The puppies are still touted as prized purebreds in need of loving homes. But this time, they are usually available for free. Whether it’s because of our failing economy or an entrepreneurial expansion on the part of the scammers, there are new twists in the so-called puppy scam exposed by Scam Alert in 2007.
Back then, the scammers usually pretended to be dog breeders, sometimes stealing the names and reputations of well-known, authentic breeders. Through newspaper advertisements and their own websites, they offered to sell purebred pups at a fraction of their typical rate—say, $1,000 for a pet that would normally fetch $3,000. But after would-be pet owners sent their money, the puppies never arrived.
Now, the usually expensive animals, which can also include exotic birds or reptiles, are often offered for free; a common scenario making the rounds is that the current owner is a missionary in, say, Africa, who cites reasons such as time constraints or inclement weather for wanting to find the animal a new home. Some swindlers claim they’re in the United States, but nearly all scams originate in foreign countries. All that’s needed, they say, is a few hundred dollars to ship the pet to your loving home.
What hasn’t changed: The animals don’t exist—and once any money is sent, the scammers continue to feed on the emotions and wallets of their victims, who respond to “free puppy” or similarly worded advertisements in local newspapers, in e-mails and on Craigslist and other websites.
Once victims pay shipping fees for the allegedly no-cost critter, scammers notify them—by e-mail, usually—that more money is needed to cover a sequence of additional unforeseen costs.
“I get phone calls every day from people being scammed this way; on Christmas Eve, I got a call from an elderly woman who was bled out of $3,800 for two puppies that didn’t exist,” says Anthony Denicker of Animals Away, a legitimate pet relocation service that scammers often falsely claim is the delivery service they use to ship pets.
“First, there’s the shipping cost. And once that’s paid, the crooks say they need another $500 for insurance,” Denicker says. “Then another few hundred for vaccines. And more to get signed veterinary papers. And to pay U.S. Customs. It continues as long as these crooks keep getting your money.”
Here’s how to avoid winding up in the doghouse if you’re looking for a pet:
Know the false fronts. In addition to posing as missionaries (or breeders), pet scammers may pretend to represent rescue shelters or to be hearing-impaired citizens. “In reality, rescue shelters never e-mail people they never met with an offer to place an animal,” says Kathleen Summers, deputy director of the Stop Puppy Mills campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. “They pretend to be hearing-impaired because they want to deal with you by e-mail; they don’t want to talk on the phone.” So be suspicious of any advertisements that list only an e-mail address for the contact and do not have a telephone number.
Beware of wire requests. Unlike legitimate businessmen, pet scammers do not accept credit cards but insist that shipping and other costs be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram.
Don’t cash incoming checks. As with other cons, pet scammers will sometimes send their victims an advance check—with instructions to deposit it and send a portion back to them or “their agent.” These incoming checks are counterfeit, and your bank will hold you responsible for that money.
Do your homework. If the scammers claim to be using a pet relocation service such as Animals Away, call it to check, and look up the number yourself. If you can’t find the company named, it’s a fraud.
Give yourself a reality check. If you want to avoid being tricked this way, Denicker says, ask yourself one question: How often does someone go to the trouble and expense of placing a newspaper advertisement to give away an animal worth $3,000 or more for free? If you know that answer, you’re not likely to be scammed.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of “Scam-Proof Your Life” (AARP Books/Sterling).Send your tips and queries about scams, deals and other consumer issues to Sid at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want a personal response, please include a telephone number or e-mail address. Due to the volume of mail received, Sid regrets that he can’t answer all questions.