Wisconsin BBB: Warns holiday shoppers purchasing a puppy online remains extremely risky

Milwaukee, Wis. — The demand for “quarantine puppies” and other pets increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with it a spike in scams that has persisted even as virus-related lockdowns have abated. Online pet scams — in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to adopt a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist — are especially pervasive during the holiday season, when families may be looking to add a furry family member as a gift. Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution if shopping for a pet online.

In addition to a shortage of puppies available due to high demand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspended imports of dogs to the U.S. from 100 countries deemed at high risk of rabies. The U.S. imports 1 million dogs each year.

People currently shopping for pets online are very likely to encounter a scam listing in an online ad or website. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money.

Online shopping scam reports to BBB Scam Tracker have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and pet scams make up 35% of those reports in 2021. While pet scam-related reports are down slightly from 2020, they are expected to be double this year to those in 2019, and more than four times as many as 2017, when BBB published its first investigative study about online puppy scams.

Scammers frequently capitalize on high demand during the holidays by posting pictures of pets in Christmas hats and other gear. When a would-be pet parent pursues the listing, the scammer refuses to let the consumer meet the pet before buying – often claiming this is because of COVID-19 considerations. The scammer claims that they must use a pet delivery agency of some kind, often an airline. BBB Scam Tracker has received many reports of fake web pages impersonating real businesses for this purpose. The scammer also may demand fees for vaccinations or other last-minute “needs.” Ultimately, the pet does not exist, and the consumer has lost money and emotional investment.

The largest group of victims by age are those 25-35, followed by those 35-44. The average financial loss reported to Scam Tracker was $1,088. While 82% of pet scam reports involved dogs, other reports included cats, birds and iguanas.

The tactics used in pet scams continue to evolve. Scammers increasingly ask for payment through untraceable cash apps such as Zelle, Google Pay, Cash App, Venmo and Apple Pay.  A review of Scam Tracker data finds that the vast majority of reports listed Zelle as the payment method involving the purchase of online pets.

A Door County, Wis. woman told BBB Scam Tracker in March 2021 that she lost $950 via Zelle after attempting to purchase a Portuguese Water Dog from a fraudulent website. The scammer, posing as someone from a “shipping company”, asked her for more money because the puppy needed COVID testing and insurance. She was threatened with legal action if she didn’t pay.

“I refused to send more money. They said I would get in trouble because I was abandoning the dog, and the dog would have to go into a shelter of some sort,” she reported to BBB. “It seemed so legit up until that point!”

A Madison, Wis. woman had a similar experience in October 2021. She lost $800 via Zelle after attempting to purchase a Yorkie puppy online. After paying for the puppy, she received an email from someone at a “shipping company”, demanding an additional $1,250. 

“The message was all in capital letters,” she said. “It spoke of the puppy being left in a wooden crate and it is my responsibility (a criminal offense in the US) if I did not attend to the fee…It was then I realized that I had been scammed. I sent an email to the breeder with no response.”

Pet scams are a worldwide problem, with the United Kingdom and Australia reporting large increases in pet scam complaints in 2020 and 2021. Many pet scams originate in Cameroon, according to data from Petscams.com, which tracks and catalogues puppy scams.

Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad have worked to apprehend pet scammers. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced criminal charges against a Cameroonian national living in Romania; among other tactics, the suspect had claimed the pets he was selling had COVID-19 and required would-be buyers to purchase a “vaccine guarantee document.”

BBB recommendations for buying pets online:

  • See the pet in person before paying any money. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, consider a video call with the seller so you can see the seller and the actual pet for sale. Since scammers are not likely to comply with the request, this may help avoid a scam.
  • Do a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.
  • Do research to get a sense of a fair price for the breed you are considering. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price … it could be a fraudulent offer.
  • Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet before adopting.
  • BBB urges more law enforcement action against pet scammers.
  • The media and public should help to educate those looking for pets online by sharing BBB’s tips and study.

Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:

  • Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
  • Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online.
  • Canadian Antifraud Centre – antifraudcentre-centreantifraude or call 1-888-495-8501 for scams involving Canada.
  • Your credit card issuer – report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.

For more information or further inquiries, contact the Wisconsin BBB at www.bbb.org/wisconsin, 414-847-6000 or 1-800-273-1002. Consumers also can find more information about how to protect themselves from scams by following the Wisconsin BBB on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.  

ABOUT BBB: For more than 100 years, the Better Business Bureau has been helping people find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. In 2020, people turned to BBB more than 220 million times for BBB Business Profiles on 6.2 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at BBB.org. There are local, independent BBBs across the United States, Canada and Mexico, including BBB Serving Wisconsin which was founded in 1939 and serves the state of Wisconsin.