CADILLAC — The Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan is warning people to be wary of online pet adoption offers as there has been a spike in pet-related scams.
Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, the BBB Scam Tracker saw a spike in pet fraud reports. Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows 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. 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.
BBB Serving Western Michigan Educational Foundation Director Troy Baker said one victim even hails from the Cadillac area. Baker said the victim was from the Evart area and was searching the internet for a puppy in April.
The idea was to get a puppy to serve as a stress relief dog since they work in the health care field. Baker said they searched the internet and found a website selling Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. An agreement was reached with the “breeder‘ to purchase a puppy.
The victim tried to make a payment through PayPal, then MoneyGram, Western Union and one other money transfer business. None of the payments went through, so the “breeder‘ suggested they use a gift card for $670 and send them the information from the card.
Baker said shortly after the victim was contacted by a “shipping crate company‘ that was asking for $950. It was at that point, the realization came to them that they were being scammed, Baker said.
These types of scams are hard ones for people to deal with, according to Baker.
“This is a hard one because it plays on emotions more than others. They see these dogs in beautiful pictures and they are cute puppies,‘ he said. “They buy-in that this will be the next member of their family. So when the scammer asks for another $1,000 it is hard to say no, but the dog is always one payment away from you.‘
In many cases, Baker said the victims of this type of scam are almost always more hurt by not getting the dog than they are about losing the money. He said they have their heart set on getting that dog and when it doesn’t happen they are more pained by that than the financial loss.
One change from 2017 the BBB reported is the way these scams are taking payment from victims. Scam Tracker data indicates that victims are increasingly being asked to make payments through payment apps like Zelle and CashApp as opposed to wiring money through Western Union or MoneyGram.
Both Zelle and CashApp have issued warnings about pet scams. Also, pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools such as sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.
One victim from the Traverse City area lost $2,000 to a puppy scam last month. It started with a $500 deposit paid through Zelle for a Pomeranian puppy. The website claimed all its puppies are registered with the American Kennel Club and have a 30-day money-back guarantee.
When it came time to ship the dog to Michigan, the BBB reported a transportation company claimed it needed an additional $1,500 to upgrade the travel crate. The company promised the money 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, according to BBB. When the victim refused to pay she was threatened with fines and possible criminal charges for puppy abandonment.
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.
While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam, 12% of pet scam complaints to BBB were about kittens or cats.
When it comes to buying pets online, the BBB recommends seeing the pet in person before paying any money. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, consider a video call with the seller so you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Make sure the call is live, and not a recorded video that could be old and reused for multiple potential buyers. Since scammers are not likely to comply with the request, this may help avoid a scam, according to the BBB.
Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description or testimonials. The BBB also recommends researching to get a sense of a fair price for the breed you are considering. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price. It could be a fraudulent offer.
Finally, use caution with breeders offering shipping and the BBB also suggests checking out a local animal shelter or breeder for pets you can meet before adopting or buying.