Internet scammers are luring online puppy buyers with cute pictures and false promises, taking would-be dog owners for an emotional and financial ride.
Several organizations report an increasing number of complaints concerning online pet sales, including the American Kennel Club, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the Humane Society of the United States and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3.
Over the past year, the Internet Crime Complaint Center has received nearly 700 complaints -- mostly coming from people contacted by fraudsters answering the victims' ads for pet sales or people who answered fraudsters' ads themselves.
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- Check out referrals
- See the puppy in person
- Pay via wire transfer
- Buy from an overseas seller
- Purchase a puppy, sight unseen
There are three main types of pet scams: an overpayment scheme, a Nigerian pet scam and a sale that provides you with an ill or dying puppy -- or no puppy at all.
Because the scammers frequently operate from overseas, it's often impossible for victims to recoup their money or take legal action. In the United States, California, Florida and Louisiana are hot spots. Victims lose anywhere from $250 to $2,000 to the scams, according to Alison Preszler, spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Here's how to recognize these scams and how you can protect yourself while shopping for a furry family member.
Overpayment pet scam
How it works: This is a variation on a popular fraud scheme. An animal owner publishes an online ad offering a pet for sale. The fraudster contacts this person, negotiates a price and sends payment for the animal in the form of a cashier's check.
The trick is that the check is for an amount much larger than the agreed upon price of the pet. The scammer then asks the potential victim to return the overpayment, usually through wire transfer, back to the fraudster or a third party.
The victim eventually learns the cashier's check is counterfeit and loses the money he or she was supposed to get for the dog, plus any funds wired to the scammer. If the victim actually sent the dog, he or she won't get it back.
A number of the pet scams reported to the IC3 involved advance-fee or fraudulent check schemes, says April Wall, a research assistant with the National White Collar Crime Center.
Nigerian pet scam
How it works: Scammers either run online classified ads or create breeder Web sites offering purebred puppies -- typically English bulldogs or Yorkshire terriers -- either free or at a discounted price.
The story can vary as to why the animal is free or discounted -- the current owner is a missionary who needs to find the puppy a new home due to the terrible weather in its current location; the animal was rescued from a natural disaster and needs a good home, etc.
The scammer will then ask interested buyers to pay for the dog's shipment, down payment, inoculations and any number of other miscellaneous fees. The victims wire money for the dogs but generally only get excuses for the delay. Instead, they're repeatedly asked for more money to cover additional "fees" invented by the scammer.
Greedy scammers will concoct even more fees that the victim needs to pay after the dog has been supposedly shipped.
Unfortunately, once you wire the money, it's gone, says Preszler.
The bait and switch
How it works: Scammers are selling purebreds, "designer dogs," mutts and even made-up breeds through online classified ads and breeder Web sites. Often what people get are different dogs than the ones requested or puppies that are sickly. Sometimes they don't get anything.
Nearly 20 percent of the complaints received over the last year referred to Internet sales, says Stephanie Shain, the director of outreach for companion animals at The Humane Society of the United States.
People searching online for a dog they want find a Web site or ad offering puppies for sale and send e-mails or call the breeders requesting ones they want. Shain says it's common for the scammers to send you photos of the puppies they're shipping to you, but the pictures may not be the dogs you actually receive.
"Sending you a photograph doesn't mean they have that puppy," she says. "It's just a picture of a puppy."
Scammers count on people not wanting to send puppies back, even if they are different from the ones they ordered. Who is going to send a puppy back?
The animal you receive might be from a puppy mill, a factory-like place that produces large numbers of puppies in cramped, unsavory conditions for sheer profit. These puppies can come with severe health and behavioral problems.
And that's if you actually receive the dog.
April Buck of Grain Valley, Mo., was looking for an English bulldog puppy when she found a Web site offering one -- named Buck -- and wired $1,200 through Western Union to Miami to pay for the dog and its shipment.
The seller then asked her to pay another $300 for a DNA test that the airport supposedly required. She refused to send the money and contacted local authorities, the FBI and even Western Union about the scam with no luck.
"We didn't get our puppy but he kept our money," she says. "We lost a total of $1,289 to be exact. It cost us $89 to send the money."
Buck says the seller had a normal-looking Web site, claimed he had been in the business for 11 years and said the puppies were AKC-registered.
"I thought that meant these people were screened," Buck says. As it turns out, the AKC had never heard of the seller.
In any case, the AKC is just a registry, says Shain, not a quality control organization.
"If you don't know anything about the Web, don't buy anything off the Web," Buck says.
Where to report a scam:
How to buy a puppy
Shain agrees. "You should never buy a dog over the Internet," she says.
Using the Web to find a local breeder is OK, but she recommends physically going to visit the puppy and seeing its living conditions before making a purchase. Reputable breeders will always require that personal meeting -- they're going to want you to come and see it, she says. They won't send you a puppy as soon as you send payment. Consider it a red flag if you are discouraged from coming to see the puppy first.
Other red flags:
- You aren't allowed to spend time with the parent dogs or see where they are kept.
- You are told to stay put while the breeder disappears to get the dog.
- The puppy acts fearful or shows signs of sickness.
- The seller focuses on getting paid.
If they're pushing you to buy the animal online without first meeting it, you should be concerned, says Shain. "That dog is going to be in your family for at least 10 to 20 years," she says. "It's worth making sure this is the right dog."
If you're inquiring about a purebred puppy, ask the breeder if they belong to an AKC club and then contact the club, says Anne Donoghue, director of public relations for the AKC.
But remember, a high price or a mention of "AKC papers" does not necessarily mean a healthy, quality puppy. Breeds such as English or French bulldogs typically fetch high prices, so price shouldn't be used to gauge value.
Get referrals of people who made purchases from the breeder, as well as veterinary references. Take a week to research the breed and check out references before you purchase the animal, says Shain.
Find out if any complaints have been made about the breeder by calling the AKC at (919) 233-9767 or by performing a search on the BBB's Web site.
If the breeder has a contract, read it before you sign. Don't be swayed by a written promise to take the dog back and give you a replacement if the original falls ill.
"The problem is if you're standing there with a dying puppy or if your puppy dies, the last thing you're going to want to do is send that puppy back to where it came from," Shain says, adding that most people won't return the puppy because they have established an emotional attachment to the dog.
If you want a puppy, don't buy one online. That's the short answer to avoiding the heartache of paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a puppy that never arrives, getting a different one than the one you ordered or, worst of all, getting a puppy that becomes ill and dies.
- American Kennel Club