10 red flags that signal a possible pet ad scammer: Internet Scambusters #1,057
A whopping 80% of pet ads offering dogs, cats, and other animal for sale are allegedly fake. But how do you know what's genuine?
In this week's issue we detail the latest tricks being played by pet scammers and the warning signs of a con trick that you should look out for.
We also have news of data breaches at two big online companies that could affect you, and info on where to get more information.
Let's get started…
Most Pet Ads Are Fake - Here's How To Tell
Pets. Don't you just love them? Apparently, more than 200 million of us do, here in the US. And scammers know it.
Around 80% of all sponsored pet ads are fake. And as many as one out of every four online scams involves the sale of pets. Most people who respond to these end up out of pocket, with individual losses averaging about $600 to $700.
Those numbers are horrifying. And although pet scams likely peaked during the pandemic, animal lovers are still handing over millions of dollars to crooks every year.
Social media is not helping either. In addition to fake listings on classified sites like Craigslist, the fraudsters are using clever tricks on Facebook and similar sites to hoodwink pet buyers.
For example, just a few weeks ago, scammers hijacked an animal rescue group's page on Facebook. They posted ads for one of the currently most popular breeds - French Bulldogs - complete with photos, and took multiple deposits from unsuspecting would-be buyers. The page - and their money - subsequently disappeared.
Facebook fraudsters also like to prey on people's emotions with shareable posts about missing pets. The stories, usually accompanied by photos, are often shared among friends and in buy-and-sell groups. But according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the villains then change the shared post or completely replace it with links to other sites.
"This scheme has many variations, but the commonality is the emotionality or urgency of the message that encourages concerned people to share the news with their friends," says the BBB.
We've reported on previous pet scams but, in addition to the tricks highlighted above, the most common ones doing the rounds right now include fake breeder websites and ads for "free" pets that later turn out to call for paperwork, transportation, and insurance fees.
Add to this the ongoing sale of sick and disabled animals and others produced in so-called pet or puppy mills where breeding females are kept in appalling conditions.
The scams commonly use logos from respected organizations, including transportation and animal welfare groups.
There's also evidence that scammers are responding to ads about found pets, especially purebreds, claiming to be the owner. Once they get the animal, they quickly sell it and disappear without a trace.
There are lots of red flags that might signal a scam. Here are 10 warning signs and safeguarding actions you can take:
- Beware of bargain prices. This too-good-to-be-true trick is used in all manner of scams because of its high success rate. If an animal is offered at a significant discount to regular prices, it usually means either it doesn't exist or has a disorder.
- You're asked to pay by an untraceable method, typically these days a cash transfer app like Zelle or via a money wiring service. And you have to pay everything upfront.
- The website or social media page is thin - it has few or no links and the official-looking logos don't link to the organizations they claim to.
- You can't find any information about the seller. Always research the name and reputation of any firm or individual, including shipping organizations, you're thinking of dealing with.
- Check lists of known scam pet advertisers. There are several of these online. For example, The 2021 Absolute Guide on Pet Scams and How to Avoid Them and Puppy Scammer List Archives. You can also use the BBB's Scam Tracker service.
- Check photos by doing a reverse search (we explained how to do this in issue #956: Is It Genuine? Check That Photo with Reverse Image Search) If there are no photos, ask for some.
- You should also seek additional information both about the animal (such as health information or vaccination records) and the seller. If they don't have the information you want or appear either disinterested or even aggressive, it could be a scam. A reliable breeder should also want to know about you and your suitability as a future pet owner. If they don't ask, beware.
- Try to either meet the seller or speak to them via a video app. Beware if they give reasons about why they can't do this.
- If the animal is being shipped, be sure of all the additional fees you'll have to pay. Verify any tracking numbers you're given. If you've already paid and then get notified of additional charges, you could be throwing good money after bad.
- If you're trying to trace the owner of a found animal, ask any respondent for information about the animal, such as health and vaccination records, or to identify any distinguishing features. Crooks have even been known to post a "lost pet" ad after seeing "found" posts to make their response seem genuine.
Finally, of course, one of the safest actions you can take is to get your new pet from a local animal shelter - in person and not via a social media pet ad.
This Week's Alerts: Data Breaches
LastPass - Again! A couple of weeks ago, we reported a data breach at LastPass, one of the best-known password managers. The company now says there's been a second incident, linked to the first one. As we said first time around, we've lost our trust with this provider and the Scambusters team has switched to other managers. The full story here: Security Incident Update and Recommended Actions.
PayPal Too! The biggest and best-known cash transfer service PayPal has also joined the ranks of data breach victims, with personal details, including Social Security numbers of almost 35,000 users being accessed. This is a tiny fraction of the firm's customer base and PayPal says it's notified those affected. You can read PayPal's notification. If you didn't receive this, you're probably okay, but it still makes sense to follow the company's security guidance given on Page 3 of the notice.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.