A West African-based scheme to sell non-existent puppies and other pets to unsuspecting U.S. consumers may be significantly more organized and widespread than generally believed, according to a just-released report by Better Business Bureau (BBB). BBB warns that the scams are so widespread that anyone searching for a pet online is likely to encounter this fraud.
The report -- “Puppy Scams: How Fake Online Pet Sellers Steal from Unsuspecting Pet Buyers”-- estimates that tens of thousands of consumers in the U.S. and around the world may have fallen victim to the scam, with prospective buyers losing anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars each to the thieves. A summary of the study can be found at: go.bbb.org/puppyscam.
The report recommends coordinated and aggressive law enforcement and increased consumer education to combat the problem.
“These are not just a smattering of isolated cases involving a few dozen naïve consumers,” said Jim Hegarty, president and CEO of the BBB serving Nebraska, South Dakota, The Kansas Plains and Southwest Iowa. “This is ongoing and sophisticated fraud that has saturated the internet and which utilizes hundreds of phony websites, photos of animals stolen from the internet and teams of international thieves, all focused on one thing -- stealing your money.”
The report says that while most victims are hooked into the scam by photos of cuddly terriers, miniature bulldogs or other puppies, other consumers believed they were paying for kittens, parrots or other animals to be delivered to their homes.
The study says that thieves impersonating pet sellers instructed potential buyers to make upfront payments for shipping, insurance and other fees associated with transporting the animals. In most cases, buyers never receive the pets, and lose their money.
Among the local victims are a couple from Omaha, NE., who said they recently were duped by a scammer who took a $400 MoneyGram payment for a Beagle puppy. The consumers realized they had been scammed when the supposed seller asked for an additional $750 for insurance. The consumers said they never received the dog and never recovered their money.
Among the report’s key findings:
- 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.
- 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.
- Better coordination by law enforcement and regulatory agencies, as well as increased consumer education are essential to reducing losses.
- Doing an internet search of the advertised picture may help identify fraudulent offers.
The report was prepared by C. Steven Baker, BBB International Investigations Specialist. Baker is the retired director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest Region.
In his role with BBB, Baker is working with an alliance of five BBBs, including the Omaha office, in analyzing and reporting on some of the most pervasive fraud issues that impact American consumers.
BBB offers the following tips for consumers looking to purchase a pet:
- Research any business and its owners carefully before paying any money. Check the company’s BBB Business Profile at bbb.org.
- If possible, try to pick up the puppy in person. Puppy scams depend on buyers trusting that the animals will be delivered to them.
- Be careful about buying a puppy from anyone you don’t know, and be especially skeptical if the price is much lower than normal.
- Avoid wiring money or using prepaid cards or gift cards to pay for transporting animals. Instead pay by credit card in case you need to challenge the purchase later.
- Research pet adoption requirements in your area. Get a good grasp on what fees, permits and licenses are required by your local government and know whether they should be collected by the seller or government.
- Consider getting a rescue dog if having a purebred dog is not a priority. Generally, rescues are less expensive than purebred pets and often have fewer health problems.
- Victims of this fraud can report it to BBB’s Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker/us
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ABOUT BBB: Better Business Bureau has been assisting U.S consumers and businesses since 1912. It is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing trust in the marketplace. In 2016, people turned to BBB more than 165 million times for BBB Business Profiles on more than 4.7 million businesses and Charity Reports on 11,000 charities, all available for free at bbb.org. Today, BBB serving Nebraska, South Dakota, The Kansas Plains and Southwest Iowa is supported by approximately 10,000 Accredited Businesses that have voluntarily committed to adhere to BBB’s Standards of Trust.