Puppy Scams Have Spiked in the Pandemic

As the demand for pets has surged since the arrival of the coronavirus, consumer advocates are warning people to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true.

A dog that was adopted in New Orleans during the early months of the pandemic as demand for pets increased because of stay-at-home orders.

Credit...Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Sylvia Lopez, who was laid off from her job this year because of the pandemic, saw an adorable pug puppy named Ted online. For $400, a price advertised as a promotion, she bought the puppy, and then paid more than $800 to have it flown from Virginia to her home in Texas, where she and her family were in quarantine.
Thousands of dollars later, after additional fees and a crate payment, the emails from the “breeder” and the recommended “courier company” abruptly stopped. Voice mail and text messages were not returned. Ted never arrived, and Ms. Lopez’s requests for a refund were met with silence.
“I was a trusting fool and I paid the price for it,” said Ms. Lopez, 63, who provided emails and electronic records of the transactions. “I thought: ‘OK, this is going to be very simple. I pay money, I get the dog.’”
“But that did not happen,” she said. “It is a very emotional letdown.”
Consumer groups say experiences like Ms. Lopez’s have become more common this year as more Americans seek to foster, adopt and buy dogs and cats as they isolate at home. In November, the latest month for which it had complete figures, the Better Business Bureau received 337 complaints from people about such scams, compared with 77 in November 2019.
“The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal,” the Better Business Bureau said in a report this month about the rise in puppy scams.
In what it called a “Covid-19 bump,” the bureau’s Scam Tracker, a forum for victims to report how they have been cheated, showed a spike in pet fraud reports in April, as states were imposing restrictions on Americans’ movements.The majority of the reports are for undelivered puppies, especially for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs, but kittens account for about 12 percent of the complaints, the bureau said.
Scammers often go to elaborate lengths to appear legitimate, advertising their dogs as being registered with the American Kennel Club to “entice” a customer, said Brandi Hunter, a spokeswoman for the club.She said potential buyers could contact the club for verification. The club also recommends using Google’s image search function to see if a puppy appears on several websites. 
Ms. Hunter said consumers should avoid money-wiring services and be wary of conversations that happen only by text and situations in which money is requested right away.“Puppy scams are prevalent around the holidays and generally involve someone who has no puppies at all, who is playing on the emotion of getting a new puppy to scam people out of money,” Ms. Hunter said.

This month, Daniela Harvis and her husband reached out to an apparent breeder in Virginia to buy a miniature Australian shepherd puppy named Huck as a Christmas present for their 11-year-old son, Lucas.

After a series of text messages requesting payment, Ms. Harvis used Zelle to pay $750. She was told a “nanny” would accompany the dog to Kennedy International Airport and then to their home on Long Island.

She thought that the arrangement, and language, sounded off. Also, a texted video of “Huck” did not resemble the photograph on the website.The next day, a man called and said that he had the dog in a “crate” and that she had to pay an additional $950 for “refundable” pet insurance.

Her offer to drive to Virginia to pick up the dog herself was rebuffed.“At this point I knew,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Give me my money. I don’t think there is any dog.’” She never heard back.

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