Animal adoptions surge at the holidays. So does pet adoption fraud.

December 16, 2022 11:26 am

Pet insurance is a big growth industry. State Sen. Beau Ballard introduces bill to create legal framework for such polices in the state. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

For some, the holidays are a time for reflection. For others, they are a time to sit back and enjoy commercials for luxury midsize vehicles topped with outrageously large red bows. For still others, they are a time to add a furry friend to the household.

Animal adoptions spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are especially common throughout the holiday season. However, that uptick in interest has been met by an uptick in fraud.

In 2017, the Better Business Bureau serving Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas Plains and Southwest Iowa and its investigative partners, the BBBs in Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and St. Louis, issued an in-depth study, “Puppy Scams: How Fake Online Pet Sellers Steal from Unsuspecting Pet Buyers,” which found that fraud in the sale of online pets was on the rise. Last year, an update to that study uncovered that pet scams accounted for 35% of all online shopping scam reports to BBB Scam Tracker.

This month, the latest update showed losses are expected to approach $2 million in 2022 alone. Although that is down by a third since its peak during the pandemic, average monetary losses are climbing, with the average loss ($850) up 60% since 2017.

Masked by sophisticated sponsored advertising tactics and glossy photos stolen from reputable sites, scammers prey upon the emotions of prospective pet owners. A majority of the pets advertised online as “free” or deeply discounted do not exist, our study found.

Oftentimes, a victim will search online for an available pet and be taken to a convincing website with false promises of expensive animals — purebred dogs are common — for reasonable prices. Once an animal is selected, scammers will typically say that the victim’s credit card was declined but will instead pocket that information and the personal information collected for later use.

The scammer will then request payment through a peer-to-peer payment method such as Zelle or Venmo, or even gift cards. Unfortunately, at this stage in the transaction, consumers are often willing to overlook the odd request of payment via an unsecured method. These methods don’t feature the fraud protection that credit cards provide, which makes them ideal for scamming.

The fraud continues, of course, and the scammer will likely request additional payment for vaccines and for the transportation of the animal. Delaying shipment of the animal is a popular tactic for scammers, who seek to add hundreds of dollars to the transaction for insurance or heating and cooling devices for crates.

To be sure, these are sophisticated operations. They incorporate fake emails, shipping numbers and documents for reputable transportation companies to legitimize the experience and keep victims in the dark. The marketing collateral used by scammers will often look like that of a legitimate breeder or seller.

Should a victim attempt to pull out of the transaction, scammers have been known to dial up high-pressure sales tactics or threaten the consumer by saying a criminal charge is possible for failure to complete the transaction and protect the innocent animal.

There are specific breeds that stand out in BB Scam Tracker reports. Nearly 30% of all puppy scams this year involve Yorkies, daschunds and French bulldogs.

This form of fraud is prevalent in Nebraska. More than 60 reports in the past year involved a supposed company that claimed a state address, with 13 such instances reported in Omaha. Those losses eclipsed $40,000. Many of those companies didn’t exist, and nearly every website used in those scams has been taken down. Sites that are often registered outside of the U.S. appear and vanish quickly, hampering law enforcement efforts.

BBB recommends the following for purchasing pets online:

See the pet in person before paying any money. Consider a video call with the seller if there are concerns about meeting in person because of COVID-19. This way, you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Typically, scammers won’t comply with the request.

Conduct a reverse image search of the pet’s photo and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.

Research the breed to get a sense of a fair price. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price — it could be a fraudulent offer.

Check out a local animal shelter for pets to meet in person before adopting.

Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:

Better Business Bureau: BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online. tracks complaints, catalogs puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.

Federal Trade Commission: to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.

Your credit card issuer: Report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.

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Josh Planos
Josh Planos

Josh Planos, APR, is the Vice President of Communications & Public Relations for the Better Business Bureau. He serves as the spokesperson of BBB’s International Investigations Initiative, and oversees and executes all internal and external communication efforts. His writing has been published by FiveThirtyEight, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, among other news outlets. He was recognized among the Midlands Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Class in 2022.