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'Puppy scams' skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic

(WJHG)
Published: May. 15, 2020 at 12:04 PM EDT
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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, various kinds of online scams have skyrocketed.

One of them takes advantage of people looking for a pet, and the Better Business Bureau calls it the "puppy scam."

While staying at home due to the coronavirus, some families have turned to the internet to look for a new pet, with the hope that they could use their time home to let a pet adjust to their new surroundings.

But many have instead come across scammers advertising animals that don't really exist and are never sent.

Specifically, the Better Business Bureau says there have been a number of bogus breeders claiming to be from the Roanoke area.

Scammers on the internet often find excuses to explain why someone can't see something, whether an apartment or a pet, for instance, in person. And the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the perfect excuse for why they might need to ask money before a hopeful family sees their new pet in person.

Then, of course, it's later that they realized they've been conned.

Widespread scamming

Puppy scams were the subject of an

and usually pop up around holidays.

But new data from the

indicates that puppy scams have spiked since COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., with more reports of fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.

"Scammers frequently take advantage of the news to find new avenues for targeting victims," said Julie Wheeler, President and CEO of BBB Serving Western Virginia. "The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, along with some quarantined families' decision to adopt a pet, has created fertile ground for fraudsters."

According to the BBB's 2017 study, in order for puppy scams to be successful, they depend on fake, often sophisticated-looking advertisements to hook unsuspecting buyers.

Experts believe that at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in any Internet search for pets may be fraudulent.

Actual numbers of pet fraud may be much higher than reported because many victims either choose not to file complaints or do not know where to turn for help.

Of those who did report the fraud, many said they wanted to adopt a puppy to ease their isolation and brighten their lives during the pandemic. Instead, they got heartbreak.

Victims were often told that they needed to send money for special climate-controlled crates, insurance, and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine. There also were several instances where the buyer wanted to see or pick up the animal, but was told COVID-19 would make that impossible.

The

has received 517 puppy scam reports, conning over $403,000 in total from victims spread across the United States. Virginia alone had 27 puppy scams reported since March 1, 2020, with over $8,000 scammed.

Specific examples

A man from the Roanoke area visited a website that appeared to be selling discounted cavalier King Charles spaniel puppies. The "breeder" required $500 for the animal plus an additional $100 to transport the animal from the airport to the residence. The website did not list a physical address or telephone to contact the breeder. The contact telephone number is for "TEXT" only, and they provided an email address. The victim contacted the scammer via email, and correspondence occurred. The initial $600 was sent to the scammer via Wal-Mart money gram service. The following day, the scammer stated that he needed an additional $950 for insurance, which he said was refundable, for air transport services. The victim became suspicious, contacted the police, and

.

A similar report was filed from a Washington County resident. He lost $850 to a website claiming to sell corgis from Austin, Texas called Quality Pembroke Welsh Corgi, now called Champion Corgi Pups Home.

Another, from Washington state, was conned $645 by 'Dream Boston Terrier.' The victim was looking for a Boston terrier puppy for his wife and two children. He reported the business listed a Roanoke physical address. The fake website had a convincing testimonial from his hometown. The payment seemed legitimate, but red flags were noticed once the breeder went dark, not returning any communication.

Tips to avoid puppy scams

The Better Business Bureau offers this advice to avoid similar scams:

• Don't buy a pet without seeing it in person. If that isn't possible, conduct an internet search of the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same image appears on multiple websites, it's likely is a fraud. You also can search for text from ads or testimonials to see if the seller copied it from another website.

• Don't send money by Western Union, MoneyGram, prepaid gift ward, or a cash app like Zelle. These payment methods offer no recourse and no way to get your money back if you are the victim of a scam. Fraudsters may claim to accept credit cards but may steal your credit card information to use it in other scams or inform you that payment didn't go through and request the payment via wire service or gift cards.

• Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting. If a purebred dog is advertised for free or at a deeply discounted price, but another payment is required for services like vaccination or shipping, it could be a fraudulent offer.

• Consider reaching out to a local animal shelter. During this time of quarantine, many shelters are looking for fosters to help relieve the animal's stress and reduce overcrowding at their facilities. Humane Society of the United States refers consumers to local shelters.

• If you think you have been scammed, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. You can also report it to petscams.com, which catalogs puppy scammers, tracks complaints, and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.

Have you spotted a business or offer that sounds like an illegal scheme or fraud? Whether or not you’ve lost money, you can

to help the BBB investigate and let others know.

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