Gary Warner & Cameron Stirner
“Pet fraud” refers to internet scammers capitalizing on people using online resources to shop for a pet. The scammers will use advertisements that are often too good to be true to attract potential buyers. Once a victim has been lured into purchasing a pet from a fraudulent vendor, the fraudster will then utilize various tactics to extort additional money from victims. Similar to romance scams, pet fraudsters prey on human emotion and vulnerability to extort money from them.
Pet Fraud saw a notable jump as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic as many individuals sought a furry companion to aid in combating loneliness and isolation. While 2022 has seen an overall decrease in pet fraud, the Better Business Bureau still warns that the 2022 holiday season will see many fraudsters targeting unsuspecting pet shoppers.
Better Business Bureau statistics on pet fraud over the years.
You may be asking, “What is a pet scam?” “How would the criminals make money?” The first and most important fact to remember is THIS PET DOES NOT EXIST!
A common practice for these scammers is to place comments on the posts others make in Facebook groups dedicated to a particular breed. Anyone who asks questions in such groups about how to buy a pet may receive a reply that says “Inbox me” or “DM” (Direct Message) or “PM” (Private Message.) Moving the conversation out of the public eye is primarily so that other members are less likely to warn you that they are scammers.
Online Ads are also a common source of scammers. Many of the ads on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to advertise that they are either giving away or looking to sell an animal. These ads will use common stories of pet owners to seem reputable and they will often attempt to communicate with victims exclusively via email.
Online Storefronts – Scammers utilizing fraudulent online storefronts will often impersonate breeders and use images of similar looking animals to attract buyers. These images, while enticing to vulnerable buyers, are often pulled straight from popular search engines and are easily reverse-searchable.
These fraudsters will also attempt to create an appearance of trustworthiness and legitimacy by including fake reviews from “customers” with website links and corresponding emails to lull buyers into a false sense of security.
According to a Better Business Bureau study from 2017, these were the most popular brands of “imaginary pets.” If you join a group dedicated to these breeds on Facebook, you will often see warnings from the Administrators that “our group is being preyed on by scammers! Do not buy anything from people on this page without asking us first!” Unfortunately, many of the groups are also run by the scammers, who will assure you that the seller is well-known and trustworthy provider of pets.
The most common breeds for puppy scams (2017)
Some of the 2022 Puppy scam websites are offering slightly different breeds – perhaps in response to the knowledge of the 2017 BBB Study.
Breeds offered on a single scammer site
While some websites are dedicated to a single breed, the availability of such a large number of breeds from a single site should be considered a red flag as well.
One technique for identifying a scam website is to choose a unique phrase or sentence from the site and search for it in your favorite search engine. If many identical pet-providing websites are using identical language, you may have found a cluster of fraud. The sites below all use identical text to describe how they are provided free shipping via air from their location to yours when you purchase a puppy. Notice how the websites use an identical menu bar? In fact, other than the company name, everything about the sites is the same.
Hondjies Naby, Maji City, and Catch Puppies are identical websites – another red flag!
But what if you find a scam website? The Better Business Bureau asks you to share your experience with as many details as you can, on their excellent BBB ScamTracker website. By sharing your information there, others who are trying to determine if they are being scammed will benefit from your experiences. The BBB staff also mines this scam complaint data to prioritize alerts to law enforcement and to the public.
The other place that BBB recommends you report is called petscams.com. When you share your experiences there, the team of volunteers investigates and confirms that the site is a scam and adds it to their collection of more than 21,500 websites that are confirmed pet scams. The site also allows you to search by dog breed to find the most recently reported scam websites for that breed. Additionally, you can report “Pet Delivery Agencies.”
Victims who unknowingly contact the scammers in search of a puppy will often be told a heartbreaking story of how the “owner” must give away their animal because they can no longer care for them. These listings will often say that the animal is free, but since the animal is likely far away, the buyer will have to send money to cover shipping costs.
Often, the fraudulent seller will have a selection of shipping companies that they have found that can safely ship your new pet to your home. Because the victim believes they have chosen the website themselves (with some coaching) they are more likely to believe it is a real company. However all of the choices offered are controlled by the pet scammer and his co-conspirators – often hosted on the same IP address!
Report Scammers at PetScams.com
Once you are emotionally invested in the arrival of your pet, the expenses and excuses begin to arrive. The shipping company requires insurance for this particular dog breed. The dog’s crate is not “air worthy” and must be upgraded. The dog has been placed in medical quarantine in customs, and food and board fees must be paid. The dog is ill and must be vaccinated. Each time, a fee is requested. Because they wish to hide from the banking system, this fee may be required in Gift Cards, or via a hard-to-reverse fast payment system such as Zelle, Venmo, or CashApp.
While the average losses so far this year were $850 per victim, there are many instances where a single victim has lost several thousand dollars. Once the damage is done, victims will not only be left without a new furry companion, but with a potentially substantial loss in money to an overseas fraudster.