Kelvin Collins

Kelvin Collins

If you are shopping online for a pet this holiday season, watch out for scams. Complaints continue to pour into Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Scam Tracker as fake pet and puppy scams are on the increase. 

Scammers know that few things pull at a person's heartstrings like an adorable puppy. And as consumers turn to the internet to find new pets, they will be met with a slew of heart-tugging ads. A BBB study found that many of the ads are scams, and anyone looking online for a pet is extremely likely to encounter one.

Reports have increased 39% since 2017 when BBB first alerted consumers about the problem in the in-depth investigative study, “Puppy Scams: How Fake Online Pet Sellers Steal from Unsuspecting Pet Buyers."

In the last three years, BBB received nearly 16,000 complaints and Scam Tracker reports from consumers about “businesses” selling puppies and other pets. The FTC estimates only about 10% of victims report these crimes – so the problem is likely more widespread.

Year | Estimated complaints and scams pertain to pet fraud

2017 | 4,664

2018 | 6,007

2019 | (Jan-Nov) 5,879

2019 | (projected) 6,466

BBB’s extensive investigative study of online puppy scams in 2017 looked at the scope of this problem, who is behind it, and the need for heightened enforcement and consumer education to address the issue.

The study notes that in approximately 60% of reports to BBB regarding dog sellers, consumers allegedly never received the pets they purchased.

Consumers also complain to BBB about shipping costs, receiving animals with health and/or genetic problems and not receiving proper documentation for the pet.

More than 5,000 complaints and scam reports were registered about sellers of dogs, kittens, birds, reptiles and other pets. 

How the scam works

You find an adorable puppy on a website or an online ad. Sometimes, scammers claim they are breeders or pet sellers. Other times, they pretend to be a distraught pet owner who must find a new home for their beloved dog. Either way, once you inquire about the pet, they ask you to wire money through such services as Western Union or MoneyGram to complete the purchase.

The "seller" then promises your pet will be shipped right away. But there are always unexpected problems. Scammers use a variety of excuses, like saying the airline requires a specific pet crate or the shipper requires costly pet insurance – all of which need to be paid in advance. With each problem, scammers promise that they will refund the unexpected costs as soon as your pet is delivered. In many cases, the pet is never delivered, and neither is the refund.

Tips to protect yourself from pet scams:

If possible, inspect the pet yourself by arranging to meet with the prospective seller in person. Most legitimate breeders will welcome the visit.

Never send money via Western Union and MoneyGram to people or companies you don't know and trust. Once the money is wired, it is gone for good. The same goes for prepaid debit cards or gift cards. Always use a credit card in case you need to dispute the charges. If anyone asks you to pay for anything with a gift card, you may be dealing with fraud. Petscams.com has also warned people about paying with Zelle, a digital payment system.

Do an internet search for the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, you may be dealing with a fraud. You also can search for text from ads or testimonials to see if the seller copied it from another site.

Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting or purchasing. If someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price, you could be dealing with a fraudulent offer. If they state that they register their dogs with a specific organization or registry, confirm by contacting the registry or organization directly.

Check out the website. Go to petscams.com to see if a site selling pets is bogus.

Find out what other consumers are saying. Check BBB Scam Tracker and do an internet search on the breeder’s or organization's name.

If you have been a victim or see a puppy scam, report it to BBB Scam Tracker.

Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving the Fall Line Corridor, serving 77 counties in East Alabama, West Georgia, Southwest Georgia, Central Georgia, East Georgia and Western South Carolina. This tips column is provided through the local BBB and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The Better Business Bureau sets standards for ethical business behavior, monitors compliance and helps consumers identify trustworthy businesses. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB by phone at 800-763-4222, online at bbb.org or email info@centralgeorgia.bbb.org.