Pet Scams Rise As Holiday Buyers, At-Home Workers Seek New Pets

It’s one of the most timeless holiday moments and unforgettable gifts; unwrapping a giant box to reveal the adoring eyes of a new puppy or kitten.

But that priceless present could turn into a costly surprise, the Better Business Bureau warns, due to an exponential increase in pet scams this year that has left would-be owners heartbroken and several hundred dollars poorer too. According to the BBB, the U.S. and Canada are on-track to field 4,300 pet scam reports this year, totaling more than $3.1 million in losses. That’s more than double the rate from a year ago, and marks a nearly fivefold increase in this type of fraud since 2017.

“COVID-19 has made for a long and uncertain year, and a ‘quarantine puppy’ or other pet has proven to be a comfort for many people, but it also has created fertile ground for fraudsters,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.”

And the pandemic pop has segued into a holiday hustle, with 337 puppy scam reports being filed in November, versus less than 80 in 2019.

Not Just Puppies

Although canine scams are the most prevalent, the BBB said about 12 percent of the pet-related complaints it receives involve cats or kittens. That said, the typical scam costs consumers about $750 on average, with half of victims being 35- to 55-years-old.

Common types of fraud involve, unsurprisingly, demands for money from “breeders” before you’ve even seen the pet. Other areas of fraud include odd last-minute upcharges just prior to delivery, such as asking buyers to pay for climate-controlled crates, special insurance and even COVID-19 vaccines.

Sometimes the rip-offs are just plain bogus businesses hiding behind seemingly real webpages or social media accounts. The situation has gotten so widespread that law enforcement and consumer advocates say online pet shoppers are extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or fake website.

To reduce risks, the BBB recommends in-person viewing or local purchasing or shelters whenever possible, or at least using video conferencing if the pet you seek is out of state.

Paying For Pups

Like any fraud, pet scams always involve moving large sums of money, often with the added duress of urgent deadlines or the chance of missing out. The situation has become so common that both Zelle and Cash App have warned users to be aware of such schemes.

“Scammers will claim to have an upcoming litter and request a deposit in order to secure one of the puppies or kittens. These scammers usually post fake photos, won’t communicate over the phone, and will offer to sell purebred, highly-sought-after animals at an extremely low price,” a Cash App customer notification warns.

Further complicating things and bolstering the case to confirm that you know what you’re buying, Zelle reminds customers that once a user OKs or authorizes a payment, victims of scams may still not be able to get their money back, even when they have been tricked.

For its part, the nonprofit compiles reports of fraudulent activity involving animals and works to publicize cases and block domains before the perpetrators can strike again.

To be sure, the rise in pet scams are indicative of a broader COVID-era trend that has seen renewed demand for everything from pet adoptions to pet food and even pet store IPOs.

While the pandemic will eventually subside, industry watchers say the uptick in animal ownership could be a lasting thing as pets are anticipated to stay popular. In fact, the number of households with pets has risen 4 percent in 2020 alone, accounting for about $4 billion in fresh demand for food and accessories.

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