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Avoid Pet Scams and Safely Purchase Animals Online Skip to content

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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Pet Scams

En español | If you’re looking for a furry new family member online, chances are good that you’ll find a scam. A 2017 Better Business Bureau (BBB) study estimated that at least 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. They increase during the holiday season, according to the BBB.

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.

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.

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 requires 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.

Do's

  • 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'ts

  • 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.

AARP Fraud Watch Network

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

More Resources

Published: May 31, 2019

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