Two simple words capture your eyes...and your heart: “Free puppy.’’ Faster than you can say, “Awww,’’ you're imagining the joy a new friend could add to your household. Those soft, sweet eyes. The wagging tail. The furry friend who'll go on walks or rides with you, or curl up next to you on the couch. Animal lovers can find such imaginings impossible to resist. Unfortunately, scammers know this is not just the way to your heart, but the way to your wallet.
Eighty percent of sponsored ads about pets may be frauds, according to a recent Better Business Bureau report, especially when you consider that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has licensed only a handful of breeders to sell dogs online.
Another report from The Federal Trade Commission found about 37,000 complaints about pet scams, a statistic that likely reflects only the tip of the iceberg. Fewer than 10 percent of fraud victims actually complain, the FTC believes. On top of this, monitoring these scams takes more resources than currently available.
Here's how the offer of a “free’’ puppy puts money into scammers’ pockets:
First, scammers often prey on emotions with sad, even tragic, tales: a job change requires too many hours to care for the animal, a new home does not allow pets, or the pet's owner has died.
When their target agrees to take the free pet out of a difficult situation, they're told there's a delivery charge. Sometimes the scam artist claims the airline requires a temperature-controlled crate, immunizations, and/or insurance. This is how a Hanscom FCU member was recently scammed out of her money, money she was never able to recover because she paid the criminals through a person-to-person payment system connected to her Hanscom FCU account.
In other cases, cunning, crafty scammers use websites or email accounts made to look like they're from an actual airline. Delta Airlines has filed suit in one of these cases.
Then to further tug on an animal lovers’ emotions, the scammer will threaten to charge the victim with animal abandonment if they don’t follow through.
Needless to say, when the prospective new pet owner sends all the money that's asked of them, the pet never appears because it never existed anyway. Their money is gone and usually impossible to recover, and the dream of a new pet is replaced with bitterness and despair.
So how to avoid this kind of scam from happening? Experts advise the following:
Do your research. If someone claims to be offering a breed that generally costs thousands of dollars for free, you should be seeing a big red flag. If you're looking for a specific breed, contact a breed-specific rescue group, which may cost you a some money, but nowhere near what you'd pay a breeder or lose through a scammer.
Use a credit card. This allows you to dispute the charge if you have been scammed. Do not pay for any pet with a person-to-person payment service like Venmo or Cash App, which are services designed to move money between friends and family, not between strangers on the Internet.
Search for the pet’s image. Use Google Images or a website like TinEye, and put the photo that's caught your eye into its search box. Scammers use the same pictures over and over again, so if you see the image of your cute pup or adorable kitten pop up in multiple places, it's a pretty good indication you've stumbled onto a scam.
Check with the animal’s veterinarian. Some scammers provide fake records that show a dog is healthy and up-to-date. A direct call can clear up any doubt.
Visit the animal in person.This is the greatest deterrent against getting scammed. A responsible breeder or pet owner will never object to showing where the animal has been raised and, in fact, will be happy and proud to arrange a "meet and greet." You'll see that the pet you've been dreaming about is real, well-treated, and ready for your love and attention.
Stick with a local shelter. Your local shelter will be happy to show you real-life animals of all types awaiting happy futures within good homes. Use Google to locate a shelter near you, or try Petfinder, but keep in mind this site does not vet every listing it receives. You still need to proceed with caution.
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