Warning issued over fake online ads for puppies and kittens

One of the charms of globalization is how quick and easy it is for scams to spread between continents. Our pale blue dot of a planet swarms with seven billion potential victims, and a halfway competent criminal can always find new ways to hammer them.

Take, for example, the spate of fake puppies and kittens showing up lately on UK online auction sites.

Last week, Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime, warned about fraudsters:

…placing adverts online using stolen photos of pets claiming they are currently held abroad or somewhere less accessible within the UK.

You go online, see that sweet little creature in the ad, your heart melts. There’s talk about finding a loving home, maybe the seller claims to be heartbroken to be forced to give up the animal. You’re hooked: you and that animal were just made to be companions.

You bid, you win, you carefully follow the precise directions to pay by money transfer, prepaid card, or some such. What could possibly be nefarious about an untraceable payment method? What kind of a cynic would you have to be to doubt someone who raised such an adorable, healthy puppy? You’re all set with your chew toy; maybe you’ve even got a name picked out.

Suddenly, there’s a follow-up message from your far-away seller. There are special courier charges to pay. Or maybe the airline has demanded a special type of crate (you know how those airlines can be). Or there’s been an unexpected vet bill (you wouldn’t want to travel sick, and you sure wouldn’t want your poor sweet pet to have to do that!). You pay… again. And wait some more… and still, no Max or Bella.

Yup, you’ve been scammed. There never was a pet: just a sweet looking puppy picture someone scrounged with Google Image Search.

You’re not alone.

You’ll find plenty of fellow victims in the US, where you might be offered a free pet, for only the cost of shipping – and they might even claim to tell you the name of the shipping company. The US National Consumer League reports plenty of this stuff happening on Craigslist: no huge shock there.

You’ll find victims in Australia, too, where SCAMwatch has been warning of similar schemes for three years. (An added Australian variant: you may be asked for more money to get your puppy through customs or quarantine.)

New Zealand’s Pets on the Net raises similar red flags. And, according to The Times of India, similar scams are being run there: often for endangered species like macaw parrots and Scandinavian cats.

The UK’s Action Fraud, the US American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Australia’s SCAMwatch, and the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association all offer overlapping common-sense cautions:

  • Don’t pay in ways that can’t be traced. If you’re buying through an auction site, use their approved method of payment.
  • Search online for the sender’s email address or mobile phone number; if the same contact details keeps showing up elsewhere, that’s a dead giveaway. It may also turn up any bad reviews associated with those contact details.
  • Ask for copies of the pet’s inoculation history, breed paperwork and certification before agreeing to buy it. If the seller is reluctant or unable to provide this information it could be an indication that either the pet does not exist or the pet has been illegally bred.
  • Buy your pet locally from someone you can meet in person – ASPCA recommends that you never buy a puppy online: even if you actually get an animal, it could have been mistreated by a “puppy mill” breeder along the way.

And, finally… all together now – “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!”