While pet scams aren’t new, they have gained traction in recent years, especially during the first several months of the pandemic.

In fact, the Better Business Bureau’s 2021 Scam Tracker Risk Report found that so-called puppy scams topped the list of products most used to perpetrate online purchase scams. In 2020, the BBB received 4,300 complaints about online pet scams, an increase of 129% from the 1,870 complaints received in 2019. 

Out hundreds of dollars

Fraudulent animal sales can take on many forms, but the most common include animals that never materialize after paying hundreds of dollars or pets with a myriad of health problems. Both types of scams have been reported to the Iowa Attorney General’s office in recent years, a news release says.

One Iowa consumer, Shelly Smith, reported recently that a website her family found offered French bulldog puppies for sale. She decided to purchase two, sending $999 through online payment company Zelle. While the company in question sent several photos of the puppies and answered her calls, she notes that things eventually took a turn. 

“After payment, they sent shipping information using Flourish pet transport website that wanted more money for an electronic crate that would then be refunded when we got the puppies from them at the Waterloo Airport,” she said. 

However, the transportation crate was never part of the bill of sale and the family never received the puppies. Because they used Zelle for the payment, they haven’t been able to receive a refund.   

In another complaint sent to the AG’s office, Earl Stokley of North Carolina says he purchased a pit bull puppy online through an Iowa man, paying $800 through Zelle. The following day, he says he was contacted and told he needed to pay an additional $1,800 for a special crate to transport the puppy.  

“We knew it was a scam and asked for a refund,” he said. Today, he has no puppy and remains out the $800. 

In June, the AARP reported on the case of an alleged years-long online pet scam affecting people in several states, including Iowa. The hopeful new pet owners paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for dogs, to instead become embroiled in an international fraud case. The man accused of running the scheme was arrested in December 2020 and extradited from Romania to Pennsylvania, where he was sentenced to 21 months in prison.  

Sick animals  

Even when pet buyers receive the animal, they might not be fortunate. Several Iowans have reported to the AG’s office that the animals they purchased online arrived with serious health problems, requiring expensive medical visits, tests and the need to be euthanized.

Andrea Hrbek of Ames contacted the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division after the kitten she purchased for $700 was found to have serious health issues. The contract she signed when purchasing the kitten guaranteed a healthy pet free of congenital abnormalities, but two different veterinarians diagnosed the animal with deformities and health issues.

Hrbek said she just wants a refund for the cost she paid for the kitten, noting it will require X-rays and surgery in the future.  

A Waterloo man found himself in a similar situation after purchasing a puppy recently. The man he bought the dog from claimed to be a breeder and promised to email the animal’s records to the new owner. However, the records never showed up and the puppy required a visit to an emergency vet, where he was diagnosed with two types of worms.

What to look for  

If you find yourself searching for a new family pet, make sure you protect yourself. Scammers often take advantage of high emotional situations, and the excitement of adding a new pet to your life.

Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission to ensure you don’t end up on the wrong side of a pet scam: 

  • Work with a reputable animal shelter or rescue organization that is local. Most legitimate shelters and rescue leagues post their adoption fees online and they won’t ask you to pay additional unexpected fees.
  • If you stick with a local organization, you may not have to pay until you pick up your new pet. A quick online search will direct you to local shelters. 
  • Do your homework when buying a pet. Research prices for the breed you’re interested in buying.
  • If someone is advertising a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price, that’s likely to be a scam.
  • Get detailed information about the seller, including the person or company’s full name, phone number, and postal address. Then research the seller online. See what other people are saying about their experiences. Are there complaints? Do the word “complaint” or “scam” pop up?
  • Search online for the animal’s image. Scammers often use the same photos again and again. If the image of your cute pup or adorable kitten shows up on multiple sites, it’s a pretty good bet you’ve stumbled onto a scam. 
  • Beware of any “transportation,” “shipping” or “customs fees.” Any unexpected fees are a sign of a scam.  
  • Always talk to the seller on the phone. Do not communicate only through texts and email. Ask the seller questions such as who their vet is and then contact the veterinarian’s office with a phone number you find on the internet, not the one they provide. If they don’t want to give you the information you’ve requested, to meet in person, or talk by phone, move on to someone else.  
  • Don’t pay with a gift card, a cash app or wire money. A sure sign of a scam is someone who insists you pay by gift card or wire transfer. Gift cards and money transfers are similar to sending cash – once you send it, it is almost impossible to get it back. Cash transfer services and apps also make it difficult to get your money back. Instead, pay by credit card. That way, if there’s a problem, your card issuer may be able to help. 

If you believe you’ve encountered an online pet scam, you are encouraged to report it through www.ic3.gov, a law enforcement reporting website operated jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center. 

Buyers also can file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General’s office.