What is an internet puppy scam?
There are multiple ways for a family to adopt a dog: they can go to a shelter, find a local breeder down the road or in a newspaper, and now buy a dog online. Thanks to the development and access to the internet, families across the country can look for dogs of all breeds and ages through one easy source. Humane societies across the country post dogs with details, location, how to adopt, and everything someone has to know when they adopt a puppy. Breeders use online postings as well to advertise their most recent litter. Amongst the reputable dealers and humane societies, there is an unfortunate growing trend called “internet puppy scams.” Internet puppy scams are postings of litters of dogs recently born and supposedly for sale to the public. However, they are not what they seem. The dogs are not real, and the breeders are fake or impersonating another reputable group. This fraudulent activity not only scams unsuspecting buyers out of money, but also puts them through emotional turmoil.
How does an internet puppy scam work?
To put simply, an internet puppy scam is the fraudulent positing of a new litter of dogs up for adoption with the intent to steal either a purchaser’s identity or money. It is more than likely that these dogs are not actually real, or, if they are, their pictures are used to steal from the purchaser. The scammers can take a variety of different routes to scam the searcher:
- Steal photos of real dogs from a reputable site and use those images to generate the fake postings.
- Search for images of popular dog breeds (English bull dogs or terriers for example) and use those for the posting.
- Use a combination of those photos to create a listing under a false identity or use another reputable breeder’s name in place of their own.
How prevalent are they?
Where internet purchasing numbers rise every year, one of the main catalysts for online puppy scams was Covid-19. As people sought companion animals to cope with the dramatic change in our daily lives, the increased internet traffic caught the eyes of scammers. Better Business Bureau (BBB) says that pet scams make up 35% of all online shopping scams reported to them, a vast majority of which are puppies. BBB received 10,000 reports since 2018, but believe this number is only 10% of every event that occurred without being reported. BBB also reports that 60% of those reports never received a pet where the other 40% were sent an animal that is not what they ordered or who has mental or physical disabilities without any authentic documentation. It is hard to calculate the amount of money that has been lost to internet puppy scams. For more, see https://www.bbb.org/all/scamstudies/puppy-scams.
What are some “red flags”?
While not every internet-based sale is a puppy scam, there are some typical red flags that might alert those seeking to purchase a pet. These include some of the following:
1. Very specific communication rules: if the seller prefers to handle all correspondence via email, it is worth pushing for a phone call or video conference. The most ideal situation would be to meet in person.
2. “Weird” location: a vast number of these scams come from overseas. The overseas parties may explicitly state where they are located (popular technique employed by those parties looking to sell “an English bulldog from England) or may hide their location. Check to see where the website is posted from or use available Google software to see the domain address.
3. Questionable payment requests: The seller requests that payments be done via unsecure wires or gift cards, rather than personal check or through official banking channels.
4. Stock or stolen photos: photos of the dogs may be stolen from other websites or online. Google allows parties to copy and search most images posted online, which may provide a good verification process.
5. “Great” price: a majority of these postings will create a too good to be true price point to lure in potential buyers who may be offput by high breeder costs. If the price is significantly lower, or the only costs to the purchaser is certain shipping or other costs listed below, it may be too good to be true.
6. "Shipping" or "crate" charges: scammers may suddenly seek unusual charges in place of an adoption fee such as:
- Extra shipping charges;
- A refundable deposit (which the scammer has no intention of refunding) or even a non-refundable deposit;
- Veterinary bills;
- Vaccination costs;
- Insurance (including special, pandemic-related insurance); or
- Special travel crates and accessories; any other last-minute costs.
How can you avoid internet puppy scams?
The best way to avoid being scammed when purchasing a dog is to do research prior to the purchase. It may be helpful to visit the breeder and enter a written contract that explains the buyer and seller responsibilities. Some other tips include the following:
- Go local: check out breeders in your area as well as local shelters.
- Try to see the pet in person, meet with staff and/or volunteers, and make sure they're legitimate. Meeting in person or video chat will be the best way to get hands on experience with the breeder/seller to ensure credentials.
- Meet in person with the breeder and the dog
- Where a shelter dog makes this an easier step, request the breeder come meet you in person with the dog. This will also help ensure that what the breeder has listed is true.
- Use the BBB list of internet puppy scam sites or parties.
- Beyond BBB, there are dozens of other sites that compile a list of scammers and their websites. Where BBB is good at taking the sites down, they still provide access for a user to identify the breeders and reference other sites that might be scamming ones.
While meeting a breeder in person is one of the easiest ways to check a box of whether or not this person is a scammer, sticking totally online brings up more issues. Doing research like the adoption fee of another puppy like the one you are looking at, rearing costs the breeder bears like vaccination and registration that they expect to be paid for, and “shipping” costs. All of these details for industry standards can be found online. Recording details prior to conversations and afterwards provides a chance for a more in-depth look at the breeder and their operations. When you are ready to move to the next step, have a detailed conversation with the breeder: they should be able to tell you everything that has happened and will happen when you adopt the dog. Many breeders usually require standard breeding contracts that explain costs and deposits in easy-to-understand terms. It may feel like you are playing “21 Questions” the game, but doing research before, during, and after you find a dog online will be the best way to double and triple-check the breeder.
What to do if you think you have been scammed
Even a diligent researcher is susceptible to puppy scams. As they become more prevalent, those responsible for scamming purchasers are becoming more clever and better prepare for the buyer figuring out the scam and pursuing some legal action. After being scammed, the purchaser usually has two main paths: notify a regulating body or discover the scammer's identity and file suit.
A practical way to deal with a scam is before going to the authorities or a legal advisor is to stop the fund transfer. Depending on how a purchaser paid the scammer, there are ways to cancel payments. If it is through a banking service, requesting to cancel payment is a viable option. If you are a victim of a scam that was paid via a banking service, research what policies the bank has in order to cancel payment. Gift cards or other third-party payment options sent to a scammer are much more difficult to cancel versus a credit/debit deposit. These fungible forms of payments are not as easy to cancel and, as soon as they are sent, it is unlikely a bank will accept a cancel request. If a payment was sent through an online money transfer app, like Western Union, reach out to the company appeals group to see if reversal is an option.
The next course of action when discovering you are a victim of a scam is reaching out to a regulating body. There are a number of different organizations that may help in reporting and recording scammers. The Federal Trade Commission (ReportFraud.ftc.gov), the Better Business Bureau (https://www.bbb.org/file-a-complaint), and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (https://www.ic3.gov/) are the main recording entities for puppy scams and fraud. Each of those agencies provide information of how to deal with the scam and what your options are. The Humane Society of the United States explains the role of each of those agencies and has compiled a list of state authorities who should be contacted if you have been scammed in one or more states.
One of the most obvious yet difficult path a scammed purchaser can follow is filing a lawsuit. The question of whether or not a puppy scam fits the definition of a crime is a difficult one to answer. The major claim against a puppy scammer for an individual would be fraud. Depending on jurisdiction, fraud can either be a civil tort or criminal wrong. The legal understanding of fraud hinges on each jurisdiction’s laws, but the general definition for civil fraud is based on a misrepresentation of fact that is either intentional or negligent. The precise application of what an intentional or negligent misrepresentation is entirely relative to the situation.
If a purchaser looks to pursue criminal action, it may be more difficult than filing a civil tort. Most states and federal jurisdictions limit the types of crime that may be criminal in nature. Courts will limit a fraud claim based on whether or not it fits in a specific industry, traditionally financial in nature, and what statement is being considered fraudulent. Many state attorneys general have consumer protection divisions that take complaints of potential scams (for example, see Michigan's complaint form at https://secure.ag.state.mi.us/complaints/consumer.aspx).
One of the major hurdles for a purchaser filing suit is the judicial process itself. A legal advisor will be able to work with a purchaser about the process, but the general issues consist of identifying the party responsible, where that person is located, and which court may hear the case. Scammers will likely conceal their identity and actual location, which makes service of process (required notice of a lawsuit) for a defendant difficult. Online frauds where there is no pet to sell makes it more likely that the person may not even be in the United States. A 2020 federal court case found a Cameroonian man guilty of facilitating puppy scams in the United States. The scammer was caught because of a different crime - identity theft (for more, see https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/cameroonian-citizen-extradited-romania-face-covid-19-related-fraud-charges).
Where a handful of puppy scammers are caught each year, there are few ways to successfully stop the scammers through legal action. Not only is the legal process difficult to start (jurisdictional questions and inability to find the person responsible due to fake identities or hidden locations), but it may also be difficult to convict depending on what local courts define as fraud. The best course of action is to try and remedy the monetary loss by going through banking channels to cancel or reimburse payments. All in all, potential buyers should educate themselves with the tips above before falling victim to this emerging scam.