Better Business Bureau is warning that an international scheme to sell non-existent puppies and other pets to unsuspecting consumers may be significantly more organized and widespread than generally believed.
In a new report, “Puppy Scams: How Fake Online Pet Sellers Steal from Unsuspecting Pet Buyers”, BBB warns that the scams are so widespread that anyone searching for a pet online is likely to encounter this fraud. Tens of thousands of consumers are estimated to have fallen victim, losing anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars each.
“These are not just a few isolated cases of naïve consumers being taken. This is a highly organized, international scheme focused on one thing — stealing people’s money,” said Beverly Baskin, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB).
The report was prepared by C. Steven Baker, retired director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest Region now serving as an international investigations specialist for five local BBBs based in St. Louis, Omaha, Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas.
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Most puppy scam victims are hooked into the scam by photos of cuddly puppies, specialty breeds, or other pets. Typically, scammers ask buyers to make upfront payments to ship the animal, cover insurance, or other fees related to transportation. In most cases, buyers never receive the pets, and lose their money.
One victim said he recently was duped by a scammer who took a $700 MoneyGram payment for a Weimaraner puppy. The consumer realized he had been scammed when the supposed seller asked for an additional $1,400 for insurance. He said he never received the dog and never recovered his money.
Among the report’s key findings:
• At least 80 percent of the sponsored advertising links in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent. In all, there may be hundreds or even thousands of fake websites offering pets for sale, with many of the active sites registered in just the past few months. Virtually all of the photos and much of the language used on the sites are copied from legitimate breeder sites, or simply fabricated.
• The thieves require that correspondence be done by email, text messages or by phone. Any request to meet the seller or see the animal before payment is rebuffed.
• The thieves will continue asking for additional payments until the prospective buyer refuses further requests.
• While victims can be of any age, reports show that those most susceptible to the scheme are in their late teens or early 20s.
• Most of the scams appear to originate in the West African country of Cameroon and use workers in the U.S. to pick up wire payments sent through Western Union or MoneyGram.
• Better coordination by law enforcement and regulatory agencies, as well as increased consumer education, are key to reducing losses.
• Doing an internet search of the advertised picture may help identify fraudulent offers.
If you’re in the market for a new pet, to protect yourself from scams, go to go.bbb.org/puppyscam
Emily Valla, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the Idaho marketplace director for the Better Business Bureau Northwest. To check a business or report a scam, go to www.bbb.org or call 208-342-4649.