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Online puppy, pet scams on the rise during pandemic and holiday season, BBB warns

The Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker shows 3,969 pet scam reports totaling a loss of $2,843,552 so far in 2020 in the U.S. and Canada.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austinite Justin Trenor is enjoying his new pride and joy: a little puppy he adopted from Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) named Scout.

"I’ve had Scout for about two weeks now," Trenor told KVUE Monday while taking Scout for a walk through Vic Mathias Shores near Downtown Austin. "We always do the loop around the pedestrian bridge and back."

He said he at least thought about going through a breeder when considering getting a dog, but because he'd been fostering dogs through APA!, he felt that would be the better option. 

"Ultimately, once we saw how cute the puppies were at APA!, we just, we went that route. Made more sense," he said. 

It also may have been the safer route during this time of year. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says there has been a sharp rise in online pet scams where, among other things, people pay money online to someone pretending to sell a pet – but the pet never shows up. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
Austinite Justin Trenor plays with his puppy, Scout, who he recently adopted from Austin Pets Alive!.

"It's no longer a trend. It's now a situation, a growing problem."

According to the BBB Scam Tracker, there have been 3,969 pet scam reports totaling a loss of $2,843,552 in 2020 (from Jan. 1 through Nov. 30) in the U.S. and Canada.

That number is up compared to the 1,870 total pet scam reports in 2019, which totaled a loss of $1,016,380. In 2018, there were 1,578 scam reports. In 2017, there were 884. 

The BBB projects that by the end of 2020, there could be 4,300 scam reports. 

So, why the big jump this year?

"During this time, families are really trying to add a member of their family, whether they're at home for the COVID pandemic or it's the holiday season," said Jason Meza, a regional director for the BBB. "It's no longer a trend. It's now a situation, a growing problem, where people are looking online to add a pet ... Unfortunately, they fall into an ad situation where they see an ad or a pop-up or they get onto a legitimate website that's reselling or homing pets and they fall in love with the story or pictures. And unfortunately, a lot of the times that, that ends up in a scam."

He added that by the time consumers report an issue, the scammer is likely long gone, and in this case, so is the consumers' money. 

"And I would venture to say every time I see a report come through for about $708 of money lost in our scam tracker, I'm tempted to look. And sure enough, it's a pet scam," Meza said. "We've seen a story where scammers will offer a pet for free just to say, 'We can't care for the pet no more' ... And then the scam or the con exists in the shipping the – in order to get the pet to you. That's where the actual scheme starts taking place. They need [a] crate, they need food, they need insurance. And by the way, the pet is stuck at the airport all of a sudden, so they need more money to get them to you. So, they're pulling the strings already. And at that point, you find out, probably after several hundred dollars later, that it's a scam."

Meza also said that a 2017 study by the BBB found that puppy scams grew during the holidays. 

"Now add to that, COVID and the social distancing spike, and it's exploding," Meza said. 

He also believes people may run into scammers online while looking for specific breeds of puppies. 

"People are willing to pay and pony up the money for that. So, unfortunately, scammers know they're one step ahead. They're staying ahead of that and they retail the puppies for at or above market value. So, they avoid detection of pretty much giving away a pet," Meza said. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
Katera Berent, the PR and Events Coordinator for Austin Pets Alive! plays with Acorn, a 9-month-old puppy at the facility.

Alternatives to buying pets online

At Austin Pets Alive!, COVID-19 has shifted the way they operate day-to-day, but there are still plenty of animals to adopt or foster, according to Katera Berent, the public relations and events manager for APA!.

"So, a lot of times people assume that rescues and shelters don't have those puppies or kittens that they so desire. And in reality, that's just not true," Berent said. "We have so many puppies and so many kittens here at Austin Pets Alive! and so many shelters across the country, rescues here in Austin."

However, she said she has heard of this type of scam happening in Central Texas. 

"We have heard about the scam happening here in Austin and the families in Central Texas. And it's really unfortunate because it's all these good intention people who just want to add a pet to their home," she said. "Luckily, you know, at Austin Pets Alive!, we haven't heard of anyone attempting to impersonate an APA! employee or staff member or volunteer, which is fantastic."

She also recommends people check out their local shelters first before going online.

"Before you do look online at an online marketplace, maybe check out your local rescues because I'm sure we have someone that might pique your interest," she said. 

Advice for how to avoid scams

Overall, Meza advises that no matter what, don't purchase a pet without seeing it in person in some fashion.

"If at the very least you're not going to meet the breeder or the seller in person, socially distanced and socially responsible, then at the very least ask for video chat, something to that can prove that the seller has the pet in their possession," Meza said, adding that buyers should be on the lookout for a seller or breeder not willing to share the story of the pet, which is a red flag. 

"Also, if they, if the breed prices are really low, then more than likely they're dealing with a scammer who's probably trying to avoid detection and trying to almost give the pet away," Meza said. "Some of the red flags we've seen a lot of times is they're not willing to accept credit cards at all. That's still the best method of payment online."

In total, he advises against apps when it comes to making payments for a pet.

"Those are very convenient, but they're tied to your bank account more than likely, and it's more for friends and family as an option. So, watch out for resellers or breeders that don't offer a payment through a credit card option. And again, consider the shelters and do as much research as you can," Meza said.

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