No Puppy for Christmas: Online Pet Scams Proliferate
Pixie, a Chihuahua, visits Santa at a mall in Maine. State attorneys general and the Better Business Bureau are warning people to be careful about buying puppies from fake internet sites, especially at holiday time, as the number of scams rises. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal via The Associated Press
The puppy was supposed to be a Christmas present for her husband, Bryan.
But after Lauren Case, a registered nurse from Warren, Arkansas, plunked down $850 via a cash app for a cute teacup Yorkie named Rosy she saw online, she began to get suspicious.
She had paid an initial $600 by Zelle, a payment app that she had never used before but that her bank confirmed as legitimate. But then the supposed breeder asked for another $250 for a “nanny” to hand-carry the dog to her on an airplane. Finally, Case put the website address into a search engine and found lots of complaints.
“It was something I really wanted, so I ignored the little voice in my head,” she said, kicking herself for sending money before doing the checking.
There will be no puppy in the Case household this Christmas.
Despite numerous pleas, Case never got the Yorkie or her money back. The website then disappeared, Case said, only to pop up later with the same puppy pictures.
In retrospect, she said, there were warning signs. There was no phone number and several of the words on the site were misspelled.
“You don’t think someone’s going to screw you over, but they do,” she said in a phone interview.
Case has filed a complaint with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office, which is looking into the allegations. Similar complaints have skyrocketed across the country, boosted in part by more people looking to adopt pets during the pandemic. Attorneys general in numerous states have launched investigations, filed lawsuits and issued warnings about the pet fraud.
In the first year of the pandemic, pet adoptions soared, according to the American Pet Products Association, with ownership rising in 2020 to 70% of American households, an all-time high.
But the pet frenzy also created a shortage, giving scammers a bigger opening in which to work. Pet scams “more than doubled last year and are on pace to be pretty much the same this year,” said Steve Baker, international investigation specialist for the Better Business Bureau, which has a scam tracker for bogus pet sites. “It really, really took off during the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s possible to search online for puppies and not come across a scam,” he said in a phone interview.
The scammers often pattern their sites after legitimate puppy companies, using the same fonts and sometimes even the same pictures and descriptions, but altering the pictures just slightly—by adding a holiday bow or Santa hat at this time of year, for example.
The Better Business Bureau said online shopping scam reports to its BBB Scam Tracker—for scams of all types—skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, people lodged 1,515 pet scam complaints with losses of $1 million. In 2020 that rose to 4,552 complaints with losses of $3.3 million. Pet scams made up 34.5% of all the online shopping scams reported to the bureau.
The number of pet scams remains high this year. In the first nine months of 2021, there were 3,116 reports with losses of $2.4 million.
The BBB says pet scammers usually don’t allow the buyer to meet the animal in person. Scammers also typically require the buyer to use some kind of “pet delivery” service, with charges tacked on for extras, such as delivering the pet to the buyer, a special crate for transportation or even some kind of COVID-19 protection shot (which doesn’t exist for dogs) once the buyer has made an initial payment.
Younger people were more likely to be scammed in 2020, with 51% of them under age 44, and the average financial loss reported to the BBB Scam Tracker was $722.
While 82% of pet scam reports involved dogs, the BBB said, other animals included cats, birds and iguanas.
The scams have hurt genuine internet pet sites. Courtney Dean, social engagement director for pawrade.com, a legitimate site, said people are staying away from online pet purveyors because they are fearful.
“People automatically assume when they see us, that we are one of ‘them,’” she said in a phone interview. “All day long, I’m defending our service.”
She said breeders began working with sites like hers during the pandemic because they didn’t want strangers coming into their homes to see new puppies. To combat the potential buyers’ fears, Dean said, employees talk on the phone with every potential customer, will put them in touch with the breeders so they can see videos or pictures of the puppy, and provide a three-year health guarantee and 30 days of pet insurance free. Their advertised prices are also much higher than the scams, about $2,000 for a labradoodle, for example.
Alabama resident Alicia Trevino, 18, got taken in after she picked out an Australian Shepherd pup, with gray, white and black fur “and a little pink nose,” she said in a phone interview. She put up $700 by Apple Pay to secure the pup, then another $1,000 for shipping to an airport near her home.
Then the scammers wanted another $1,000 not to leave the dog at the airport, which they claimed would put her at risk of being criminally charged with puppy abandonment. They demanded another $1,000 because the puppy supposedly had been sent to the wrong place. After spending $3,700, Trevino realized there would be no puppy. She filed a complaint with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office, because that’s where the dog allegedly was being shipped from. She has not gotten any money back.
Trevino eventually got a different Australian Shepherd, as her boyfriend drove to a breeder in Tennessee to pick up the animal, whom they named Bubba. Her advice: “Don’t go through online stuff.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, filed a civil lawsuit earlier this year against two alleged pet scammers, Helda Berinyuy and Thierry Ekwelle, both Arkansas residents, for creating deceptive websites on which puppies were advertised for sale. The two allegedly took more than $160,000 from consumers. The AG did not say whether Berinyuy and Ekwelle were the fraudsters suspected of scamming Trevino. The pair allegedly visited an Arkansas grocery store repeatedly to pick up money that was wired to the store, usually $500 or $700 at a time, and used multiple fake names.
The two also were indicted on fraud charges by a federal grand jury for allegedly scamming more than $110,000 from unsuspecting would-be dog owners.
“During the holidays, when puppies are popular gifts for children, puppy scams become more prolific,” Rutledge said in an emailed statement, adding that a new twist to the scams is that some schemers use cryptocurrency to collect money.
Veterinarians.org, a directory of pet doctors that also includes advice on health and wellness topics for animals, analyzed the BBB data tracker from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2021, and found that Montana had the most scams per capita, followed by Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and the District of Columbia.
Of those states, Nevadans lost the most money, more than $1,000 on average for each con.
Lily Velez, head of special reports at Veterinarians.org, who analyzed the data, said in an interview that 12 of the top 15 states for pet scams also had high rates of COVID-19, leading her to surmise that residents there were doing more shopping online. She said there are several tell-tale signs of scammers.
“The biggest tipoff is they are going to ask for payment via an online platform, Zelle, Venmo or CashApp or a money gram or Western Union. The second tipoff is you are not going to be able to see the puppy in person, and the third one is they ask for more money in addition to the adoption fee,” she said in a phone interview.
“With a reputable breeder, all the costs are upfront,” she said.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, issued a warning about these scams to people in his state, noting that the “sellers shouldn’t be hounding you for money to reserve your puppy with high pressure sales tactics or questionable wire transfers.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, in a newsletter earlier this year advised residents of his state to “research breeders and sellers carefully. Check complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and review feedback from other customers. Don’t rely solely on information provided by the seller.”
Jessica Gottwals, 36, of Omaha, Nebraska, did ask a lot of questions. She wanted a second pug dog for her family, especially her 2-year-old daughter, Annabelle. She had trouble finding one locally, so she found a website that offered a pug for $600, an inexpensive price.
“What’s the harm?” she recalled thinking. But the seller asked for another $150 shipping fee, and payment by Zelle. “They didn’t offer fraud protection,” Gottwals said. “I wasn’t comfortable paying that way.”
She asked for additional photos and veterinary records. When the seller, “Jason,” said his wife was a veterinarian and didn’t need records, that was a deal-breaker for Gottwals. She called the number on the website; a man answered, but he hung up on her. She waited about another month and checked the website again—there was the same dog. She called the BBB.
Her story does have a happy ending. She found a legitimate pug for sale in Kansas, just over the border, whom she named Goose to go with her older dog, Maverick.
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