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Pet Scams

If you’re looking for a furry new family member online, chances are good that you’ll find a scam. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) estimates that 80 percent of sponsored search links for pet sales may be fraudulent, advertising animals the supposed sellers don’t own.

Pet scams hook consumers with adorable photos and heart-tugging tales of critters in need of forever homes. They usually involve puppies, but any kind of animal that people seek as a companion can be the subject of fraud, from cats and older dogs to birds, horses and exotic pets.

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These cons typically increase during the holiday season, and they skyrocketed amid the coronavirus outbreak as people looked to adopt a "quarantine puppy" to ease isolation, according to an October 2021 BBB alert. Based on reports to its Scam Tracker, the BBB says 70 percent of people targeted by pet scams end up losing money, with a median cost in 2020 of $750. 

Experts largely trace pet scams to criminal gangs operating in the West African country of Cameroon. Sometimes the crooks impersonate breeders, creating slick websites full of filched puppy pics that offer popular breeds at steep discounts. Or they post ads on social media or online marketplaces like Craigslist, posing as pet owners forced by personal or financial circumstances to put a beloved kitty or pooch up for “free” adoption to a loving family willing to cover shipping costs.

Avoid an Online Pet Scam

If you respond, they’ll ask due-diligence-type questions about your home situation and experience with pets, but the only query they really care about is whether you’ll wire a payment. They’ll direct you to a website for a transport company (also bogus) so you can track your nonexistent pet’s progress, which will invariably be delayed by contrivances requiring more money, such as insurance or a special travel container. One scam ring busted by federal authorities in 2020 told would-be puppy buyers that shipments were held up by canine exposure to COVID-19.

The swindlers are betting that your emotional investment in the anticipated pet will keep the payments coming, into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you become suspicious, they may resort to threats, claiming the animal will die or you’ll be charged with animal abandonment (a real crime but one that does not apply in situations like this). Don’t get caught in their trap. When you search for your next four-legged friend, look to a reputable local breeder, shelter or rescue organization.

Warning Signs

  • The asking price for a dog or cat is far below the normal rate for a popular breed.
  • The person offering the animal insists on shipping and rebuffs offers to collect the pet in person.
  • Emails from the seller or the shipping company have poor spelling and grammar.
  • The seller demands payment by money transfer (such as Western Union or MoneyGram), gift card or prepaid debit card.
  • The shipment is continually held up by demands that you wire more money for, say, insurance, pet food, veterinary care or a special crate.
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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

How to protect yourself from this scam

  • Do research what reputable breeders are charging for the breed you are interested in. Be skeptical of deep discounts.
  • Do a reverse-image search for pictures of a specific animal you are considering buying or adopting. Also, copy and paste text from a sales site or ad into a search engine. If you find matching images or text on multiple sites, you’re probably dealing with a scammer.
  • Do search for the seller’s email and web address to see if the person has been the subject of complaints, and check the seller’s name against watchdog lists of suspected scammers (see “More Resources”).
  • Do warn your kids and grandkids. An unusually high proportion of victims of online pet scams are in their late teens or 20s, according to the BBB.
  • Do consider adopting from a local shelter or rescue group, instead of buying a pet online. You can look up adoptable animals near you at Petfinder and the Shelter Pet Project.
  • Don’t buy or adopt a pet unless you can meet it in person.
  • Don’t be swayed by authentic-looking websites. Scammers swipe photos, videos and testimonials from legitimate pet sites and create detailed web pages for fake transport companies.
  • Don’t deal with an advertiser or seller who doesn’t provide a phone number or will communicate only by email or text.
  • Don’t deal with someone who won’t take payment by credit card, which offers you far greater protection in case of fraud or dispute.
  • Don’t believe threats that the animal will suffer or you will face criminal charges if you don’t continue sending money.
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More resources

  • File a police report. The documentation may be of value if there is some means of recouping your loss.
  • File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which uses fraud reports to target its investigations; the more information officials have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the criminals. Contact the FTC at
  • You can check sellers’ emails and websites against lists of suspected scammers maintained by PetScams and the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, a trade group for companies that ship animals.
  • The Humane Society and the American Kennel Club offer tips on finding responsible dog breeders.
  • Listen to this episode of AARP’s The Perfect Scam to hear one woman’s experience with a puppy scam.

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