Coronavirus pandemic coincides with spike in online puppy scams

Riddle: What do you get when you cross the COVID-19 quarantine with bored kids, heart-melting online ads for floppy-eared spaniel puppies, and online ordering?

Answer: an 85% chance of paying big bucks for the dream of a dog that’s going to go *POOF!*

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) last week raised the alarm on what it says is a spike in online puppy scams it’s seeing now that the pandemic has so many people stuck at home, wistfully imagining that it’s the perfect time to train and bond with a little fluff ball.

According to the BBB, nearly 85% of people who post pictures of puppies online are just trying to scam you.

Richard Eppstein, president of the Better Business Bureau (BBB):

There’s no breeders, there’s no dogs. The whole thing is a setup to get your money.

Pat Brady, who runs the online pet scam reporting site PetScams, says that his service has seen a similar increase in scams during lockdown. Commonly called puppy scams, criminal groups behind hundreds of websites will in fact use any kind of pet to lure you in: kittens, horses, tortoises, greater sulphur crested cockatoos, you name it.

These scams have been around for years. According to a November 2019 report from the BBB, the scams, at least at that point, were largely centered in the West African country of Cameroon. At the time, arrests were demonstrating that thieves were using Cameroonians living in the US to collect the money from victims through Western Union and MoneyGram.

PetScam says that many of those hundreds of sites are still online. Scammers are using the same tricks as always: they charge victims for a pet that doesn’t exist, in spite of the adorable photos they display. Those photos are ripped off from somewhere else, just like in a romance scam.

When it comes to online dating, the fraud is called catfishing. Catfishing is when an online swindler uses stolen photos to set up a bogus persona on social media, particularly to fleece somebody in a romance scam but also by a rogue’s gallery of other types of predators, including abusers who prey on children.

Naturally, the swindlers will use the most adorable photos they can find, just like they do in love scams.

That’s how a woman named Raquel and her teenage son came to settle on a cavalier king charles spaniel puppy wearing a red bow tie with white polka dots.

The supposed puppy’s name was purportedly Duke, and the photo showed him sitting up like he was watching TV. Raquel told BuzzFeed News that the puppy was exactly what the doctor ordered in these grim times:

[My son] was really excited about getting a puppy. We’re kind of housebound now with the COVID-19 and figured we’d bring a little bit of joy, a little excitement to the house.

Duke’s price tag: $600, plus $150 to ship him to Raquel in Cleveland. What a deal, Raquel thought, given that local breeders told her they charged $1,500 or more for spaniel puppies.

Raquel, to her credit, was wary of dealing with an online seller. Thus, she asked to see photos and video of the puppy. Unfortunately, visuals are easy to fake. Photos can be freely had online, and a shyster can simply add their voice-over to a video they likewise can find online.

Raquel also tried to do her due diligence by verifying that the “breeder’s” phone number was local, as in, it supposedly had an Oklahoma area code. Unfortunately, spoofing phone numbers is equally simple for swindlers.

She went ahead and sent the payment in late April, BuzzFeed reports. The next day, her family went shopping for supplies. Then, the dog house of cards fell apart, when she got an email that made her realize she was being scammed.

They said that they were having shipping issues, and because of the COVID-19, the dogs required a special thermal crate in order to ship them.

How special? Make that $1,500 worth of special. When she refused to pay, the supposed breeder cut off contact, and she hasn’t gotten back her $750.

This is the new wrinkle in the old ruse, PetScam says: the scammers have up until now charged victims for the fictitious pet, plus delivery fees, vaccines, cage fees, vet bills or all of the above. But now, they’re also trying to bilk people out of fees for “special” shipping costs, including for a made-up “COVID-19 permit” to send the pet.

Hey, why not? Scammers are opportunists. Once they’ve got you emotionally invested in a fictitious pet, they’ll take advantage of the current situation to try to milk more out of unwitting buyers.

Business is booming due to the pandemic. Besides the BBB in the US, police have issued alerts in the UK and in Canada. On Tuesday, West Midlands Police issued an alert warning that scammers are using the pandemic to claim that buyers can’t see the pets before plunking down money:

People seeking the companionship of a new pet during the COVID-19 lockdown are being conned by cruel fraudsters, with victims handing over hundreds of pounds for kittens and pups being falsely advertised for sale.

The kittens and pups are advertised for sale online but scammers state potential buyers are unable to see them in person due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The police said that pet scams are like other pandemic-related frauds they’ve seen over the last month, including orders for protective face masks, hand sanitizer and COVID-19 testing kits that never show up.

How to avoid getting fleeced

Don’t end up like Raquel’s son: she told BuzzFeed that he’s understandably sad about losing out on “Duke.”

He’s been really looking forward to getting a puppy. He’s an animal-lover, so for him it was really disappointing.

Here’s our advice, along with some from 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 to keep your heart from being broken and your wallet from being chewed up:

  • Don’t pay in ways that can’t be traced. Thieves almost never take money from credit cards or by personal checks. Instead, they instruct their victims to pay through MoneyGram, Western Union, or with gift cards or other cards with stored value. Don’t fall for it. Using untraceable payment methods is just like sending cash. Once the scammer receives the money, the funds are gone, and it can be virtually impossible to get back your money.
  • 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. Also, check PetScam’s listings to see if a given breeder’s site is listed as a scam.
  • 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 doesn’t exist or that it’s been illegally bred.
  • Buy your pet locally from someone you can meet in person. The 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.
  • Don’t let the crooks intimidate you with the “you’ll be criminally charged for animal abandonment if you don’t pay” shtick. John Goodwin, senior director with the US Humane Society, told BBB that while there actually is a criminal charge for animal abandonment, it would never be enforced in this situation. Obviously, you can’t physically abandon a figment of some fraudster’s imagination, no matter what they threaten.