Internet scams are a constant. Luckily, people have become aware of the more well-known schemes. Fewer folks are falling for the bogus promise of winning millions of dollars in the Publishers Clearing House scam. Most also know there really isn’t a Nigerian prince that needs their help to secure his huge inheritance.
Those scams and many others have been around for a while.
However, the COVID pandemic seems to have been a catalyst in the explosion of online shopping scams. We had limited access to traditional shopping outlets so online shopping was embraced, especially by the younger generation.
During the early days of the pandemic, people searched online for everything. Surprisingly, adding a new puppy or other pet to the family was near the top of the list. In fact, in 2021, pet scams made up to 35% of all online shopping scams reported to the BBB.
Commonly called the “Puppy Scam,” con artists saw an opportunity to exploit the situation, expanding their criminal efforts to mass marketing levels that would make Amazon envious. Thousands of bogus websites offering pets for sale were published with the express purpose of tricking consumers into parting with lots of their money.
Ads for the sites often appear on Craigslist or Facebook. Knowing that emotion is a strong motivator, the “Puppy Scam” is designed to get victims emotionally attached to a fictitious, would-be pet. Scammers steal cute pictures and videos of puppies or other pets from the internet to further sell the pets’ legitimacy and then offer the darling animal at a price well below the norm.
When a victim is interested enough to contact the scammer, efforts to “hook” the victim increases. Fraudsters use email, texts and phone calls to further emotionally involve their prey. They have rehearsed answers covering nearly every question about the pet. Victims soon view the pet as theirs.
Once emotionally invested in the pet, scammers move to get victims financially invested as well, conning them into sending hundreds of dollars to secure its ownership.
Some scammers have even created “Pet Delivery” websites. Victims are given a tracking number and told their new family member is on its way.
A day or so later, victims receive an email saying delivery is delayed and they must pay additional fees: delivery fees, cage fees, vaccines, etc.. Scammers know if victims are emotionally invested the chances to squeeze more money from them is high. The fraudsters keep adding fees until the victim can no longer pay or come to realize they’ve been scammed. If payment is refused, they often even threaten the victim with the crime of “Animal Abandonment” (in such an instance, those laws wouldn’t apply).
How do you protect yourself if you are looking for a pet online? Here are a few tips:
• Do your best to see the pet in-person. If that is not possible, ask for a FaceTime,or other live video call.
• Make sure the pictures you are seeing are legitimate and not stock or stolen by doing a reverse Image search on www.images.google.com.
• Always ask for and check references.
• Do not deal with anyone that will not communicate with you by any other means than text messages or email.
• Avoid payments by methods that make it hard to trace recipients such as gift cards, Venmo, Zelle and money transfers such as MoneyGram or Western Union.
• As always, be wary of any price that is too good to be true. A pet offered at a highly discounted price probably indicates a scam.
Lastly, consider adopting a pet from a local shelter or rescue group. It will make you and the adopted pet very happy!
Reghan Winkler is executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at bbb.org/us/oh/lima.