The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased demand for pets, but that’s also caused a spike in pet scams, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Increased stress, loneliness and increased time at home to train a puppy have all contributed to the surge in the pet market in 2020. However, it’s also led to 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 Better Business Bureau advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.
“Scammers modify their cons to take advantage of current events,” said Phil Catlett, President of the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan. “COVID-19 has given these scammers another excuse to try to make these sales at arms-length, arguing customers can’t visit the dog in person do to health concerns.”
The BBB Scam Tracker saw an increased in pet fraud soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. There were more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.
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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 the BBB in 2020 is $750. Those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020.
At the current pace, the number of pet scams reported to BBB in 2020 will be nearly five times higher than 2017 numbers, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams.
Different from 2017 is the way scammers are taking payment from victims, with scammers increasingly asking or money through payment apps like Zelle and CashApp as opposed to wiring money through Western Union or MoneyGram.
For example, one woman from the Traverse City area lost $2,000 to a puppy scam in November which started with a $500 deposit paid through Zelle for a Pomeranian puppy named Moose.
When it came time to ship the dog to Michigan the transportation company claimed it needed an additional $1,500 to upgrade the travel crate, which the company promised the would be refunded at the airport when the dog arrived.
After paying she then got a message that the company needed an additional $2,800 for puppy insurance because the dog was stressed from the first leg of its flight. When the Traverse City woman refused to pay, she was threatened with fines and possible criminal charges for puppy abandonment, according to the BBB.
A woman in Comstock Park reported losing $900 while trying to buy an Akita puppy in September. After making the initial payment, she was told she had to pay an additional $2,000 for travel insurance and a crate.
Excuses for additional payments often include special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine, according to Scam Tracker reports. There also were instances where purchasers wanted to pick up the pet but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Once one payment is made, scammers come up with a list of reasons why the customer has to send more money,” Catlett said. “They prey on your emotions, knowing that once you become attached to the idea that you will be getting a new puppy it is hard to say no.”
While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam, other animals are used as well. 12% of pet scam complaints to BBB were about kittens or cats.
When attempting to purchase pets online the BBB recommends seeing the pet in person or on a live video call before paying any money. Buyers should also do research to get a sense of a fair price for the breed they’re considering. If someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price, it could be a fraudulent offer, according to the BBB.
Buyers should also use caution with breeders offering shipping. A better option is to check out a local animal shelter or breeder for pets you can meet before adopting or buying.