scam Tracker reports.
There have been a few law enforcement actions against pet scammers since BBB’s previous study was issued in 2017. In the U.S., a man was arrested in Minnesota for pet fraud in December 2019. In Canada, a woman was arrested for puppy fraud in Waterloo, Ontario, in September 2020, and a Newfoundland woman was recently sentenced to 33 months in prison for this fraud.