LEESBURG, VA — Online scammers have been busy as the holiday season has collided with the COVID-19 pandemic in Leesburg. One type of scam that is particularly alarming, and gaining strength, involves puppies and other pets such as kittens, iguanas and lizards.
A spike in the number of reported pet scams has been noticeable since the pandemic started and is likely to grow as the winter holidays approach, according to the Better Business Bureau.
“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 Marjorie Stephens, BBB serving Northern Indiana president and CEO, said in a statement. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners.”
Instead of trying to buy a pet online, people can visit a local animal shelter. Shelters in and near Leesburg have dogs, cats and other animals ready and waiting to be adopted.
Nichole Thomas, communications director for the Northern Indiana BBB, told Patch that “puppy scams” are nothing new but there has been a resurgence of them during the pandemic.
“Gamers are always out there, but when you have an economic downturn like this pandemic has brought, they ramp up their tactic because they are hurting, too,” said Thomas, who also recommends adopting a pet from a shelter rather than buying one online.
“Animal shelters are full around the holidays, so the best way to avoid falling victim to an online pet scam is to not purchase them online and go to the shelters,” she said. “Both my dogs are shelter dogs, so that is something very important to me.”
Victims of pet scams will often find someone selling the animal online and make a transaction before ever meeting the pet — if the pet actually exists.
“Scammers are really good at coming up with excuses,” Thomas said. “Now, they will often say they can’t meet you in person to pick up the animal because of the pandemic.
“They may even say there was a ‘delivery problem’ for why the pet didn’t get to you on time and then scam you out of even more money. They want to string you along and get as much money as they can.”
These scams become more frequent ahead of the December holidays. With statewide restrictions and closures in play to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus, more and more people are at home and feel they now have the time for a pet, Thomas said.
“New pets are very common holiday gifts, and people look at being home as an opportunity to get a new puppy or kitten, whereas it would be a hindrance if they weren’t at home as often,” she said.
Nearly 4,000 pet scams from the United States and Canada have been reported to the BBB in 2020 as of the end of November, compared with 1,870 in all of 2019. By the end of the year, the BBB projects 4,300 pet scams will be reported, costing victims about $3.1 million.
This November alone, 337 pet scams were reported, compared with 77 during the same month last year, Thomas said.
And the actual number is likely much higher, Thomas said.
“You could probably double those numbers and be safe, because oftentimes people will be too embarrassed to report it,” she said. “Especially if they experienced a significant financial loss.”
Prevent Becoming A Victim
The BBB has offered a number of tips to help consumers keep from becoming victims of pet scams. Here are a few:
See the BBB’s scam tracker to find out if there have been any similar scams reported in your area. The scam tracker has a map that makes it easy to find what type of scams have been reported and where.
Check the seller’s website. Do they even have a website? If so, make sure it starts with “https,” not just “http,” Thomas said. “The ‘s’ is very important to make sure it is secure.” If there are a number of misspellings or frequent grammatical errors, it may be a sign that the seller is not from the United States.
Look for red flags. If there’s a puppy that is normally priced at $600, and someone wants $400 for it, that’s a red flag, Thomas said. “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.”
Petscams.com, which tracks and exposes such scams, recommends using videoconferencing to meet the animal and owner virtually before any purchase.
If You Are A Victim
Report the scam to Petscams.com, the Federal Trade Commission and the BBB. Also contact your credit card issuer if you provided the scammer with your credit card information.
This article originally appeared on the Leesburg Patch