En español | Searching online, Irene Walker, 67, of Old Town, Florida, fell in love with a black poodle puppy. Her two old dogs had just died, making her house even lonelier. It was only in 2017 that her longtime husband passed away.
"I didn't even want to go home,” says Walker, who is retired with three children. “Then I thought how great it would be to have a dog again."
She sent $790 to the owner of the pet-sales website, transferring money from one Walmart to another. An hour later, the owner called to complain he hadn't received the money and it began to sink in: She'd been the victim of a scam.
"I was looking for another dog with my heart, not my head,” Walker says now.
Experts say several thousand Americans a year are victimized by scams that promise a new dog, cat or other pet but deliver only sadness and regret. These scams peak at Christmastime and Valentine's Day, they warn.
Scammers’ websites are adorably convincing, with photos of saucer-eyed puppies and cuddly kittens imploring buyers to take them home.
But they shouldn't grab their wallets. These puppies and kittens don't exist, not those showcased on scam websites.
Many scammers are based in Cameroon in West Africa, experts say. The animal photos were copied from the websites of legitimate breeders. The ad copy also was filched — or is fiction. The customers’ reviews are fake. It's clickbait that can deliver an emotional and financial sucker punch.
Fake websites aplenty
At the Better Business Bureau (BBB), C. Steven Baker authored a 2017 report on online pet sales. “The internet is infested with fraudulent websites,” says Baker, an international investigations specialist. “I would not be surprised to find that half are scam websites.”
The scam starts with consumers clicking on a website or a posting on Craigslist or Facebook and falling hard for a dewy-eyed doggie or cute kitten. Once they send payment, usually $300 to $800, the scammers stall delivery and tack on more charges, threatening the animal could be abandoned or die unless more money arrives.
Scammers adapt depending upon consumer preferences and law enforcement responses, Baker says, and victims don't fit a simple profile. “They are perfectly normal people who are convinced this is real,” he says. “Consumers need to be on guard.”
Baker, a former official with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency, says there are thousands of pet scam complaints annually and the actual number of victims may be far higher.
Hundreds of dollars lost
The BBB report says victims tend to lose between $100 and $1,000 each; some have been swindled for as much as $5,000.
Susan Smith, president of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based pet travel businesses, has been shipping pets domestically and internationally for nearly 20 years. She also urges vigilance, starting with: “Don't wire money to Cameroon if asked — that's a huge red flag.”
Always pay with a credit card, she adds, and if a seller promises to ship a pet, check with the shipper to verify that, since scammers steal names and images off legitimate shipping websites.
Victims also may call the FTC at 877-382-HELP.
Heart was broken
Karen Heyden, 66, of Collinsville, Illinois, paid a scammer $800 for a boxer puppy. All told, she ended up forking over nearly $5,000 after the scammer added on shipping insurance, an air-conditioned crate, health permit and phony veterinarian fees.
"My husband, Joe, wanted this dog,” she says, noting their 12-year-old boxer had died. After repeatedly sending money to assure her new puppy was safe, she realized it was all a ruse.
"My husband was heartbroken,” she says. “The scammers have beautiful pictures and you start to see that dog in your home.”
Paul Brady founded PetScams.com, a London-based nonprofit that tracks and identifies fraudulent websites around the world with the help of volunteers, and works to close down bogus operations. He says during the holidays, scammers prey on emotions triggered both by endearing animals and Christmas nostalgia.
Another red flag: Scammers claim to be located across the country, too far away for a buyer to drive and pick up the pet. “If you say you live in New York, then they say they live in California,” Brady says. “Scammers want to ‘ship’ the dog to you because shipping is where the big money comes in. Some of these scammers have 20 different pet-sale websites and two to five shipping websites.”
Education is key, Brady says. “Years ago many people were getting scammed by the Nigerian prince fraud. Today everyone knows about it and it happens far less frequently,” he says. “If more people are informed, wary and suspicious, they'll recognize a scam.”
John Breyault, who directs the website Fraud.org for the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C., says law enforcement is playing a game of whack-a-mole since when one pet scammer is shut down, another pops up. “Scammers being located overseas complicates things,” he adds.
Breyault says scammers used to demand Western Union and MoneyGram wire transfers, but there has been an upsurge in requests for gift cards. “They have the victim go to Walmart or Target and put money on a gift card, have them read the number off the back of the card and drain the cash,” he says.
Brandi Hunter, vice president, public relations and communications, for the American Kennel Club (AKC), says her organization encourages safe, reliable ways to purchase dogs.
It advises searching the pet's photo and ad text online to see if it has been copied; researching the breed to check if a price is too good to be true; and being wary if a seller prefers to communicate by email, not phone.
As she tells it, consumers should exercise caution — especially during this season of goodwill and good cheer.
"Understand that there are people trying to hustle you,” she says. “Do the research to get the puppy that you want."