7 ways to spot and beat pet scammers: Internet Scambusters #972
Pet scams are costing dog and cat lovers millions of dollars every year -- and the incidence of the crime is soaring, rising 5-fold last year alone.
Crooks have stepped up their game using new tactics to trick people into paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for non-existent, stolen or illegally imported animals.
In this week's issue we outline the scale of the crime and the key steps you can take to protect yourself if you plan to buy a new pet.
Let's get started…
Five-Fold Surge in Pet Scams Costs Millions
Pet scams have scaled new heights during the past year as work-from-homers and people under lockdown fall for the companionship appeal of a furry friend.
An alleged central African scammer was recently extradited to Pittsburgh after law enforcement agents said he set up a website offering scores of different dog breeds.
Not only did the pets not exist, but buyers were said to have been repeatedly scammed with demands for extra money to cover a range of supposedly additional costs for things like quarantine, vaccinations, insurance, shipping, and more.
Victims were fooled by a series of elaborate confirmatory messages that included fake transfer of ownership documents and travel notifications. In one case, a woman was told the pet of her dreams was available for $500, but she ended up paying more than $8,000.
However, this latest incident is merely the tip of an iceberg. Thousands of complaints have poured into consumer organizations during the past year, and the number is rising.
The Better Business Bureau says its Scam Tracker service received more than 4,000 reports of fake pet sales during 2020, with the trend accelerating as the year progressed. The figure is five times higher than just three years ago, while total losses are six times higher at more than $3 million.
And remember, these numbers just relate to reported incidents. Many scams are never declared because victims are embarrassed to admit they've been conned.
Even people who don’t get drawn into the spiral of additional costs are losing around $750 a time, while the scammers use restrictions from the current health emergency as an excuse for refusing to let would-be buyers see their potential pet before they hand over the payment.
The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA) says many pet sale scams begin with prospective owners searching online for free or cheap pets. This is where the crooks hang out. They tell their victims the pet is free or the price is extremely discounted, but they must pay shipping costs upfront.
"They almost always say they are only giving the pet away because their child passed away, that they moved for a new job and cannot provide enough attention for the animal due to work hours, or their new house won’t allow pets," says IPATA.
Then the scammers start to pile on the pressure, saying things like the shipper insists the pet must be transported in a temperature-controlled crate. They provide fake paperwork to back up their claims, often using names of genuine shippers and government agencies and corresponding phony websites and email addresses.
Sometimes, the pets do exist -- they're stolen or illegally imported animals from Asia and Eastern Europe. Again, the scammers use fake paperwork and even false microchipping to try to pass them off.
How Not To Get Scammed
If you're considering buying a pet online, here are 7 things you can do to avoid getting scammed:
- Don't buy sight unseen or on the basis of just a photo. Tell the seller you want to see them with the pet using online video services such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. If the "seller" provides a photograph, do a reverse image search to check if it's been used elsewhere. We described how to do this in our issue: Is It Genuine? Check That Photo with Reverse Image Search.
- Be skeptical about hard-luck and grief stories relating to why the pet is being "given away."
- Ask for the animal's history, pedigree registration, previous ownership, and other facts you can check out to establish it exists and is a genuine sale.
- Don’t pay with untraceable gift cards or cyber currency. They're always scams. Wiring cash and use of mobile payments apps like Zelle is also not recommended unless you have confirmed the identity and location of the seller.
- Beware of email addresses using official sounding names, for airlines and government departments for example, but tagged onto a popular service provider like Gmail or Yahoo.
- Don't believe cheap transportation offers. Scammers often say they can ship the animal internationally for $250. IPATA says it costs more to transport an animal than it does a human. Check IPATA's list of other pet scam warning signs.
- Search this database of known pet scam websites.
In addition, beware of genuine pet sales that originate in so-called puppy mills – large-scale breeding operations where animals are often kept in appalling conditions and frequently arrive with serious medical and psychological problems.
Horrific reports have emerged of unborn puppies being removed from the mother's womb, so their size and growth are restricted, to meet the growing demand for so-called "teacup" tiny animals.
They are the real victims of this crime. So, independently check out the breeder's credentials and reputation.
Finally, although most pet scams relate to dogs (especially French bulldogs and Yorkshire terriers), more than 10 percent of them are for cats and kittens and a few for parrots and even exotic animals.
Alert of the Week
Is your state one of those running a lottery for people who get Covid vaccinations?
Scammers have latched onto this strategy by posing as state officials and using the old "you've won a fortune" line that's common to all lottery scams -- before victims are asked to pay processing fees, taxes, and more. Or they're asked to provide bank account numbers and other confidential information for identity theft.
Check out this list of states currently running vaccination lotteries.
If you're told you've won, check with your state's lottery department or consumer protection agency.
Time to close today, but we'll be back next week with another issue. See you then!